Up and Down Peachtree
A Portrait of Atlanta's Main Street
The origin of its name is up for debate, as is its actual length. It changes from a street to a road before branching off into a boulevard and throwing everyone for a loop by adding "Industrial" to its name. It starts near downtown's local shops hawking gold teeth and passes through the glittery modern aspirations of Midtown before fizzling out among the upper crust of Buckhead.
As Atlanta has grown from a village to a city, evolving from shanties, saloons, and muddy roads to skyscrapers, high-end restaurants, and pothole-riddled roads, Peachtree has always been its Main Street. Sure, Ponce has character. And Boulevard has grit and arboreal charm. But Peachtree has been the spine of the city, its parade route, the road tourists and conventioneers know before stepping on a plane to come here. Whatever Atlanta was, Peachtree mirrored it.
"It's had that cachet of Atlanta being the capital of the Peach State and this being the street," says Harvey Newman, a professor and former chair of the department of public management and policy at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. "It symbolized the highest and best real estate values in the city and identified Atlanta. It was our source of identity."
It's a quizzical thoroughfare. Along the street, one can find a $10 million penthouse condo, a homeless shelter that can sleep up to 500 men, wig shops, fast-food joints, a well-guarded financial fortress, the occasional street character twirling a baton or balancing a packed suitcase on his head, bootleg DVDs, and a $243,000 necklace, among other items. Unlike most commercial drags in other cities, Atlanta's is long — 14 miles, if you include the street's underwhelming spur near Chamblee that hugs the rear of the shuttered General Motors assembly plant.
And it's prominent. Originally a trail to a Creek Indian village named Standing Peachtree along the Chattahoochee River, much of the street follows a ridgeline, a feature that's obvious to anyone who's walked up its side streets.
In Atlanta's early days and after the Civil War, Peachtree was primarily a residential drag served by streetcars pulled by horses (and later mules). It was lined with gas lamps and grand residences occupied first by genuine urban pioneers and, later, Atlanta's high society. Prior to the 1870s, the area above what is now North Avenue was largely virgin forest, followed by farmland, a wagon yard, the occasional house, and woods until you reached the village of Buckhead. In the decades that followed, people started moving away from downtown and north along the street, or out to the suburbs of the time: Druid Hills, Inman Park, and other communities now considered intown.
Between 1870 and 1921, the governor's mansion was located on the street. The Peachtree Arcade, the city's first enclosed mall, entranced visitors with three floors of shopping under glass windows. The street had an opera house that later became the Loew's Grand Theatre, where "Gone With the Wind" premiered.
The "Tight Squeeze" area along Peachtree near 10th Street, where hippies bought dope, protested, and bought copies of the Great Speckled Bird, was a required stop for country kids who moved to the city in the 1960s and '70s. A few miles up the street in Buckhead, an easy ride on the Atlanta Transit Company's No. 23 bus, you could nurse a beer, peruse records at Jim Salle's Record Shop, or watch white kids settle schoolhouse rivalries with fistfights at the Zesto.
Demolition and rebuilding has always been a part of Peachtree's DNA. Stately homes that Atlanta historian and Peachtree Street, Atlanta author William Bailey Williford said "fell victim to progress" were ultimately replaced by some of the tallest skyscrapers in the Southeast, creating a long, narrow skyline. Some of the country's most powerful companies and law firms moved in. The Peachtree Arcade was knocked down to build what became the 44-story State of Georgia building. Starting in the '60s and '70s, architect and developer John Portman helped both create Atlanta's skyline and kill its street life with inward-looking hotels and developments concentrated in downtown. We were blessed with parking lots. From downtown to Buckhead, skyscrapers including the Equitable Building, One Atlantic Center, and the Bank of America Plaza were built throughout the late 20th century, creating a canyon of towers with gaps in between. Buckhead followed suit with high-rise condos and office buildings, creating another cluster of skyline.
Today, Peachtree is a "once-remarkable street that's nearly lost all its character," says Neill Herring, an environmental lobbyist who moved to Atlanta in the late '60s.
There have been efforts over the years to nurture the street life that's slowly returning to Atlanta's main thoroughfare. The city and private sector's $1.1 billion plan to line Peachtree with transit, bike lanes, new parks, and more mixed-use development, which unveiled before the economy crashed, has taken a backseat to more focused efforts such as the downtown streetcar. Midtown, where a community vision of high-rises on top of retail, the kind of development you see in real cities and was the norm when downtown formed in the 1800s, is taking shape. Downtown wouldn't have a pulse without the continuing growth of Georgia State University. Buckhead's once-vibrant nightlife scene is gone, but the neighborhood continues to thrive.
Peachtree's identity today remains a mishmash of stories and a showcase of Atlanta's highs and lows and the gray area in between. CL Photo Editor Joeff Davis spent a week on the street and inside its buildings documenting its place in the city.
Traffic, wigs, guns, and history on Atlanta's most famous street?