Thursday, April 17, 2008

Walking Down Main Street


This post has languished for about three weeks now -- I meant to do it right after I went on the walk it details, but something or other kept getting in the way. And now, here it is, much later and not quite as fresh.

A few things coming at about the same time spurred me to walk down Decatur Street -- fruitless hunting for the site of the old city jail (well, not totally fruitless, it was on one of the corners of Decatur and Piedmont, but not sure which one and in any case I don't think there's any traces); coming across the webpage for the book "The First Eight," which describes Decatur Street as a hub of old Atlanta African-American life; and the Atlanta Time Machine posting this 1950 map, which I actually printed out and used as a reference. Then, doing some hunting through the (metaphorical) stacks, I found a 1991 article by AJC writer Colin Campbell, taking a break from the NHL, describing a similar walk down Decatur.

Decatur Street passes all through Atlanta and beyond; you get downtown, you get industrial and/or desolate, you get suburban. To the east, it becomes Dekalb Avenue, then Howard Street, then ends in Decatur. To the northwest, it becomes Marietta, then Atlanta, then probably something else eventually.

The above statue is technically on the Marietta Street portion. It shows Henry Grady, one of those many guys whose names are all over Atlanta but I couldn't tell you what they did if my life depended on it. I should, though, since Grady was a journalist and thus I should feel some connection to him, right? I'm not exactly what the girl beneath him is doing, but it looks like she's having a cigarette. Presumably she's a copy editor.

This is "Five Points," like every "Five Points" in the world so named because you can go off in five directions. Atlanta also has a "Little Five Points" -- despite the mania for different names here, apparently that one was so good it had to be used twice. On the right, beneath the Coke sign, lies the Olympia building -- that's one of the few things from the 1950 map still showing up here.

Five Points from a different angle. Moving on...

The Dixie News was mentioned in Campbell's article. It's part of a row of small, run-down shops in the Kimball Building (I think it's called the Kimball Building, at least. Let's just call it that). Campbell describes Decatur Street as "seedy but rich with tales," and some of that comes through in his writing. You get a sense of a lot of people being fixtures on Decatur, but that's not the case now.

On the 1950s map, there's a LOT of parking lots downtown, so at least that part of the character has held true. This one's kinda sad, though. It used to be the Kimball House hotel, described (Campbell again) as "once glorious, later notorious and ... now gone." Here's a marker that shows what it once looked like.

Sign alert: I was puzzled why the big "TEXAS" sign was there, since this isn't Texas (I checked) and that's a small bookstore with another name. Turns out that was once a restaurant, but it's been (I believe) more than a decade since it disappeared. Glad the sign's still there. (perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised -- when I moved here in 1999 you could still see signs for abandoned 1996 Olympic souvenir booths) About the only reference I could find to the Texas restaurant was someone driving through the front window in the mid-1990s.

Walter's has been there since 1952, selling shoes -- it deserves kudos for lasting that long and for keeping up cool old signs. Here's another.

On the 1950 map, the opposite corner from where Walter's now stands (to my left as I take this picture), is marked "Strand Theatre - Colored." Jarring as hell to see that today. It's now, natch, a parking lot.

I gather that Georgia State University has expanded onto Decatur considerably in the past 30 years, and sterilized it considerably in the process. The buildings are generally of the type associated with modern universities; inoffensive but also sterile and less interesting.

Around this area, I started walking behind a rather large woman, carrying on a loud and animated conversation involving copious use of the word "motherfucker." Initially I figured "oh, she's crazy," then realized she was probably using one of those little ear-piece cell phones that confuse me and turn me into Andy Rooney. Then I stopped to take a photo, she passed, I surreptitiously checked -- no ear-piece.

Boring shot, yes, but kind of interesting for two reasons (to me, at least). One is that the darkened cavern down on ground level is actually Collins Street, and the viaduct moving above is Courtland -- I take Courtland to work every day and you get a completely different perspective on the scene. You don't even see Decatur Street. The second is that Decatur and Collins used to be, apparently, hooker central. It definitely isn't now. On one hand it's really hard to say that it was a better place when the street trade operated around here, but on the other, it was probably less sterile and I really doubt that any of the prostitutes relocated to better parts of town.

The 1950 map has petered out by now, so I don't know what the layout was like. I'm curious about when the viaduct was installed, but not enough to, say, look it up.

Atlanta's lovely highways, seen from above. The highway overpass marks an unofficial dividing line. After this, buildings are spread out, some forgotten, others being renovated into shops and condos. Campbell again: "Decatur Street changes as it crosses that smoking Euphrates. To the west lies Downtown, frayed but valued. To the east crouch lands now half-forgotten."

A remaining building on those half-forgotten lands. I shoulda taken better notes, but I didn't think I was going to wait three weeks to write this.

You see a lot of buildings like this to the east -- squat, dirty recovery centers with bars on the windows and lots of glass blocks set in.

Another shot of what used to be Grady (that name again) Homes, roughly where the 1917 fire started. I presume the low wall is part of the old housing complex, but who knows -- maybe it's the remnant of something earlier, one of the old streets that got wiped out. I can dream. According to a sign, they're constructing "Auburn Pointe" here -- if I recall correctly, part of it should be done in late 2008. Given that there's nothing here and no one seems to be working on it, I'd guess that's optimistic.

One of east Decatur Street's few functioning businesses.

No clue what this was -- they were demolishing it that day, now it's completely vanished. Something wrecked by the tornado? Something coming down regardless, to fill Atlanta's vacant lot needs? I've driven down this street a jillion times and I don't have a clue what used to be there, unfortunately.

Back into town now, on the way to my car. I think this is some old Dept. of Transportation logo; I've seen it on a few forgotten and beaten street signs. You can't really tell but I believe it's a peach shape. Forget what the building was now but it's nothing connected to this design.

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