Atlanta on my mind

Downtown and Midtown Atlanta from my hotel room

I have recently changed jobs and was more than excited to find out that my new position would involve some international travel. Frankly, I’ve always dreamt of a job that included travel and was completely excited by the prospects of where I might be jaunted off to. Though, upon finding that my virginal business trip would be to Atlanta, I could not help but feel a bit of wind leave my newly erected sails. There is little doubting that Atlanta is a big international city with a ginormous airport, an “Olympic city,” home to many of American’s best-known corporations and even ground zero for the civil rights movement. However, to someone with an urban backbone it can fall very flat. I had also been once before and it had not made the best impression on me.

Business is business though and off I went!

I-75

Upon landing at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (the world’s busiest), the urbanite in me was drawn towards the MARTA signs as the most sensible way into the city. However, my colleagues would not hear of it. This was a business trip after all! So we did what I suspected most Atlantans did and hailed one of those mini-van cabs for a trip up the I-75 to downtown Atlanta. A small part of me was glad though as one can only be impressed by the I-75 for many of the same reasons that one would find the 401 memorable through Greater Toronto. It is massive, it seems to do its job relatively well and it is unabashedly a product of its time. Unlike our 401 though, I-75 seems to act as Atlanta’s main street. The businesses advertising on the radio are all a “five minute drive from the 75” and Atlanta’s nodes are all neatly connected by it (i.e., airport – downtown – midtown – Buckhead). Moreover, it has a way of making Atlanta look thoroughly modern, confident and even inviting. So as the PoMo towers of downtown and midtown started peaking into view, with each gentle curve of the road, I could not help but get a little excited.

Centennial Olympic Park

Centennial Olympic Park

Our hotel was located right next to Centennial Olympic Park. To be honest, the entire area around the park is a very strange experience. While the park is certainly nice and well-programmed, there is no neighbourhood anywhere near it. It is surrounded by most of Atlanta’s major tourist attractions (World of Coca-Cola, CNN Center, The Georgia Aquarium) and most of Atlanta’s downtown hotels. There are also a few office workers (primarily from CNN and Ernst & Young) mixed in. Still, it comes off as feeling very contrived and not a part of the real city that Atlantans partake in. Perhaps an idea in “Olympic building,” but not “city building.”  It would be sort of similar to having all of Toronto’s hotels, plus the ROM, AGO, CN Tower and Casa Loma placed around Yonge-Dundas Square and removing any residential and commercial component from anywhere near Yonge & Dundas. Therefore, it basically becomes a playground for the tourists (and some vagrants trying to get money off the tourists).

The Georgia Aquarium

On the second evening we had a dinner reception at the Georgia Aquarium. Ironically, one of the world’s largest cities not on a body of water is also home to the world’s largest aquarium. While the aquarium is very impressive inside and looks decent enough from the front, the sides and back leave a lot to be desired. No significant effort was made to animate the space and it makes the Richmond Street side of our Four Seasons Centre look inviting by comparison. I also got a kick out of the fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk!

Georgia Aquarium (behind)

While the area around the aquarium is still considered “downtown,” land-use quickly turns suburban just steps away from the backside of the tourist-filled attractions surrounding Centennial Olympic Park.

Georgia Aquarium (behind turns suburban quickly)

Downtown Atlanta

While the “business” of the trip kept me holed-up at CNN Center for the first three days, I was able to spend the Saturday with my urban exploration shoes on and was looking forward to a combination of heavy walking and heavy shopping! However, the city was eerily quiet and most shops were closed. The few that were open catered mostly to tourists and the entire Mall at Peachtree Center was closed, save a few shops.

Eerily quiet Atlanta

+15 systems are certainly worthy of criticism in certain circumstances, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin with this…

+15, +16, +19, +21, etc.

Atlanta does has a Flatiron Building though and a pretty attractive one at that!

Atlant'a Flatiron

Broad Street was easily the nicest and most urban of any downtown street I could find. The trees were large and leafy and the sidewalks were wide and inviting. The businesses were mostly independent and the the scale of the street was perfect. It could have been a scene out of New York’s West Village. Well, almost. Sadly, in the entire ten minutes I spent on Broad Street I didn’t see a single person and every shop was closed with the exception of an empty Subway Subs. I imagine it is a bit different during the week, but perhaps still symptomatic of a city that still doesn’t quite “get it” when it comes to urban issues.

Broad Street

Five Points is considered as downtown as one can get. Sadly, it is filled with homeless people and a noticeable police presence to ensure the few tourists who venture in will be “o.k.” Still, I was hassled by a few who were fairly aggressive and demanded money with the added caveat that they were “veterans.” Five Points is also the “Yonge & Bloor” of their Metro system, so it tends to be a relatively busy area, even on this quiet Saturday afternoon.

Five Points

MARTA

Atlanta’s system is relatively user-friendly and a one-way flat fare costs 1.75 USD. MARTA has recently switched from a Toronto-like token-based system to a new smart card fare collection system called the Breeze Card.

One of the most apparent things about riding Atlanta’s Metro is how ‘black’ it is. I rarely saw another Caucasian person. The staff were relatively friendly though and for someone with a fair amount of urban smarts, I felt much safer on the system than I had outside in the Six Points area. The level of weekend service leaves a lot to be desired though as I waited about 12 minutes for a train.

Many of Atlanta’s stations have a cavernous Montreal-like feel to them…

Five Points MARTA Station

I pondered whether this board hadn’t worked since the 1996 Olympic Games…

Five Points MARTA info board 

Perhaps an idea for Toronto’s sidewalks on those sections of the subway that run slightly off the major street (i.e. Danforth Avenue)?

MARTA logo on street

Buckhead

Whenever someone from Atlanta finds that you are a tourist, they quickly say “go to Buckhead” and repeat it like a mantra. So far this trip, my answer had proudly been “no thanks.” However, my desire to do some shopping changed that opinion on my final day. Since just about everything was closed downtown I headed up to Buckhead via MARTA to the Lennox Square Mall.

Refreshingly, you can sort of get to the mall from the Metro, but this is what greets you upon leaving the station…

Lennox Square Mall

Buckhead itself is worthy of a thesis project for a young planning student. It is not the least bit urban, but, in a Mississauga-like way, is developing a large cluster of residential skyscrapers that surround large indoor shopping malls. It is also the principal area for shopping, clubbing and eating in Greater Atlanta, yet is quite removed from downtown or even midtown. Basically, a cornucopia of surf & turf restaurants, valet parking, gated business parks and multi-laned streets is the Buckhead trademark. Yet, it is the part of town many Atlantans want to be associated with and seems to be a source of great civic pride. Buckhead is now even considering seceding from Atlanta!

Atlanta Round-Up

Atlanta can been an all-too-easy place for a Canadian urbanist to pick on. Despite some of the bleakness to my pictures and the admitted tone to my commentary, I do have to say that I enjoyed myself and would probably go back if circumstances took me. I also do have to give a bit of credit to Atlanta’s not-so-secret weapon — the wonderful, hospitable and downright friendly people who manage to fully animate some of the…well…crappy surroundings. Despite being “the Capital of the South,” it is also important to remember that it is a fairly tolerant city and that Midtown — in particular — is quite gay. Furthermore, it is also one of the few American cities where there is an obvious black middle and upper class which is simply refreshing.

Phillips Arena, Georgia Dome, CNN Center from Five Points.

Still, nothing is very walkable and I found myself taking cabs everywhere after the sun had set. The downtown is mostly empty after 5:00pm and is criss-crossed by highways that cut through would-be neighbourhoods and augment the feelings of an unsafe city.  Many still drive large SUVs and there is a constant chatter about the price of gas and how something must be done about it.

The fact that Atlanta is so different than Toronto, yet is another relatively young and successful city, is also what makes it interesting though. Why did we develop in one direction and they in another? And to be perfectly fair, much of Greater Atlanta does not look or feel that different than much of Greater Toronto. However, the differences do become quite apparent the closer one gets to their respective cores.

Perhaps for those reasons, Atlanta remains on my mind.

19 comments

  1. I was in Atlanta a couple of years ago and found it entirely different from what I’d imagined — and, because I was visiting someone living there, quite different from what you’ve described. I ended up being introduced to neighbourhoods like Virginia Highland, Cabbagetown, and Little Five Points with lovely residential streets (with very strict building codes requiring new housing to be built in styles harmonious with existing housing, often arts and crafts bungalows) and each with its own shopping strip with independent retailers.

    I found in this way Atlanta reminded me of Toronto — the charm of the place is in neighbourhoods, not the official downtown.

  2. I visited downtown Atlanta, once. The downtown seems to be almost all garages and parking lots, with office buildings and hotels thrown in. There are skywalks (overhead walkways between buildings), but are close rather early for a Torontoian.

    You mentioned the Marta subway system. Like you, the headway between trains was more than double to Toronto’s subway, and very empty during the day on Saturday. After dark, it was back to the hotel.

  3. I lived in Atlanta for two years and it was hell.

    I tried to find to find “the city” but it never appeared. There were no walkable areas and the neighbourhoods were isolating. If people saw you walking, they would ask what was wrong – did our car break down?

    Atlanta was designed so that people lived in enclaves (i.e. not a grid) where there was only one access point and all neighbourhood roads filtered onto the main road. The result was awful traffic everyday as everyone took the same roads.

    People love their cars and while I last lived there (I left August 2006) they were seriously considering expanding one of the highways to 26 lanes.

    The potential for downtown and midtown Atlanta to become a dense urban area is still possible, as there are many parking lots available and new developments tended to be mixed use with retail on the main level. It still has a ways to go though.

  4. Oh, how I don’t miss traveling for work…getting sent away on 3 days notice for weeks on end. I even got to go to cool places (Ireland, London, Malta, and Curaà§ao). I just got tired of heading to the same places again and again only to come home to correlate expenses. ugh. They wouldn’t even fly me business class on redeye flights.

    Enjoy it while you still do! While I would take a traveling job again, it would have to be on much better terms. From what you say I don’t think Atlanta would be better terms. 😉

  5. The best comparison of Toronto and Atlanta is from the air before you land. Even the outer reaches of Brampton are tightly packed housing. With Atlanta you can hardly tell you are over a city the density is so low.

    The municipal infrastructure was obviously aging. The MARTA system looked outdated. The downtown core of Atlanta I found to be unsafe at high noon. In comparison there is no part of Toronto I’d be afraid of at any hour of the night.

    Atlanta is supposedly one of the best south eastern cities but the legacy of its past remains pervasive.
    I colleague from Georgia put it in plain terms: White people don’t ride the subway. It makes my list of places never to go back to.

  6. Yes, the great Black Metropolis of america witha real middle class — and it’s also the 3rd gayest city in the USA. Strange place.

    Why does Elton John live there part time though (or so says Wikipedia?)

  7. Hotlanta became somewhat well known for a real show of the differences in some level of air quality during their Games years back.

  8. Great report, thank you!

    It is especially interesting to compare how otherwise similar physical infrastructure is used in Toronto vs another city. On paper, the MARTA subway is pretty similar to the TTC subway, but obviously the experience is radically different. The TTC may not be the physical size of systems in NY, DC, London, etc. but it has the mentality of a large system, where everyone can and does use it without feeling like a second-class citizen. (For more on this theme, try riding a bus in LA some time).

    The snark in me will still point out that at least Atlanta has a subway to the airport, even if as you noted it is not used by travelers.

  9. Very interesting report on Atlanta. I was born and raised there so I have an emotional connection to the city. I pretty much left Atlanta and don’t intend to move back because of it’s car-dependent, sprawling nature. However, as Molly reports above, there are numerous scattered bits of Atlanta that are far more representative of its emerging urban character and charm than downtown. Think of visiting New York City (where I live) and only seeing Times Square and Midtown.

    Atlanta, I feel should be recognized for what it is starting to do, rather that the Massive past mistakes. Many people, including myself, take MARTA whenever they go to the airport. If you had been able to make that trip, you might have seen that. Any sports event downtown attracts lots of ridership, and many middle class people use it to commute downtown. MARTA functions more like a commuter rail than a true subway. As such, off peak trains tend to be far less used. MARTA only runs through 2 of Atlanta’s perhaps 16 county metro area. The city proper is 60% African American, so it makes sense that the trains are largely full of black people. A lot of new development is occuring around the MARTA stations (Lindbergh, in particular, Garnett, etc). The main MARTA station is called Five Points, which a quick look at any map or the MARTA website would tell you.

    Atlanta has a really exciting light rail, greenway, parks, and dense redevelopment plan called the Beltline (www.beltline.org) which is funded entirely through Tax Increment Financing. To oversimplify things, it largely funds its own construction.

    While Atlanta is very difficult to get around without a car, there are a few walkable strips that seem to be catching on. The old 4th Ward, Ferry Street, and Glenwood Park (www.glenwoodpark.com) are a few places I like. Atlantic Station was also built as a walkable, but I’m not a big fan as it separates uses too much as is too contrived.

    As a tourist, you really need to know someone to get much out of Atlanta, and the city and region did quite a lot to ensure that it urban problems would take a long time to change. However, it is heartening that those changes are already well underway.

  10. Thanks for the words Jacob. Nice to hear that Atlanta is making some urban strides, just that they aren’t very obvious when one wanders the downtown on a Saturday.

    I very stupidly did indeed write “Six Points” instead of “Five Points” and I’ve just corrected it on the post. Thanks so much for pointing that out!

    When I was in Atlanta in 2000 I was staying with a local and was taken to a part of town called “Little Five Points” which I think may be one of those “scattered bits” that is actually quite urban and interesting, yet removed from the downtown area.

  11. Thanks for your response as well. I too should amend my comment to say Peters Street instead of Ferry Street (which an interesting street in Newark, NJ). Peters Street has a strip of old industrial buildings that are quickly becoming home to art galleries, bars, and boutique shops, largely catering to middle and upper-middle class African-Americans (it’s a few blocks from 4 historically black colleges). A lot of condos are being constructed in the area as well.

  12. I went to Atlanta in 2004 for my first vacation ever to see the Braves. When I got to my hotel downtown and checked in, I asked if I could walk to Turner Field and they said “Oh, no” and laughed and laughed at the thought of someone walking there. Turns out it was a 35 minute walk.

    I don’t understand how the entire downtown core has ONE drugstore. My luggage got lost and I tried to buy a pair of shorts. I asked where the closest department store was and the clerk said “Take the MARTA for 45 minutes to the end. Then take a bus for another 30 minutes and you’re there!” What’s wrong with this place?

    I did not rent a car while I was there. I found one gay bookstore, not a whole neighborhood. It was strange. I head Elton John lives downtown on Peachtree. Dear God why? The only time in my whole trip I saw white people was at the ball game.

    The cemetary and civil war museum are really cool and worth a look, over by the world’s largest oil painting. A nice 45 minute walk from downtown, by the zoo.

  13. I was just in Duluth – a suburb to the north. Traffic there is so bad – it took students of mine 1 hour to go 8 miles, both in the morning and at night. It is a network of spaghetti with few major roads. Same chatter about the price of gas, but these people think it’s their RIGHT AND PRIVILEGE to live 30 miles from where they work and have their own piece of paradise in the countryside.

    We can see who is in charge of promoting this American dream today – who lifts a ban on offshore drilling and then says ‘the ball is in congress’ court to do something about the price of gas…americans pocketbooks…whatever’.

    Good luck!

  14. The posts you guys write on jaunts to other cities are consistently among my favourite things to read online. You do an EXCELLENT job of capturing what it actually feels like to be there, from the perspective of a Toronto urbanite.

  15. As I was reading this, I kept thinking, “does anyone live in downtown Atlanta?” Because a lack of residents would certainly be a big factor in the lack of drugstores, weekend shopping, etc.

    Turns out downtown Atlanta is a four square mile area with a residential population of about 25,000. Just for comparison, two downtown Toronto neighbourhoods each had a similar population in 2006: the Annex (which covers about one square mile) and the “Church-Yonge Corridor” (Yonge to Jarvis, Bloor to Front — that’s about 1/7th the size of downtown Atlanta).

    Broad Street looks lovely — but if no one lives nearby, it’s no wonder it’s empty.

  16. If you ride the MARTA southbound in town at 7:30AM and northbound at 5:30PM then it’s quite a different experience than at any other time in the day. The commentor who said that MARTA is more like commuter rail than subway is correct. If you ride in off-peak hours, then it is indeed mostly empty – except for handfuls of blacks using it to get around. If I ride in non-commuter situations I am very much in the minority. And absolutely you don’t want to ride at night, like 10PM. It’s a shame but MARTA still has a stigma around it, people use all sorts of code words to mask it but MARTA is basically known for blacks to use (“Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta” = M.A.R.T.A.). That is changing though, even white people dont like paying $4/gallon.

    Sincerely,
    White guy riding marta.

  17. I’ve just finished reading this blog and loved it as well as the comments. I am one of those few brave souls who lives in downtown Atlanta and fights the vandals and vagabonds daily. The thing you all need to understand about Atlanta is that the past and racial make-up have created the mess that it is today. Whites and blacks have wanted to be apart for so long, which is what created the divisions of neighborhoods long ago. Luckily today, people are finally starting to get it and learn to live together. This is going to be a long process in the making though and the city has many years to go. I think outsiders don’t understand the mess that is here becuase most outsiders come from mostly white cities that didn’t endure the racial strife that this city has gone through. It’s very unfortunate but a real part of history and interestingly very visual today.

  18. Nice Article,

    As a Montrealer studying in ATL I have to agree with most of your comments. ATL is too spread out and taking MARTA is for “poor people” so to speak. While the metro maybe dreary sometimes, they have character. MARTA looks depressing inside and out. Traffic is terrible. With that being said there are a few places you missed like Atlantic Station, Piedmont Park, Arts Center, all located in Midtown which are in walking distance for me.

    The people here are really friendly but it’s sad that no one walks or even considers walking around because it leave no sense of community.

  19. There seems to be a lot of confusion about why no one is in downtown Atlanta (or at least the areas you were in) on the weekend. The reason for this is that although you didn’t notice it, you were actually in the center of an immense university campus!! Georgia State University is the second largest uni in Georgia, and is situated in downtown Atlanta. However it does a good job of blending in and is not always noticeable. Luckie Street for example is commercially successful only due to the thousands of students who pass through that area each day on their way from the Aderhold Learning Center to the Five Points MARTA station or back. So yes the population density is very low downtown because it’s either offices or university buildings. No one actually lives in that area. The university has dorms but they were built about half a mile away from the areas you explored. Come back any other day of the week and you will see hundreds of students walking about the downtown area of the city.

    As for the veteran comment, there is probably truth to what those homeless men said. On any given night over half of the homeless in America are veterans, and about a third of all homeless people served in the Vietnam War, so it is very likely that you did indeed get panhandled by some of them. If you look closer you will see a large percentage of amputees among these people.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, I’m a GSU student and I travel those areas most days of the week, incase you were wondering.

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