by Matt Garbett
Recently I found myself in a bit of quandary: how to force myself to continue to explore my adopted hometown? I had fallen out of the habit of aimless exploration. My old system, walk in a direction and take lots of turns until I was lost, didn’t seem appealing anymore. I needed something more systematic but that wouldn’t require much planning or forethought on my part. My solution: I would walk every bus route in the city of Atlanta. In order.
Plan decided, on November 9th at 10AM I met Darin Givens, aka ATL Urbanist, at the Five Points Station downtown. Together we would uncover every nook and cranny, secret hidden treasure, unknown watering hole and hamburger joint along the route. With the view of the old Rich’s building before us, I was excited for what we’d find.
What we found was the worst of urban form that the city has to offer. With highlights only at the beginning and a miracle discovery at the end, the intervening twelve miles progressed from assaults on walkability to assaults on pedestrians and finally assaults on humanity itself. At some point Darin and I realized that the walk had cost us some bit of our souls.
I confess to loving Peachtree and Broad south of the Five Points station. Though not new to me, and certainly not in the condition I’d like to see it in, the beauty of how we used to build makes me see nothing but potential. I have bizarre fantasies about what I would put into these buildings if I were to win the lottery. Who wouldn’t want a combination hardware/bookstore in the old Bookhammer’s building?
What rational person doesn’t imagine the upper floors of The Bootery as a country line dancing bar with exotic parrots as the decor?
And then this happens:
To be fair, this building is not the only or worst offender once we turned onto MLK. The entire block is blank faces without even the courtesy of this door. It screams at you, there is no reason for you to be here. You are unwelcome. Not just screams. Physically confronts and punches the pedestrian in the face. The Pugilist style of architecture is in high form on this street.
Marietta and Spring
The bus isn’t on Marietta long—just enough to get to Downtown’s armpit, Spring Street. But I was struck by this little cafe:
Not because it’s street level activity—there are other storefronts, although not enough—but because they are really engaging the sidewalk. The cute Tahitian-style umbrellas, the outdoor cafe seating. All of which is almost certainly illegal. The six story parking deck it is nestled in, creating a vast dead and empty space? Legal and probably has maps from sanctioned entities pointing visitors to its location for convenient parking to attractions.
Spring Street may truly be the armpit of downtown. I took some pictures of all the surface and structured parking, but really what’s the point in sharing them? If I were Ambassador Young I’d be furious about the placement of my plaza. But then, Central Atlanta Progress recently did a parking survey declaring that parking was a visitor’s first and last impression of Atlanta, so maybe Ambassador Young takes comfort that his statue is the 2nd to last thing people remember about their visit here. With all the parking and nothing to do to occupy the guests at the hotels, ATL-Cruzers uses the lifeless plaza to conduct training sessions on Segways before the tours. The founder is a great guy that gives back to the community, so I guess the only good thing to come out of this section of the walk is that I can give him a shout out.
Once the road bends north you are confronted with AmericasMart. I was once at a meeting with the director. She informed the audience of the amount of money that passed through those doors, the importance to the regional economy and the scale of the conferences. She added that because of the way the buildings were designed, thousands of people could be inside and no one would know. They’re building another gerbil tube to keep it that way. The city easily supported the variance to build it. No sane person wants to walk on this stretch of road. No one was.
The Roads Back To Marietta
Mercifully, seriously mercifully, the route veers left onto Ivan Allen. At least there is a view of Centennial Olympic Park, although Darin and I were both struck by how much the new Center for Civil and Human Rights also resembles a football. Centennial Olympic Park is a pleasant enough walk—and is certainly an improvement over what was there—but there is a monotony and a wonder, “Could someone easily live here without a car?” Left on North—hello Georgia Tech! If I do apply for planning grad school let me in—and still…. bored. A relief from Spring, no doubt, and the campus to the north is lovely, but…
Then we get to Coca-Cola. For readers that don’t enjoy profanity, I would skip to the next section. The Coca-Cola complex is a giant fuck you to the streets around it. Down Luckie and then back up Marietta. Residents of Centennial Olympic Homes? Fuck you. Look at our parking decks. Drive to get your groceries. Employees that may want to walk to take care of an errand on a lunch break? Fuck you. We built you a parking deck. Decks. Hard to tell. Marietta Street Corridor. Fuck you too. Our decks go both ways.
Actually, Marietta would’ve been pretty miserable even without Coca-Cola. Sidewalks are down to a few feet, and cars are whizzing past at over 50 miles an hour. There’s a lovely stretch of tiny homes sandwiched between Marietta and the rail lines but I’ve given up on taking pictures and Darin is about to try to surrender completely.
West Midtown? Marietta? What is this exactly?
For a brief section of Marietta it’s not too bad. There’s activity—not pedestrian—and it flirts with feeling like something. Here’s an Asian restaurant, here’s a bistro, here’s Thumbs Up, here’s some sort of store… but never enough. Gaps—either parking or vacant lots used as parking—keep throwing hitches into the setting and you can see why no one is walking here. A cyclist rode past and we cheered her just because we saw another human not encased in steel. Her response, understandably, was to pedal faster.
By the time we reached the intersection of Northside and Marietta, Darin was ready to give up—an appropriate choice, considering what occurred here 150 years ago. Atlanta was lost then, and from what we had seen so far, Atlanta—or at least the #1 bus route—was still lost. He called his wife to come pick him up. She did not answer. We plugged on, although one of us was ready to quit.
West Midtown is a perfect example of what I like to call a strollable community and what Atlanta likes to pat itself on the back for building along the BeltLine in the Old Fourth Ward instead of a walkable community. A strollable community has amenities—cool restaurants and bars, boutiques—but no necessities—grocery stores, pharmacies. You can walk to buy a $15 craft cocktail, but you have to drive to buy tomatoes, toothpaste, and toilet paper. So while everyone that lives there is driving to Atlantic Station to take care of their needs, everyone else is driving in to eat at the cool new restaurant (the only other people we saw on the sidewalk in the entire stretch were waiting in line for restaurants). But hey! There is something here to walk to. Even if you don’t eat at West Egg daily or even weekly, you can walk there. So yay! It’s “walkable”. It looks like this for the entire stretch:
An empty, lifeless stretch. Only the architecture of the buildings changes.
What occurred to me here is how absolutely important those stores that provide necessities are for the life of the sidewalk. I’m not talking about walkability, but the life of the street itself. We can pepper a corridor with boutiques and bistros, but that’s not sufficient for street life. They are only occasionally used by residents, and sparse enough not to be enticing to many to embark on a serendipitous walk. But the mundane necessities of daily life require more—the batteries for the remote that died, the beer, bread and butter that in aggregate create the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Packed into our cars for a drive to a giant enclosed box store, the absence of all that on the sidewalk is the absence of people in this “walkable” district.
Sucks. Don’t go down it. This is the logic of Huff Road.
That’s an apartment complex to the left. To the right, at the top of the hill, is a… sidewalk.
There are a few isolated stores on this stretch and another apartment complex that probably filled out mixed use on their application because having 3 restaurant/bars and one dry cleaner makes you mixed-use and “walkable”.
Ellisworth Industrial and Chattahoochee
When describing this walk to a friend, he spoke of the need for industrial zoning in Atlanta. I 100% agree. But I’m not sure that Atlanta needs to keep building strip malls with frontal parking anywhere.
Darin’s wife returned his phone call and let him know she was busy. Suck it up and finish the walk. A quick stop at Holeman and Finch to rejuvenate him and he was good to go. It was definitely the H&F and not the scenery. Also, no one on this road was doing 25 MPH.
Which was excellent because the bus stops actually looked like this:
To make sure that you gave up all hope on the area, exciting new construction that merges parking lots into pseudo-plazas is promised:
The Merciful End and Hope
Exhausted, souls crushed not by the complete disgust for humans that our stretch of road has demonstrated, but by the complete lack of hope for better to come, shocked by the existence of a trailer park in Atlanta—to which a friend replied, “Yeah! The one next to Nuevo Laredo! Weird!” (I haven’t eaten there)—we’re in the home stretch. Or, death row. Walking down Marietta Boulevard here is so terrifying. At least those extra lanes that have drivers doing 75 allows them to purposefully move over a lane because THEY are scared to be that close to you. I wish I had a picture of the one mile long hill of overgrown kudzu we walked along. I remember thinking, “Does a successful city have THIS much untended land?”
Finally we exited onto Coronet Way, a fascinating little slice of Atlanta. On one side of the street is this:
A row of charming, if dilapidated, abandoned houses.
On the other side:
A row of meticulously maintained houses. Between them, a park. Separating the nice houses from the park, a fence.
In the “heart” of the neighborhood, an abandoned strip mall:
As we walked wearily to the terminus of the bus line to wait, depressed by all we had seen, concluding with the awfulness of a dead strip mall and the mystery of a street that would gate its residents off from their own park, we saw this:
And then we rode the bus back and remembered everything that had gotten us there.
Matt Garbett is an independent trouble maker and problem solver living in Adair Park. The next walk will be this Sunday at noon, meeting at North Avenue Station.