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!
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
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!
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.
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.
+15 systems are certainly worthy of criticism in certain circumstances, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin with this…
Atlanta does has a Flatiron Building though and a pretty attractive one at that!
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.
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.
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…
I pondered whether this board hadn’t worked since the 1996 Olympic Games…
Perhaps an idea for Toronto’s sidewalks on those sections of the subway that run slightly off the major street (i.e. Danforth Avenue)?
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…
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 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.
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.