the many incarnations of Underground Atlanta

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here, but I’ve had this one in the works since this summer when serious talk began circulating about Underground Atlanta’s potential sale. 2 days ago Mayor Kasim Reed announced that sale to South Carolina developer T. Scott Smith “who plans to convert the struggling center into a mixed-use development with a grocery anchor [much-needed downtown] and apartment homes” towering above-ground. This is a significant departure from the tourist-centered plans that have governed Underground since the 1960s and it may be just what downtown needs but as with many big developments, the fate of our historic built environment is in the balance and it’s a big deal.

Us Atlantans, we all know Underground, it’s a place natives have been to a time or two in their youth but adult transplants have never and would never EVER be caught dead there. It’s the early ’90s all over again right? is it a theme park? a shopping mall?? Yes and no…

To be honest, besides an Unseen Underground walking tour a few years ago, the most time I’ve spent there was while I was in grad school, and that was mostly on the street above, so I took my camera one day for a quick walk-through. There’s a lot of history down there, let me tell you, and standing beyond the white glare of the shoe store, looking at the rebuilt curbs and sidewalks, well, honestly, you get a real feel for this crazy historic space. It may be a little Disney-fied but the “street underground” is a unique real-life urban planning phenomenon.

Untitled

A BRIEF HISTORY
atlanta_georgia-the_commercial_centre-300x194good video version

As we probably all know by now, Atlanta owes its very existence to the railroad, and by the time of the Civil War it was the hub of commerce for the rest of Georgia and the South. Of course Sherman put a brief end to that in 1864 but the rail lines were soon back in business and by 1869 Atlanta was constructing the Georgia RR Freight Depot which still sits at the eastern end of Alabama Street. The freight depot sat to one side of what we today call “the gulch,” through which a slew of railroad tracks ran. The huge train shed seen in this image sits alongside Wall St. in the gulch and was catercorner to the freight depot whose now-gone front tower can barely be seen on the right.

The gulch, as you can imagine, was a traffic disaster. Horses and carriages, streetcars, pedestrians, trains, and ever-increasing automobiles all converged in this wide, largely unregulated throughway. By the 1910s the area had become so congested that the city built iron bridges over a few of the streets.

Beginning construction of the viaducts along Alabama St., view east from Peachtree with the freight depot at the end.

Beginning construction of the viaducts along Alabama St., view east from Peachtree with the freight depot at the end.

In the early 1920s, Atlanta architect Haralson Bleckley convinced the city to replace the haphazard iron bridges with a unified system of concrete bridges over all the streets in the area. The original grade of Wall Street, which ran alongside the train tracks of the gulch, pretty much disappeared while the low-lying blocks of Alabama Street were submerged with the buildings intact.

1886 Sanborne map of downtown Atlanta, gray shows the elevated roadways built in the 1920s, pink areas should orient you to the layout today.

1886 Sanborne map of downtown Atlanta, gray shows the elevated roadways built in the 1920s, pink areas should orient you to the layout today.

Consequently, the businesses that had been located at the original street level moved up to what was then the second floor and the new street level. Some of the old storefronts below were boarded or bricked up and became basement storage while others became speakeasies during Prohibition. Cofer quotes Blues legend Bessie Smith’s “Atlanta Blues”:

Down in Atlanta G.A.
Underneath the viaduct one day
Drinking corn and hollerin’ hoo-ray
Piano playin’ till the break of day

After Prohibition ended, the underground speakeasies were no longer needed and within a few years, the 12 acre, 5 block stretch of Alabama street was completely forgotten.

Underground ATL 1970s Postcard.jpgIn the 1960s, the original storefronts were rediscovered and many architectural features from a century earlier had survived intact including decorative brickwork, granite archways, ornate marble, cast-iron pilasters, hand-carved wooden posts, and gas street lamps. Two Georgia Tech graduates, Steven H. Fuller, Jr. and Jack R. Patterson, begin to plan a private development there to restore and reopen “the city beneath the city” as a retail and entertainment district (wiki). In 1969 the first Underground Atlanta opened. “Liquor by-the-drink” sales regulations kept Underground classy for a time but as alcohol sales relaxed Underground got seedier. The district was reincarnated as the mall we know today in 1989 and spruced up again for the 1996 Olympics.


The construction of MARTA in the late 1970s razed several historic buildings both above and below the viaducts, which must have been a motivating factor in getting Underground Atlanta listed as a National Register district in 1980. Despite redevelopments so far, much of the historic fabric remains. By my estimate, at least half of the storefronts on the 2+ block stretch of Lower Alabama Street date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The upper portions of many of those same buildings, however, have been dramatically altered or rebuilt.

Although very intriguing in its own right, the tourist-tied reincarnations of Underground Atlanta have never been lasting successes. On the brink of another redevelopment, there has been talk of “razing” Underground (Fuqua), although in later discussions, Mayor Reed seems cognizant of the significant history of the district. The other day he acknowledged Underground as “the place where Atlanta started” and, in an 11Alive interview several months back, he seemed to indicate that the historic environment of Underground was safe from destruction.

Mayor Reed is not developing Underground though and, like a good preservationist, I have to ask WHY is it NOT protected, this super significant piece of Atlanta’s history, preserved here by unique bit of urban planning that few others can claim?? I’m sure there’s an answer, follow the money.

sigh.

RESOURCES:
– look here for great pictures of the viaducts in the mid-20th century
– from the Atlanta Preservation Center with a link to the NR form
– lengthy and captivating history by blogger Jim Cofer

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