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Underground Atlanta

Exciting Developments Unfold at Underground Atlanta

Recently, Underground Atlanta underwent a significant transformation as it changed hands from the City of Atlanta to a private developer. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed enthusiastically labeled the $34.6 million sale of this iconic underground mall as “another milestone in the revitalization of South Downtown Atlanta.”

The redevelopment initiative has already borne fruit, introducing a vibrant array of establishments. Among these are The Masquerade, a beloved live music venue, Future Atlanta, an LGBTQ dance club, Underground Atlanta Galleries, home to 8 resident art galleries, and the Atlanta Comedy Theatre Underground, a hub for comedy and improv performances, all accompanied by enticing dining and beverage options.

While Underground Atlanta remains in its ongoing phase of redevelopment, it is increasingly gaining recognition as a dynamic nightlife destination. However, it’s important to note that for now, it stands as a locale in transition—a captivating spot for nightlife enthusiasts but not a top recommendation for tourists seeking quintessential Atlanta experiences.

“The City Beneath the City”

Nestled in the heart of Downtown Atlanta, Underground Atlanta was a treasure trove of shops, restaurants and nightclubs that offered up a myriad of choices for locals and visitors seeking a taste of Atlanta’s unique cultural scene. What made the Underground Atlanta experience distinctive is that the entire complex existed in a large historic underground “viaduct” that took patrons underneath the streets of Downtown Atlanta into another world where shopping, dining, and entertainment awaited.  Most of that formerly vibrant space is now closed and vacant, with the exception of some newly revitalized nightlife options.

The Story Behind Underground Atlanta

The creation of Underground Atlanta can be traced to the city’s strategic location as a transportation hub. In the mid-1800s, a multitude of railroads converged in Atlanta, fueling its growth and economic prosperity.  As the city expanded, its streets became increasingly congested with train, vehicular, and pedestrian traffic.  The rapid expansion of the railroad network and urban development in the area necessitated the construction of several iron bridges. These bridges served the dual purpose of accommodating both pedestrians and automobiles as they crossed the intricate web of railroad tracks.

To further alleviate the traffic issues and improve urban mobility, city planners embarked on an ambitious project to raise the street level in the downtown area, effectively creating a viaduct above the existing roads and railroad tracks. This monumental project raised the street level of Pryor, Central, Wall, and Alabama streets by one and a half stories. This transformation effectively concealed a five-block area beneath, submerging the original street levels of Pryor, Alabama, Ponder’s Alley, and Kenny’s Alley.

Access to these submerged street levels was facilitated via Old Loyd Street. As a result of this transformative endeavor, merchants had to adapt to the changes. They relocated their operations to the second floors of their buildings and repurposed the original ground floors into basements for storage and service.

Prohibition-Era Speakeasies and Juke Joints

The Prohibition era, characterized by the ban on alcoholic beverages, added an intriguing layer to this subterranean world. The relatively concealed basements became the clandestine sites of speakeasies and juke joints, where music and illicit drinking were common occurrences. This unique period in history is immortalized in Bessie Smith’s 1927 song “Preachin’ The Blues,” which pays homage to the area’s significance as an entertainment district.

Decades of Abandonment

Over the next four decades, as Atlanta continued to expand and evolve at street level, the 12-acre underground expanse gradually faded into obscurity. Despite its historical significance, it fell into disuse and was largely forgotten, with the homeless population becoming the primary occupants of this once-vibrant space.

Rediscovering a Hidden Treasure

In the 1960s, the concealed storefronts of Underground Atlanta were rediscovered, revealing a treasure trove of architectural gems dating back a century. These included intricate decorative brickwork, majestic granite archways, ornate marble features, cast-iron pilasters, finely crafted wooden posts, and the warm glow of gas street lamps. Inspired by this hidden gem, two Georgia Tech graduates, Steven H. Fuller Jr. and Jack R. Patterson, envisioned a revitalization project to restore and reopen what was often referred to as “the city beneath the city.” This ambitious endeavor aimed to transform it into a thriving retail and entertainment district.

A Vision Takes Shape

Underground Atlanta, Inc. was officially incorporated on May 2, 1967, and it embarked on a mission to secure leasing options for buildings situated beneath Central Ave, Pryor, Whitehall, Hunter, Alabama, and Wall Street viaducts. By October 1967, Fuller and Paterson had acquired all the corporation’s stock, and construction commenced in November 1968.

During this time, a significant milestone was achieved with the designation of the area as a state historic site through a constitutional amendment in Georgia. The renovation efforts focused on preserving the original facades while concentrating on the spaces along Alabama, Pryor, and Kenny’s Alley.

A Thriving Entertainment Hub

With an investment of $10 million, the Underground Atlanta corporation set out to transform the historic district into a vibrant entertainment hub. On April 8, 1969, “Underground Atlanta” was officially unveiled to the public, featuring a dazzling array of new restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and music venues within the restored individual storefronts. Notably, Underground Atlanta benefited from the unique circumstance of Fulton County being the only Georgia county permitting mixed alcoholic beverages to be served, as long as patrons adhered to a dress code—a factor that quickly turned Underground into the heart of downtown Atlanta’s nightlife.

This newfound popularity brought forth iconic establishments such as Dante’s Down the Hatch, Scarlett O’Hara, The Blarney Stone, and The Rustler’s Den, among others. Atlanta’s Piano Red, performing as Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, graced one of these venues from 1969 to 1979. Additionally, attractions like a souvenir shop owned by Governor Lester Maddox and a wax museum added to the district’s charm.

By 1972, Underground Atlanta enjoyed its peak year, with 3.5 million visitors and a staggering $17 million in sales. The district was home to over 80 restaurants, clubs, boutiques, and shops during its heyday.

Challenges and Decline

However, the vibrant era of Underground Atlanta faced challenges. Changes in the legal drinking age, increased competition, relaxed dress codes, and the onset of crime led to a decline. The construction of the MARTA East Line also played a role, as it tore out a significant portion of the Underground blocks.

In 1975, The New York Times highlighted the decline, and by 1980, only 26 businesses remained, marking the first closure of Underground Atlanta. Factors like suburbanization, changes in retail trends, and crime-related concerns led to a decline in its popularity.  The district was once again abandoned by February 1982.  The 1980s brought a period of dormancy to Underground, with vagrants occupying historic buildings, some of which were destroyed by fires.

A New Vision for Revival

In 1985, Mayor Andrew Young initiated plans to revive Underground as part of his downtown revitalization efforts. After overcoming legal hurdles, an $85 million bond issue was approved, paving the way for Underground’s reconstruction. In June 1989, Underground Atlanta reopened as a modern shopping mall, boasting double the retail space of the previous entertainment district. The redevelopment encompassed six city blocks, totaling approximately 12 acres, and included parking for 1,200 vehicles.

Yet, while the renovation garnered recognition for its urban design excellence, some critics lamented the loss of the district’s original charm. Nonetheless, Underground Atlanta’s first-year sales exceeded expectations, with $75 million in revenue and 13 million visitors.

Attractions and Challenges

The 1990s brought new attractions, such as the World of Coca-Cola museum and a burgeoning nightlife scene, but the district again faced challenges, including damage during the 1992 riots and financial losses.  Despite subsequent efforts to rejuvenate the district, including extended bar hours, Underground Atlanta struggled to attract consistent patrons, leaving tourists and locals somewhat perplexed.  The changing landscape led to the closure of businesses and the development entered a new era of decline.  In 2007, the World of Coca-Cola left Underground Atlanta and reopened a new and larger location at Pemberton Place, adjacent to the Georgia Aquarium and the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

A New Era Beckons

In 2014, the city of Atlanta, under Mayor Kasim Reed, entered into a contract to sell Underground Atlanta to developer, with plans to transform it into a mixed-use development with retail options and above-ground apartments. After a change in ownership in 2021, a master plan was set in motion, signaling hope for the district’s future.

Today, Underground Atlanta’s rich history continues to unfold as it embraces a new era of redevelopment and reinvention.

62 Pryor St SW
Atlanta, GA 30303