Driving into work each day, I pass over a little stump of a street called "Fort." It's basically, at that point, just an interstate entrance and exit ramp that (unusually) has a name. Obviously an old street that got wiped out by the interstates; I've always made mental notes to do a little research.
Over the weekend, it came out that at least one person did indeed die in the tornado earlier this month -- they were found in the rubble in a partially-collapsed building on Hilliard Street. That struck me just because Hilliard (in the article) was described as something of a well-trafficked street -- but I'd never heard of it.
So, a little researching, and it turns out that my two little mystery streets are connected in one of the lesser-publicized but more important tales in Atlanta history.
On May 21, 1917, a fire broke out in a warehouse at the intersection of Fort and Decatur Streets, in the Fourth Ward neighborhood. Fueled by wooden shanties, it raged north, finally getting contained north of Ponce (the traditional white-black divider street). A few mansions and tons of poorer homes were burned -- according to Wikipedia, nearly 2,000 homes and 73 blocks were wiped out. Hilliard was one of the worst-hit streets.
On a PR level, it's probably less-discussed today because a) Atlanta had already had its big famous fire, and people are more likely to talk about Sherman today than 1917; b) historically, the U.S. had just entered World War I, which probably overshadowed everything; and c) most of those affected were black, decades before the civil rights era. The fire explains a lot about some of central Atlanta's oddities, though. According to Wikipedia and another web site that I now can't find, many of the areas were left alone for decades, which does a lot of show why construction in the area is so uneven (along Ponce, there's no real rhyme or reason to the styles or layout -- you'll see very isolated buildings, then a bunch all grouped together, old mansions next to newer businesses, etc). And the fire also explains why, if you look at the National Register of Historic Places for Fulton County, in downtown Atlanta the majority of sites date to the 1925-1949 period rather than (as you'd expect) earlier.
Back to our streets. Fort once was a pretty big street, but now it's reduced to that little entrance ramp, and a one-block stretch between Memorial and Martin Luther King. It's not a terribly interesting stretch, either, though its northern end is blocked by the Mattress Factory Lofts, which are pretty cool:
There are some other bits of Fort still existing, though. Prior to 1917, it ran north to Ponce, where it (in the manner of most north-south Atlanta streets) became Bedford Place. I don't know what its fate was in the rebuilding post-fire, but in 1942 (if not before), its intersection with Decatur Street (where the fire began) was wiped out for the Grady Homes public housing project. At that point, Fort still ran (with interruptions) up to Forrest (now Ralph McGill), where it became Bedford. At Ponce, Bedford now became Argonne, presumably a nod to WWI veterans. (all this is gleaned from 1911 and 1955 maps, part of the PPA collection.)
Now? The Grady Homes project was razed in 2005; it's apparently being rebuilt, but it's not moving too quickly. There's a giant vacant lot where the 1917 fire once began:
The remaining bits of Fort were all wiped out by the construction of the Downtown Connector, aside from the little one-block spur and the interstate ramps. There's also a little dead-end offshoot of Tanner Street that was probably once part of Fort. The south-of-Ponce part of Fort/Bedford is now called Central Park Place. Argonne is still a sleepy little street.
The mysterious Hilliard, meanwhile, is still there, but there's not a lot happening on it. It appears to be a pretty mean neighborhood. One old building has some fantastic signs:
Parts were blocked off this morning, presumably due to tornado damage. I curved around, got back on it, and went past the scariest damn buildings I've ever seen in Atlanta (seriously, I like abandoned buildings, but there was no way I was gonna poke around these -- parts of a burnt-out apartment complex) before the street dead-ended up at a school.
(The list of old Atlanta street names helped out some on this post, as did the aforementioned Wikipedia article. The 1917 NY Times article (link is PDF) on the fire also provided some background on a bit of Atlanta history I knew nothing about.)