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40 years of urban Atlanta

When downtown had Bourbon Street, when cars seemed silly, when hope made sense


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Sometimes I dream about downtown Atlanta. It's usually back when I was a kid. I was a Buckhead Boy and could board the No. 23 bus on Peachtree with a buddy and go downtown on a summer afternoon to watch movies in the vast, cool theaters that towered over Peachtree Street: the Loew's Grand, the Paramount, and the Roxy. At night, their marquees looked like Broadway. They're gone, of course, plowed under to make way for tall buildings and the car culture that carried residents onto new highways and into the suburbs.

I remember when Atlanta was alive with trains. When I went off to the University of Georgia in 1965, I could catch a passenger train at the old Emory station on Sunday night and ride it to Athens, drinking beer in the club car because they didn't ID. Ultimately, people went so crazy about cars that Atlanta demolished both downtown train stations, the Union and the Terminal, in the early '70s. The Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett called their destruction "acts of municipal vandalism."

Forty years ago, the South's great hippie scene, around 14th and Peachtree, was winding down with the end of the Vietnam War. The original Underground Atlanta entertainment district was still open. Back then, it was one of the craziest places on earth. It rivaled Bourbon Street. You could stagger from one great music-filled bar to another along gas-lit avenues lined by rough, ancient brick walls. Underground went under after a few years of glory. It was reborn later as a wannabe mall.

Four decades ago, the white people who fled to the suburbs to avoid integration voted against MARTA because they didn't want black people riding a train past the river. And here we sit. The suburbs voted against mass transit again this summer. Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution said the recent "No" vote on the transportation sales tax showed that Atlanta "firmly wants to be in the 1980s."

Time, however, doesn't move in that direction. Yet when it comes to transportation, few Atlantans are willing to consider any possible scenario other than what we've already got. Metro Atlanta has Balkanized. It is incapable of reaching a regional solution to the lunacy of a car-obsessed metropolis unwilling to deal with its traffic problems. State transportation policy has been controlled by the highway builders and real-estate developers who carved out the suburbs. The developers were like a looting party. They made their money. Now they're sipping toddies at Sea Island while their handiwork sheds value quicker than a copperhead loses skin.

For five years, I was the traffic columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the '90s. The job was sort of family-related: some of my ancestors, the Belle Isle Boys, were Atlanta's first auto mechanics.

I had an epiphany about traffic one morning while riding with Capt. Herb Emory in his WSB helicopter. We had just flown past I-285 going north along I-85. I couldn't see the end of the cars, inching along, bumper-to-bumper, backed all the way past Suwanee, each one sucking up a tank of gas. I thought, "This ain't gonna work." I could sense the fragility of the system. One big blip in the oil market and we're toast.

At some point, it just won't work anymore, and we'll have to do something different. Already, many of us sense that the American economy has become an utter sham, driven by massive fraud that's winked away because the investment bankers run the country the way road-builders and developers have run Georgia. There's not going to be any money for huge new transportation systems. While we might not be able to afford high-speed rail, we could certainly run passenger trains along existing lines. We could do that now, but the foot-draggers in the General Assembly are too stubborn.

I mean, why ride a train when you've got your own Ford F-150, right?

The people in the city proper will have transportation options that suburbanites won't, with the Beltline and other innovations. The city has MARTA, bless its heart. Plus, the city is attracting bright people who don't want to spend their lives in a car. They're trying to figure out how to buy locally grown food without trucking it from hell and gone. People are investing in the city and trying to make it better. Meanwhile, the conservatives in the suburbs are still living la vida loca in the 1980s.

My optimism about Atlanta's transportation future was beaten out of me long ago. I came away with one great hope: that one day I would be able to take the train to Athens again, like I did when I was 18. I don't know if I will live that long.

Doug Monroe is a fifth-generation Atlantan and a former senior editor of Creative Loafing.

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