Maybe you don’t know this area by that name, but you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the part of downtown that’s south of Five Points — home to Atlanta City Hall and the state Capitol but also diverse businesses, residents and churches. Many voices have shaped its history, and many more are needed today to realize its potential.
South Downtown tells stories of Atlanta’s past. Underneath the viaducts that created Underground Atlanta, you’ll find the Zero Mile Post, literally the center of our city when the railroad first arrived. Nearby buildings, some of the oldest in Atlanta, speak to what was happening just after the Civil War. Others still show evidence of segregated lunch counters that speak to what was happening during the civil rights movement.
South Downtown also tells stories of Atlanta’s future. Many of these old buildings have new life in them. For instance, C4 Atlanta opened an arts entrepreneurship center in a small portion of the historic M. Rich Building that was home to Rich’s department store until 1924. Since this pioneering move in 2012, the building has filled with a variety of tenants, including journalists at Creative Loafing, social entrepreneurs at the Center for Civic Innovation and students at The Iron Yard coding school.
Just a few blocks away, Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery is repurposing five vacated storefronts, Mammal Gallery occupies an abandoned nightclub, and Murmur Media has moved into an empty convenience store. The Goat Farm is venturing beyond its West Midtown complex to launch the BEACONS project to help other creative entrepreneurs fill gaps among the businesses that call South Downtown home. Miller’s Rexall Drugs is celebrating its 50th year in business; Friedman’s Shoes has been open since 1929.
South Downtown’s streets and public spaces are also being used to tell stories today. This is where crowds gather to make their voices heard both in protest and celebration. The city’s annual Elevate public art exhibition has brought installations and performances to the area since 2011, and you’ve likely seen one of the dozens of movies and television shows filmed here recently. On Sept. 25, the area will host a block party to celebrate the best Atlanta has to offer.
In recent years, conversations have started among various stakeholders — from political officials, property owners and developers to small business owners, residents and people with no place to call home. These conversations have not focused on front-page news like sports stadiums, commuter rail stations or casinos. Instead, they have focused on neighbors getting to know each other and figuring out how to work together to make improvements after decades of disinvestment.
That is why the Center for Civic Innovation is leading an initiative to bring together groups and individuals already working to boost business, solve social challenges and improve everyone’s quality of life. Change is happening. We want to ensure the community is engaged in shaping its own future.
We have hosted public discussions on the proposed redevelopment of Underground Atlanta with the developers under contract to purchase it. We also have input from individuals via an online and door-to-door survey on what they think about South Downtown right now and what they want it to be. We are sharing the community’s voice with the general public, the city’s new planning commissioner and other decisionmakers.
Though many people have written off South Downtown, we know the stories continue. We need to tell those stories by being mindful of successes and failures of the past, focused on realities of the present and open to a range of future possibilities. The stories should be shaped by as many people as possible.
So let’s keep talking about South Downtown.
Kyle Kessler, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, leads the South Downtown Initiative at the Center for Civic Innovation.