Relics of the old city live on beneath the flow of commerce
At the turn of the century, a hundred trains a day converged on Atlanta, all coming in through a narrow east-west valley, and “Railroad Gulch” was becoming an urban headache—dirty, noisy, dangerous, and a continual source of gridlock as vehicles and pedestrians on the north-south cross streets waited and waited for the trains to pass.
Atlanta’s solution to the congestion was to rise above it. Between about 1890 and 1929 a system of viaducts was erected one level up to carry city streets across the gulch. Merchants cut new storefronts into the second stories of their buildings, using the original ground floors for storage or simply abandoning them. The fortunes of this subterranean quarter have gone up and down ever since. Now known as Underground Atlanta, it is a popular shopping center drawing tourists and locals alike. Here, with a little effort, visitors can picture the bustling commerce that filled Atlanta’s heart a century ago.
Today Underground Atlanta—clean, well lit, and inviting—attracts crowds. But for decades these streets were visited mainly by the homeless in search of a dry place to sleep. The building exteriors, in all their Victorian exuberance, were simply left to decay until the 1960s, when the idea of historic preservation was dawning in the country as a whole and Atlantans began to reconsider their city’s birthplace. Inspired by commercial projects that had reclaimed old sections of other cities—like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and Piper’s Alley in Chicago—a corporation was formed to transform the area into an entertainment district. In 1969 it opened Underground Atlanta.
In this incarnation Underground Atlanta consisted primarily of restaurants, bars, and cabarets. Whatever its developers intended, it gained a slightly seamy reputation. “The old Underground had the kind of worn patina and seediness you associate with parts of New Orleans,” recalls one longtime Atlantan who was a twenty-something party animal at the time. But other factors caused its demise. By the mid-1970s the country as a whole was in recession, and patronage was too sporadic to support the seventy-odd businesses in the project. Meanwhile, an area of several blocks was chewed up by construction of a central station for the city’s new rapid transit system. In 1982 the last of the Underground’s businesses closed its doors.
Then came the Rouse Corporation, developer of successful urban marketplaces, including Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Reconstruction began in 1986; the present Underground Atlanta opened three years later. Its business mix still includes nightlife but is weighted now toward shopping and dining with family appeal, all held together by a veneer of history. Some of Underground Atlanta’s buildings are original to their sites, while many new structures have been seamlessly worked in.
If you arrive by subway at Five Points station, you can follow a tunnel directly into Underground. But the better choice is to ascend to street level and walk one block east on Upper Alabama Street to Atlanta Heritage Row. This small museum, run by the Atlanta History Center, offers an interactive timeline of the city’s history that includes a description of Underground Atlanta in its early days. Here, and at the Underground Atlanta Welcome Center next door, you can pick up a selfguided tour of the historical markers and important sites in the area.
These include the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot; original brick, granite, and cast-iron storefronts on Lower Alabama Street, once Atlanta’s main commercial strip; and an 1856 gas streetlamp that was damaged by a cannonball in 1864. After leading you beneath the viaducts and through the heart of Underground, the route emerges above once again. Here you will find, on one of the historical markers, a sketch of a 1909 scheme that envisioned not only viaducts for the cross streets but a four-block open plaza with sculptures and fountains spanning Railroad Gulch. It is tantalizing to imagine how such a plaza might have influenced the evolution of central Atlanta, which is so lacking in public space that a new park had to be cobbled together in a moribund warehouse district at the edge of downtown to accommodate the crowds expected for the Olympic Games.
The Atlanta Preservation Center offers guided tours of Underground, on Saturdays and Sundays, but probably won’t give them during the Olympics because of expected crowding. They take an hour and a half and start with a discussion of the city’s railroad history and the erection of the viaducts, before moving on to the state capitol, City Hall, and several of Atlanta’s oldest churches.