House Culture

R.I.P., Murder Kroger

The day Murder Kroger died was a Friday, the last one in October, in the year 2016. The official time of death was 4:01 p.m. Tall shadows started to loom over the parking lot on a cloudless 80-degree afternoon fit for late summer. The greasy, glorious scent of Cameli’s monster slices wafted toward the cashiers milling about the store that was void of vegetables.

Illustration by Sam Alcarez

Illustration by Sam Alcarez

The day Murder Kroger died was a long time coming. Some shoppers first noticed the removal of the flickering 24-hour neon sign from the top of the building at 725 Ponce de Leon Avenue. Others saw the piece of printer paper taped to the sliding doors over the summer that said the store would start closing at 1 a.m. Still, a few friends held out hope the city permit process, broken by bureaucracy, would indefinitely stall a demolition set to begin any day.

The day Murder Kroger died cut short the life of a gregarious grocer at the young age of 30. The construction crews would soon swing the wrecking ball past the hollow Masquerade—a legendary local rock club forced out of the area by development—toward the store’s beige brick walls. By the time this story went to press, the coroner had yet to determine the cause of Murder Kroger’s death. Initial reports suggested demolition. However, witnesses suspected an autopsy might find traces of gentrification in the store’s system.

The day Murder Kroger died came 133 years after its father, Barney Kroger, poured his life savings of $372 into his first store in Cincinnati. The grocery chain had expanded considerably over the years to over 2,700 stores in nearly three-dozen states. Starting this November, though, the Kroger family would grow a little smaller without the presence of Kroger No. 295.

The day Murder Kroger died did not allow for a eulogy. Instead of an obituary, the Atlanta Business Chronicle ran a 308-word piece online with this headline: “Final nail put in Murder Kroger's coffin.” In lieu of flowers, the store’s manager held one final blowout sale—50% off all frozen foods—before closing up shop.

The day Murder Kroger died forced me to savor one last meal. The soggy fried chicken basked a little too long under the heat lamp. But a case of cheap beer—whichever was priced lowest—washed away any remaining reservations about the order. At least it wasn’t those California rolls, complete with their dollop of tubed wasabi, which had always looked a little too lukewarm for my liking.  

The day Murder Kroger died meant a final goodbye to an old friend filled with tales from the old days, the days when the neighborhood still felt like a community. Her tales chronicled last-call capers that had grown taller as the years passed. They were the kind that made you stop, sip your patio beer a little bit slower than usual, and listen for the newest wrinkles. Those aisles had drawn nightcrawlers in like mosquitoes to a lamp. Left strewn around the flickering fluorescent lights were war stories of those countless nights on Ponce.

The day Murder Kroger died let the neighbors tip our caps to a cornerstone of Poncey-Highland, the more-than century-old eastside neighborhood home to Manuel’s Tavern and The Carter Center, whose namesake launched his first gubernatorial bid at the aforementioned watering hole en route to the White House. Poncey-Highland has also seen the death of mammoth highway proposals—ones backed by Jimmy himself—only to be defeated by the citizens he served.

The day Murder Kroger died let us take pride in the fact that, of Atlanta’s 242 neighborhoods, Poncey-Highland is the only one where the campaign of a future president could coexist with the calls of prostitutes.

The day Murder Kroger died was a chance to reflect on the neighborhood when the store first opened. You could see the tramps along the abandoned train tracks. You could hear the riff raff of redneck bars. You could tell this was a place for all kinds of cats: lost souls, silver-tongued politicians, starving artists, aging dancers.

The day Murder Kroger died came more than three decades after one local feared the initial development of the store threatened the neighborhood’s character. He told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “I like seeing winos; I like seeing an occasional hooker; I like seeing the [seedier] side of life.”

The day Murder Kroger died conjured the memory of the fateful Monday night that forever changed Poncey-Highland. In 1991, a 25-year-old woman named Cynthia cut through the store’s parking lot with two of her friends. A true Atlanta transplant, the Jersey City native had moved to an Old Fourth Ward condo. She made a living bringing room service to guests at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. As Cynthia headed in to grab dinner, a brown ‘70s vinyl-top Oldsmobile pulled up behind her. The driver nudged her with his front bumper after she refused to step aside. She maced him, the car sped off, but then circled around the lot back toward her. Two bullets rang out. Cynthia's heart stopped before the paramedics got her to Grady Memorial Hospital.

The day Murder Kroger died was a missed opportunity to remember the other 1991 killing involving Kroger No. 295. That same year, one of the store’s meat department clerks, Alvin James King, allegedly shot to death a Marietta man outside the Five Points MARTA station. King’s supervisor, Angela Slaughter, described him as a “real loner” who was “real quiet.” One witness of the shooting said he “smiled when they handcuffed him." He’s now spending his remaining years at a state prison in Nicholls, Georgia, located roughly 30 miles away from the nearest Kroger.

The day Murder Kroger died was a moment to forget that police had found a “bomb-like device” with blinking lights and a circuit board on the premises. “Whoever put it together knew what he was doing,” a police spokeswoman said at the time. Terror Kroger, in spite of the frightening sight of unstocked frozen foods known to melt overnight in some aisles, never entered Atlanta’s lexicon. Neither, for that matter, did Bomb Kroger. Authorities disposed of the device without further consideration.

The day Murder Kroger died made us wonder why, despite its tragic past, Kroger No. 295’s nickname stuck after all these years. Krogers are grounds for the full gamut of life’s joys and sorrows: Kroger births, Kroger birthday celebrations gone wrong, Kroger car crashes, Kroger creepers, Kroger dates, Kroger debauchery, Kroger fundraisers, Kroger good Samaritans, Kroger recalls, Kroger suicide threats, and Kroger weddings. Likewise, Murder Kroger is just one of many Krogers that have borne witness to death, including stores in Macon and Marietta, Illinois and Indiana, Milledgeville and Steubenville, Texas and Tennessee.

The day Murder Kroger died offered proof that nicknames stick around. When the neighborhood changed, Kroger No. 295 tried to change as well, remodeling in 1996 and again in 2000, getting a bigger organic food section along with a renovated pharmacy. Two years later, though, police found a body in the lot after a passerby noticed a strong odor wafting from a car. A decade later, a college student lay dead in the foyer of the nearby Ford Factory Lofts. While technically not the Murder Kroger’s problem, it was close enough to add to the infamy. The lore further spread when local rockers Attractive Eighties Women penned an ode to the store that featured the lines: "It’s a grocery store with a deadly twist! You'll get shot in the head for your shopping list."

The day Murder Kroger died followed the last-ditch attempt in 2014 to rechristen the store as “BeltLine Kroger,” giving it new sidewalks, an even larger natural foods section, and a better beer aisle that let customers assemble custom six packs. But four months later, on a day where President Barack Obama’s motorcade barreled by on North Avenue toward Manuel’s for an interview with VICE, a carjacking turned fatal. The pickup truck belonging to the victim, an Alabama construction worker with a wife and two kids, had been parked under a family-friendly mural. To spruce up the store’s image, a local collective commissioned to paint it had a name that added a touch of irony to the tragedy: The Loss Prevention.

Photo by Angel Poventud

Photo by Angel Poventud

The day Murder Kroger died likely convinced company officials there was only one way to slay Kroger No. 295’s seedy reputation. It probably reminded preservationists that demolition is often just another name for first-degree murder. It potentially saddened historians who believed that maybe the “Atlanta Way” was not the best way forward for Atlanta.

The day Murder Kroger died was the birth of a new Kroger located slightly closer to the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, an old rail line converted into a “glorified sidewalk” that had accelerated the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. Along that sidewalk, developers had started displacing punk clubs with posh apartments. Brewpubs—like one former Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele is opening—promised to draw drinkers with disposable income to a loft that was once home to affordable housing units. Ponce City Market, once an abandoned city building known as a squatter’s paradise, now charged visitors $10 simply to see the Atlanta skyline.

Meanwhile, the new Kroger would occupy the ground floor of a modern 12-story office building projected to cost $190 million. The developer, Jim Irwin, proposed a simple name: 725 Ponce. Perhaps he knew that sleek skyscrapers—transparent with their giant glass windows and exposed 13-foot ceilings—appeal more to white collars than cold-blooded killers.

The day Murder Kroger died did not incite collective outrage. No one said, “there goes the neighborhood,” because the neighborhood had already went. Around Poncey-Highland, luxury apartments had opened and the homeless shelter was set to close its doors. The analog Plaza Theatre went digital. The Majestic charged $11.39 for a Denver omelette, grits, and toast. Blondie still crushed PBR cans between her breasts at the Clermont Lounge, but upstairs, the construction crews had already sterilized the seedy rooms as it readied to reopen as a boutique hotel. Yes, even the place that offered transitional housing had fallen prey to the transitioning neighborhood.

The day Murder Kroger died might’ve saddened George Mitchell, the street photographer who documented Ponce’s passersby in the ‘80s, if he hadn’t already skipped town. “Ponce de Leon is a woman,” he wrote a couple years prior to the Kroger No. 295’s opening. “That breed of Southern woman who is unusually warm-hearted but tough and gritty, whom everyone respectfully refers to as a ‘character.'”

When I recently asked Mitchell about his Murder Kroger memories, he recalled that “Kroger was the store [for] us ‘common folk,’ which is why I usually went there.”

“[That was until] Publix was built,” he added. “Employees there were so much nicer, and seemed happier, so I started shopping at Publix.”

The day Murder Kroger died revealed the writing on the wall. Martin, my neighbor across the hall, had started looking for apartments elsewhere with his girlfriend. I, too, knew what was coming next. My first-floor Poncey-Highland apartment, the aging red-brick building with the giant porch around the corner from Green’s Beverages, had become less of a steal. The $695 a month rent bumped up to $725 at first. Now it was $825. It was still better than paying a premium for bland, BeltLine housing. But down my block, some property owners had recently sold their homes for more than twice as much as they paid. It was only a matter of time before renters like myself would be priced out as well.

The day Murder Kroger died left candle wax strewn across the parking lot from the “CandleLIT” vigil the night before. From my building, I could see that more than a hundred ATLiens had gathered to dedicate a moment of silence to Kroger No. 295. Mostly young white people, some wearing ironic Murder Kroger shirts, they shared stories of getting laid and grumbled about gentrification at the site of a slaying that still remained unsolved.

The day Murder Kroger died was the final Friday of the month—time to pay next month’s rent. It would be nearly three years before the new Kroger would open its doors. Though I had three months to go on my lease, I thought about emailing my merciful landlord, Brian, to see if I could lock in that $825 rent for another year.

The day Murder Kroger died came with a pledge from the company spokesperson:

We look forward to serving the community in 2019.

The day Murder Kroger died meant they were all out of the soggy fried chicken. When the store closed, they handed out coupons for free eggs with a $10 purchase, redeemable at several other nearby Krogers. I decided to go home and crack open one of those cheap beers on my patio. But first, I'd need some food. So I took a walk up Ponce. Publix was open.

Words + photos by Max Blau
Graphics by Mike Duesenberg

Max Blau

Max Blau is a journalist who lives in Atlanta. The light from the unnecessarily large Kroger sign on Ponce used to shine into his apartment at night. He never thought he would miss that stark white glow. He’s now headed to Publix.

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