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BUSINESS & PLEASURE - Atlanta pulls together the new and old South. + By Robin Tatu

Atlanta’s downtown shimmers with modernity: soaring glass towers, an Olympic-size urban park, and the world’s largest aquarium, not to mention the Georgia World Congress convention center and a silver-haired Anderson Cooper gazing intently from an enormous billboard in the center of the hotel district. Hip cafes and restaurants share the famous Peachtree Street with the magnificent High Museum of Art. Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and Emory, Spellman, and Morehouse are all located in Atlanta. Home to headquarters of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Delta Airlines, plus CNN, this is a city that means business.

Modern, yes, but pause a little and the city’s eventful past begins to emerge, from mid-19th-century railway beginnings to the infamous burning by Sherman, the Martin Luther King family and early civil rights leadership, and the 1996 Olympics. And don’t forget the inimitable Margaret Mitchell, who created Scarlett and Rhett against a backdrop of war-scorched Atlanta. There’s a good deal to explore. So frankly, my dear – we hope you’ll join us there for the 120th annual ASEE Convention and Exposition, on June 23-26, 2013. In the pages that follow, we’ll discuss some of what makes Atlanta unique and then provide an overview of things to do while you’re in town.

The city’s layout spirals out from Downtown to other distinctive neighborhoods, following the historic development of the early railroad town. The center for action for conference attendees will be the convention center and hotels, so it’s tempting to simply enjoy the riches at hand. But there’s more to discover in nearby Midtown and Buckhead to the north, and in East Atlanta, with its Virginia-Highland and Sweet Auburn neighborhoods. This isn’t an easy walking town, however, and in some areas you’ll need to stay alert for safety. Consider taking a cab for a $10 flat rate anywhere in the city. And remember, while Peachtree Street is a main thoroughfare through town, more than 70 streets, avenues, lanes, and drives use some form of this classic Georgia name.


Atlanta Downtown Skyline
Photographs © 2013 AtlantaPhotos

Railway Roots

An old joke holds that, whether bound for heaven or hell, you’re certain to transit the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Atlanta’s vast air terminal snagged the title of busiest in the world back in 1998 and has yet to relinquish it, supporting some 92 million passengers and nearly 1 million flights each year. Transportation has defined Atlanta, past and present, but it wasn’t air travel that kicked things off – it was the railroads.

Unlike other areas of Georgia, the gentle granite slopes upon which the current city rests were too far inland from the sea and too distant from key rivers to attract early western settlement – even Cherokee and Creek tribes merely traversed the rough land bordering the Chattahoochee River. Only in 1837, after rail engineers selected the spot as endpoint of Georgia’s fledgling Western and Atlantic Railroad, did a town emerge. Fittingly called “Terminus,” the new settlement opened connections to points north – and birthed a center of Southern commerce. You can still find the zero milepost of the W&A preserved at the Georgia State University Security Office, on Central Avenue, Downtown.

Having established the town, the rail engineers were determined to name it: though Terminus officially became Marthasville in 1842 to honor the governor’s daughter, Chief Engineer John Thomson preferred the moniker “Atlanta,” and championed his choice by featuring it on all the railway circulars. Three years later the state legislature gave in, officially abandoning Marthasville for the more popular rail name.

When in 1864 Sherman ordered the Union Army to burn Atlanta, he dealt a crippling blow to the South’s economy. In the two decades since its inception, the city had become a thriving business and transportation hub – and a major site for wartime production: Pistols, swords, canteens, saddles, shoes, and other military equipment were all produced here. Business had boomed, and the population rose from some 9,000 to 22,000 in four years. Most significant, Atlanta supported only one of two iron mills producing rail irons for the South, as well as cannons and sheeting for its iron-clad warships. Destroy the mill and burn the rails, Sherman knew, and the Confederacy would crumble. During the months-long siege, all residents were removed and military installations, factories, most businesses, and many private homes were torched, leaving the city in cinders.

Margaret Mitchell captured a romanticized Southern view of these years, and the 990 Peachtree Street apartment in which the Atlanta journalist penned Gone With the Wind has became part of a commemorative museum, the Margaret Mitchell House, with guided tours. Civil War buffs also may be interested in a depiction of the July 1864 Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum. A historical artifact itself, this enormous cylindrical panorama was painted in 1885, with an accompanying diorama of soldier figurines added in 1936. For history with greater depth – and likely more artillery and big guns than you’ve ever seen – visit the Atlanta History Museum in Buckhead. The museum’s other exhibits explore Georgia’s Native American history and the Trail of Tears, local folk crafts, the 1996 Olympics, and hometown golf legend Bobby Jones.


From Left: Fox Marquee, World of Coca-Cola, and Hartsfield-Jackson Airport
Photographs © 2013 AtlantaPhotos

Back From Ashes

The rising phoenix is a fitting symbol for Atlanta’s seal, as the city came back strong within years of its destruction, adding 10 more rail lines to the existing five, and by 1868, becoming Georgia’s state capitol. By the turn of the century, population had reached nearly 90,000, including more than 35,000 African Americans.

Emphasis on modernity, commerce, and a “New South,” was coupled with a push for education. Construction of Georgia Tech’s iconic red brick Tech Tower began and the school opened in 1888 to offer a single degree in mechanical engineering. George State University also began with a focus on mining engineering before switching to “the new science of business.” In nearby Decatur, the Agnes Scott College women’s seminary became the first Atlanta institution to gain regional accreditation.

Emory moved to Atlanta in 1915 and became a university, thanks to a generous land grant from Asa Candler, the powerful president of the local-based Coca Cola company. More than half a century later, Coke again boosted the school’s fortunes, when Atlanta-born engineer George Woodruff donated $105 million in Coke stock.

Efforts to advance education for African-Americans also began early. A year after the war, the city council opened a school for black children, and the Atlanta University was chartered to teach freed slaves to read and write. It would go on to become an important teacher training school and see W.E.B. DuBois join its history and economics faculty. Other black colleges also located in the city: Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), Morehouse College for men – alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. and filmmaker Spike Lee – and its counterpart for women, Spelman College.

Clockwise From Top Left: Georgia Aquarium, MLK Day March,
High Museum of Art, Atlanta History Center - Swan House
Photographs © 2013 AtlantaPhotos

Inspiring a Dream

The postwar African-American community that developed in parallel with the white one was educated and business oriented, managing to prosper despite decades of segregation and a burst of antiblack violence in 1906. Nicknamed the Black Mecca, Atlanta was home to some of the nation’s most influential civil rights activists, including DuBois, King, Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, and Andrew Young. Yet, quite notably, the city avoided the racial violence that ripped through many U.S. towns and cities in the 1960s. Today, King’s childhood neighborhood, Sweet Auburn, has been designated a historic district. Visitors can view the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King, his father, and his grandfather all served as ministers. To get a flavor of the congregation, join a Sunday service, held across the street at the new EBC. The National Park Service operates the Martin Luther King, Jr. Visitor Center, with exhibits and a film on King’s life and the civil rights movement, while the King Center celebrates nonviolence movements. Also of interest: the APEX (African American Panoramic Experience) Museum, which chronicles the story of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.


It’s the Real Thing

Some of Atlanta’s more recent past can be gleaned simply by taking in the sights in Downtown’s tourist district. The World of Coca-Cola provides a bubbly narrative about the origins and expansion of the famous beverage, first served at Atlanta’s Jacobs Pharmacy in 1886. While strongly commercial, the tour is hard to resist, with a walk through “the vault of the secret formula,” a 3-D movie with vibrating seats, and a fountain machine dispensing over 100 different brand drinks. The Inside CNN Studio Tour, located within the Omni CNN Center, fast-forwards past the story of media mogul Ted Turner’s early work with Atlanta television to the 1980 creation of the first 24/7 news network. Visitors watch newscasters, writers, and technicians at work behind the scenes and can test out some technical aspects of broadcasting, like the use of chroma key compositing for weather forecasts.

When Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and Hawks the following year, he ensured that both baseball and basketball teams would remain in town. But this past year, the Falcons dominated sports news by claiming first place in the NFC South before advancing to the 2012 playoffs.

Just beyond the conference center and hotels is the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park, originally built for the 1996 Summer Games. The park offers a terrific outdoor venue of garden pathways, sloping lawns, fountains, and streams. Check out summer concerts and programs, and cool off at the commemorative Fountain of Rings amid the jetting sprays of water, lit in colors and accompanied by music in the evenings. On the north end of the park is the massive Georgia Aquarium, which boasts 60 different exhibits, 10 million gallons of water, and thousands of land and aquatic animals.

Atlanta was hit hard by the 2008-9 economic downturn, but as in the past, the city is proving resilient, aided by its growing role as an engineering and research powerhouse. This past year, Georgia Tech was named a network node for the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, which encourages the translation of laboratory breakthroughs into commercial ventures. Additional enterprise is forming around Tech’s and Emory’s joint biomedical engineering program and its cutting-edge progress on neuroengineering and regenerative medicine.

Food Matters

If you prefer to stay close to the conference, you’ll still have a number of good choices for dining, from upscale restaurants like the Omni Hotel’s Prime Meridian to the CNN Center food court with quick eats and coffee, as well as two lively sports bars. Just up Spring Street is the Varsity, touted as the world’s largest drive-in, with hearty chili cheese dogs, onion rings, and fried pies. Or head down Lukie Street to try a bison burger at Ted’s Montana Grill.

Beyond Downtown, venture to Midtown, known for its arts scene and established LGBT community, with cafes, coffeehouses, and clubs. Here you’ll also find the opulent Fox Theatre, a historic movie palace that today serves as a venue for performing arts shows. The Margaret Mitchell House and the High Museum, with the largest art collection in the South, are also here, as well as the expansive Piedmont Park and botanical gardens. East of Midtown, Bacchanalia restaurant is consistently rated top in the city. For those on more of a budget and seeking outdoor fun, the Atlanta Food Truck Park with its multiple vendors and music groups is the place to head. Virginia-Highland is another good bet for restaurants, a fun neighborhood that invites strolling and browsing.

Getting Around

Several hotels run free services from the airport. A paid shuttle service is also available, while a metered airport cab ride will cost around $40. The MARTA rail runs $10 and gets you within a few blocks of most hotels. You can buy a multiple-day MARTA pass, but its reach within the city is surprisingly limited, so you’ll most likely choose to walk, take a bus, or call a cab. Parking in the hotel district can be expensive, with hotels charging as much as $30 a night. The nearby Convention Center is $10 per day, though less secure and a bit of a hike. Taxis are readily available at the hotels, but carry the number of a cab company, as you’ll probably need to call on a return trip.

Zombies, Sharks, and Jefferson Davis

With so many attractions, Atlanta is a great destination for the family. Brave the summer heat to walk or jog the Centennial Park or sprawl upon the lawns to enjoy an evening concert. On either end of the park find the Coca-Cola Tour and Georgia Aquarium. The nearby children’s museum is best for younger kids, but teens and adults will be riveted by the information-packed CNN tour. Zombie fans will appreciate the undead emphasis of Atlanta Movie Tours, which visits Downtown filming sites of The Walking Dead and Vampire Diaries TV series, as well as other more genteel Atlanta-based films, like Driving Miss Daisy. Everyone will thrill to the airy canopy walk of the Atlanta Botanical Park, which suspends visitors 40 feet up for a bird’s eye view of the gardens below. Further out are the Fernbank Museum for Natural History, the Fernbank Science Center, and everyone’s favorite, Six Flags Over Georgia, with its astounding collection of thrill rides. Stone Mountain Park offers hikes, picnics, and a cable car ride for a close-up gaze at Confederate leaders Davis, Lee, and Jackson, carved in massive bas-relief on the side of the mountain.


Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.


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