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Visitors considering including Underground Atlanta in their Atlanta itinerary should definitely check out the reviews on TripAdvisor for Underground to get a full range of opinions. In particular, those with an interest in architectural history, urban design and sociology, railroad history, etc. may decide that a visit is worthwhile, despite the drawbacks. Those just looking for a fun place to hang out, eat, drink, and shop, however, may want to look elsewhere.
Underground Atlanta covers the oldest, and in many ways most historic, part of downtown Atlanta. Atlanta's birth as a railroad terminus occurred here, and the central business district grew up around the rail lines and depots clustered in this area. As the area grew and developed, separating the rail lines from pedestrian and car traffic became necessary, and viaducts were built over the rail lines, essentially raising the street level one story and leaving the original ground floors of many buildings inaccessible from the sidewalks and streets one level up. For a half-century, the lower level was essentially abandoned, or used only for service and storage.
In the late 1960s, Atlanta's civic leaders recognized the cultural, architectural, and historic value of the area, and began planning a shopping and entertainment district located there. For a few years in the early 1970s, Underground Atlanta was the place to be for dining and entertainment in the downtown area. After only a few years, however, traffic fell off, venues closed, crime rose, and eventually the construction of the MARTA rail lines led to the destruction of several businesses, and the complete closure of Underground Atlanta in 1980.
Underground remained a fond memory for many Atlantans and tourists, however, and almost as soon as the lights were off there were various proposals to bring it back in a bigger and better version. Mayor Andrew Young made reopening Underground Atlanta a priority, and eventually the city provided some bond financing to help Rouse Company, a mall developer best know at the time for revitalizing the Harborplace development in Baltimore, with its $142 million renovation of Underground Atlanta.
The "new" Underground Atlanta opened in June 1989 and drew respectable crowds for several years, but has been in slow decline almost since its reopening. The Atlanta Olympics in 1996 gave the area an upward bump, prolonging its viability. For at least a decade after the reopening there were several restaurants that drew in both tourists and Atlantans alike. Since about 2000, however, these have all shut their doors; the few new businesses that have moved in to replace them have typically been much more downmarket. The bars/entertainment venues that skewed toward a general tourist market in the 1990s have been replaced by more urban-oriented dance clubs in the current decade. For several years now, Underground Atlanta has been essentially a dimly-lit, subterranean version of a failing suburban mall, with struggling local businesses and a handful of cheaper franchises
Coca-Cola's decision to close its original World of Coca-Cola museum, located just outside the east end of Underground, and to move it several blocks west and north to the Centennial Olympic Park area, knocked another leg out from under the complex, and may ultimately prove to have been the fatal blow, though for now Underground lingers on. The City of Atlanta has tried various schemes to at least stop the decline -- extending closing time for bars to 4 a.m., allowing patrons to carry open drinks from bar to bar -- without much success.
The above-ground areas near Underground Atlanta have suffered an even greater decline in recent years. Panhandlers and the homeless have always been a presence in the area, but the vicinity of Five Points MARTA station has become profoundly unpleasant, contributing to keeping both tourists and locals away from Underground. There's at least a perception that the area is unsafe, though actual incidents of random violence against tourists are comparatively uncommon. Aggressive panhandling, unfortunately, is not. The perception of danger that suffuses the Five Points/Underground area also taints the rest of the downtown Atlanta area, much of which is comparatively clean and safe.