The Multiple Layers of Atlanta

1993 Aerial View of Downtown Atlanta (Source: Georgia State University Archive)

1993 Aerial View of Downtown Atlanta (Source: Georgia State University Archive)

My first trip to Atlanta occurred during the summer before my senior year in high school. My parents agreed to let me stay with my aunt for a few months during the summer. I was excited. Ever since I was a child, I had this wanderlust to travel.  This was no doubt ignited by the weekend trips that my family made to Nashville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Or it could have been ignited by the stories I heard of my parents’ vacations in New York. Their colorful descriptions of "the city that never sleeps," with all its pageantry and extravagance, excited me. I wanted to see more. I wanted to know more.

So the thought of immersing myself in a new place excited me.  This was the summer of 1993.  The downtown district was busy and bustling. The groundbreaking on the Centennial Olympic Stadium had just taken place. The Atlanta Housing Authority had just been granted the first HOPE VI pilot grant, which would initiate a new era of urban revitalization in the city. The city was changing, evolving. Once I disembarked the bus that my parents had placed me on eight hours earlier, I collected my luggage and awaited the arrival of my aunt.  As I exited the Greyhound station and walked towards International Boulevard, I looked around at the bustling cars. There was a congregation of people flooding the streets. The variations were striking. There were blue collar workers, white collar executives, children, parents, and tourists abounding. The sight of this activity thrilled me and created all types of wonder in my adolescent mind.  It also ignited me with curiosity.

Throughout the summer I would take weekly trips into the city. I would walk blocks alone, observing people and looking at structures.  I would visit local venues and watch as these social actors transformed ordinary public space into their theatre.  On other occasions, I would catch the MARTA and ride the train from one end the next. Always watching. Always jotting down mental notes.  

Yesterday, my colleagues and I embarked on a similar adventure. We boarded a train from Lindbergh and traveled southward to Downtown Atlanta.  As we entered the train marked AIRPORT, we took our seats and joined the congregation of commuters, business people, college students, transients, and everyday people making their way through this complicated network of urbanity. We talked. We laughed. We watched as the train speedily pushed forward. We disembarked at Peachtree Center and rode the steep Westinghouse escalators upward towards the street. This escalator trudged upwards as the darkness of the station was replaced by sunlight emanating from the street. We had arrived.

As we stepped off the escalator and walked onto Peachtree Street, I was reminded of my first trip to Atlanta so many years ago.  Our feet walked in staccato-paced steps as we inserted our bodies into the moving notes of the symphonic streets. The city wasn’t as vibrant as it felt that warm day in 1993. It was different.  The people we encountered were moving in the same hurried manner of their predecessors, but they were headed to distinct places: Georgia State University, Centennial Olympic Park, CNN Center, or the restaurant strips that painted Peachtree Street. I considered the past and present status of the city and wondered what the future held.  The monuments of the city cast shadows over us, as we crossed the street and made our way down Auburn Avenue.

-- Aretina Hamilton, Lab Atlanta faculty