As an Atlanta native, I always find it interesting to read lists of places or activities which characterize denizens of the city, many of which I have little or no familiarity with. Lenox Square Mall, for instance, is cited as the place Atlantans shop, but it wasn’t until I was in high school or college and driving places on my own that I went there on a regular basis, and then it was largely to buy records. Living in West End and East Point, I frequented Lakewood and Greenbriar Malls, later Southlake, and, to a lesser extent, Shannon Mall. The same is true of Buckhead, where I didn’t hang out regularly before mid- to late-college. Virginia Avenue and Old National Highway were the party spots for my friends and I in high school. To the best of my knowledge, I have never been inside the Clermont Lounge. At the time I’d have been most likely to go, in college in the eighties, that part of Ponce was considered very dangerous, particularly for foot traffic. I also cannot recall eating at the Mary Mac, even though I’m distantly related to the family of the former owner of it and despite the fact that I have been to the Krispy Kreme doughnuts across the street. Living south of town, it always required a special trip to get to that part of Atlanta, and there were lots of southern style eateries in between.
When I was born, Carl Sanders was governor of Georgia and Ivan Allen, Jr. was mayor of Atlanta. It was against the law for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant in town; desegregation didn’t happen until July of that year. In sports, the Atlanta Crackers was the main professional sports team in town. Within my lifetime, Atlanta acquired the Braves, the Falcons, and the Hawks; acquired then sold the Flames and Thrashers. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was built, then demolished, as was the Omni. I also experienced first hand the “white flight” of the early- to mid-seventies.
While not much of a sports fan, I followed the Braves as a child. Despite all their success in the nineties, in my youth the team had a reputation for being lovable losers. They had great individual players such as Dale Murphy and Phil Niekro, but were rarely able to pull together enough wins as a team to make it to the post season. I attended games in the seventies where we were happy if they won that particular game, let alone the pennant. An entire generation of Atlantans has now grown up with the Braves as the powerhouse contenders they were throughout the nineties.
Growing up in Atlanta, I learned not to get too attached to specific places because they might not be there next time I visited. The Atlanta that people who relocated here in the seventies remember was built over top of the Atlanta I knew as a young child. At one point, the Polaris restaurant, the blue dome at the top of the Hyatt Regency, was one of the tallest structures in the city; now, one must be downtown to see it. Whenever I was traveling South on Peachtree Street in high school or early college, I frequently used the Coke sign at the intersection of Ivy Street to navigate. Once, I got a friend home from there to East Point within ten minutes, despite the traffic. Now, not only is the Coke sign no longer there, Ivy Street was renamed Peachtree Center Avenue in the nineties.
I attended Georgia State University from 1982 through 1987 and usually commuted by bus, as the south line of MARTA was under construction during that time. Before I graduated, Lakewood station opened and my bus, 72 Airport, was rerouted there. At the time, GSU was confined to the central campus downtown. We didn’t have a football team, and the basketball program wasn’t much to speak of either. There were no dorms, and the now heralded law school was in it’s infancy. Since I graduated, the university has expanded throughout the city, has a football program and the campus downtown has added numerous buildings either through purchase or construction. Riding past it on MARTA, I’m still able to recognize most of the campus but there are many new buildings I don’t recall from my time there.
I moved to New York in 1989 and moved back to Atlanta in 1994, two years before the Olympics were held here. In those five years, in preparation for the Games, the city changed greatly. Streets were renamed, businesses closed, buildings were demolished and replaced by new ones. MARTA completed the line out to the airport and rerouted, renamed, or discontinued several bus lines I had used. Even though I visited during the holidays, I wasn’t spending much time traveling around mapping out how the city was changing. By the time I got back and started looking for work, I hardly recognized the place. When I left, for instance, Rio Mall had just opened with much fanfare, and by the time I returned, it was already in decline. Once the Games were over, many of the sporting venues were packed up and moved elsewhere. People who knew me around that time found it amusing that I’d sometimes get lost navigating around town, mainly because of all the changes to a city that was already difficult to navigate in the first place.
I served as president of the Atlanta Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, from May, 1997 until April, 1998 and in my plan for the upcoming year, I noted that one of the problems we faced in maintaining a community service organization in Atlanta was the transient nature of our population. Most members at that time had been in town less than five years and would not be here five years after. Most were unmarried, apartment or condo owners, with no solid connection to the community. Most were upwardly mobile professionals, who spent a lot of time at work and in their off-time didn’t want to manage projects, an activity which characterizes many Jaycee chapters. When I joined, I heard the chapter referred to as Atlanta’s largest dating service, and found this to be an apt description in some respects. Our members were more interested in social outings which introduced them to places or activities where they could unwind, enjoy themselves, and meet new people. While we did have a contingency of members with roots in the community, and those who were interested in community service, this did not represent a large segment of the membership. A fair number of people attended a function, joined the chapter, and afterward we never saw them again, or they joined, became active, then were relocated by their employers to another town. Needless to say, membership turnover was always a problem.
Statue of Henry W. Grady, Marietta Street at Forsyth.
Transition has always been a central part of Atlanta’s story. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was in September of 1864, when Sherman’s troops set fire to it as they were beginning their march to the sea during the Civil War. At that point, the city was not much more than the confluence of rail lines which made it an important transportation hub. Now three major Interstates converge in downtown Atlanta and its airport is the busiest in the country. In his speech, The New South, Henry W. Grady extolled the virtues of Atlanta, “…we have built a brave and beautiful city; that somehow or other we have caught the sunshine in the bricks and mortar of our homes, and have builded therein not one ignoble prejudice or memory.” Very good propaganda for northern financiers looking for reliable investments. It also highlights Atlanta’s place as a slightly different southern metropolis, the cultural and economic regional hub it would be for the next hundred plus years. Looking at archival photos of Atlanta throughout its history, one is immediately struck by its radical transformation throughout time; from the railroad lines which gave Five Points its name to the sprawling economic center which gobbled up its former suburbs as it expanded. When I was in high school, people in Marietta and Sandy Springs bristled if one said they were from Atlanta and now, people born there regularly claim to be native Atlantans. With the influx of outside the perimeter (OTP) folks into town, not to mention transplants and immigrants from all over, the development of the Beltline, and the rise of the film industry in Georgia, it seems the only constant in Atlanta is change.