Last Tuesday evening, as Atlanta Police mobilized to march into downtown's Woodruff Park and arrest Occupy Atlanta protesters at the foot of the city's skyscrapers, the blocks south of the park were mostly silent.
Nearly 30 homeless men and women huddled together, resting underneath the long ramp leading to the Garnett Street MARTA station. Others slept on the steps of the police department headquarters in the shadow of the city jail. Even more wandered the streets, asked motorists passing through for help, or stood alone in parking lots. A skinny man standing at the corner of Forsyth and Nelson streets lifted his sweatshirt to a passing motorist and pointed to his penis bulging through green underwear. Newly waxed SUVs and luxury sedans rolled up to the Magic City strip club. The only businesses still open were bail-bonding agents.
Were it not for the occasional conversations that took place in the shadows of buildings or shrill recordings warning parking-lot customers that no attendant is on duty, south downtown — the area bordered by Five Points to the north; I-20 along the south; "the Gulch," the massive parking lot and rail yard, to the west; and City Hall to the east — would have been dead quiet.
On Broad Street, one of Atlanta's oldest streets, a large catering truck served chicken wings, pork chop sandwiches and corn dogs to night owls looking to party at a nearby gay club or walking up from the Greyhound station to Five Points. The truck's owner, A.C. Bolden, has been working south downtown for about eight months. It's a good spot, but less busy than the Midtown location where he also sets up shop. On Saturdays, he can be found slinging hamburgers until 5 a.m. to clubgoers looking for a late-night meal. But business could be better.
"We need more people coming through," Bolden says.
Today, south downtown — the launching pad of Morris Rich, Walter H. Kessler and others of Atlanta's so-called Merchant Princes; birthplace of her newspapers; and the one-time commercial heart of the city — is a drab landscape of lifeless surface parking lots and loiterers. Stores that aren't vacant peddle gold teeth, candy bars or offer to charge your cell phone for $2. Business owners complain that drugs are openly sold and used, sidewalk salesmen hawk cheap merchandise and homeless people gather to pick up free hot meals from out-of-town churches. Says one service worker in a nearby outreach organization, "This place is like the forgotten end."
There's a reason that early episodes of "The Walking Dead" were shot in south downtown: it took minimal effort to make the area resemble a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland.
Numerous parties share the blame for the neighborhood's long, slow decline. The culprits include highways, MARTA, the "urban renewal" trend of the '60s and '70s and the inattention of elected officials — even the city, county, state and federal workers who fill its office spaces every day. Despite the efforts of longtime and new business owners, urban pioneers, and forward-thinking developers, the neighborhood — which has all the hallmarks of a tree-lined, walkable, transit-oriented community that should have caught fire long ago — is stuck in limbo. Meanwhile, the area north of Five Points just a few football fields away undergoes a grand rejuvenation.
Everyone says south downtown, which Atlanta architect Richard Rothman in 1975 called the "most interesting and misunderstood square mile" in the city, has potential. That's been the line for decades. So when is it going to prosper? And can downtown Atlanta, which in recent years has seemed close to realizing its revitalization dreams, really say it's come back while its south portion languishes?
"It needs more attention from all of us," says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown civic booster group. "I don't know if it's the city or us. We need to constantly reinforce the potential that's there ... There are very few of these kinds of areas left."