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Downtown's Nucleus, Centennial, Wasn't Always a Park

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In this series, Adventures In Mapping, we dig through historic Sanborn fire maps of the city — drawn between 1886 and 1922 — to uncover secrets behind some of Atlanta's most prominent places. Comparing relatively ancient maps to those of today, we'll see just how much neighborhoods have changed and trace the rise and demise of buildings and streets as we go. Along the way, we'll point out quirky aspects of the city's evolution and highlight not only what we've lost through the years, but what we've managed to save and gain. In honor of the 19th anniversary of the Olympics in Atlanta, let's have a look back at the area now known as Centennial Olympic Park.

Today, Centennial Olympic Park is unrivaled as the cultural tourist hub of the city. Surrounded by the World of Coca-Cola, Georgia Aquarium, College Football Hall of Fame, National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Atlanta Children's Museum, the Tabernacle, SkyView Atlanta and the CNN Center, it's a magnet for visitors seeking some of the city's biggest attractions.

And it's not just tourists, as locals come out to participate in ice skating in the winter, concerts on the lawn and other civic-scaled events throughout the year. Not to mention all that splashing around.

While we prepare to abandon the Olympic Stadium next year, and other venues are but a distant memory, Centennial Olympic Park stands as the most successful souvenir of the city's Olympic Games. Not only has it survived, it's been central to the rejuvenation of a large swath of downtown. And with a planned expansion in the pipeline (maybe), the park could see a dramatic renewal in coming years.

But for those new to the city, or those too young to remember, it's probably surprising to think that 20 years ago, none of what we know as the park was there. And likely never would have been if it weren't for the Olympics ...

Way back in the 1850s, when Atlanta was no more than a railroad town of a few thousand people, the land that would become Centennial Olympic Park sat at the outskirts of the city. While the roads had been platted — with the distinctive crashing-grids caused by the railroad lines — the outlying location of the future park, almost 3/4-miles from the train sheds at the heart of Atlanta, meant there wasn't too much going on in this part of town.

Just 20 years after the Civil War, Atlanta was booming. With a population around 50,000, construction on the State Capitol was under way. The city had yet to build its first skyscraper — the Equitable Building — but growth had crept westward along the railway to the area of Centennial Olympic Park. In 1886, the year of Henry Grady's "The New South" Speech, Coca-Cola was invented and the park looked something like this...

By 1892, Atlanta's low-slung downtown had begun to grow both up and out. The Equitable Building was constructed and industrial development had grown substantially along Marietta Street, stretching all the way to the area that would become Centennial Olympic Park. The map shows wooden residences filling the southern blocks of what would become the park, and an aerial view drawn in the same year shows houses reaching out in every direction from the heart of the city.

Nearing the turn of the century, the first complete Sanborn Map of the park area appears. Between 1892 and 1899, Atlanta's profile rose as it played host to the Cotton States Exposition in 1895. With the spike in notoriety and commerce, the population exploded, nearing 90,000 in the city and 420,000 in the metro area. At the park site, homes had filled every available lot northward to Baker Street, while the industrial warehouses loomed large over the southern tip of the site.

On the final Sanborn Map produced of the area in 1911, the northern portion of the site is still dominated by residential. But as Atlanta became the powerhouse of industry in the region, warehouses and other industrial spaces ate into the neighborhood. In true Atlanta fashion, by this time, West Harris Street is reincarnated with three names within three blocks, starting as Foundry Street at the railroad tracks, becoming Tabernacle Place in the block next to a Baptist Tabernacle (but not the Tabernacle) and finally becoming Harris after crossing Luckie Street. So it's nice to know we've come by the whole illogical street-names thing honestly.

Following World War I, things began to quickly change in the neighborhood. Urban density crept across the city, with the blocks south of Cain Street — part of present-day Andrew Young International Boulevard — filling in with buildings. Sometime after the 1911 map, Orme Street became Techwood Drive, in homage to Georgia Tech — then known as the Georgia School of Technology — just up the road. An aerial photo from 1933 shows the divide along Cain Street.

Like other American cities, post-World War Atlanta experienced a population shift. With the rise of cars and affordable suburban housing, many Atlantans abandoned intown neighborhoods. A photo from 1969 shows that parking lots and industrial spaces finally spread northward to Baker Street, swallowing most of the residential neighborhood that had persisted for more than 60 years.

The 1970s were particularly cruel to this side of town. While high-rises like the Westin grew along Peachtree Street, and the Georgia World Congress Center and CNN Center were built south of Marietta Street, seas of parking lots had taken over the area to the east of present-day Centennial Olympic Park.

Within the bounds of the park, things weren't going a whole lot better either ...

The 1980s brought what can earnestly be called rock bottom. In a recent article, Maria Saporta described the area as "one of the least attractive spots in downtown Atlanta." Even still, some visionaries began to see that the area had potential — or that cheap land was too good of a value to pass up. In 1985, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce set up shop in a building in the heart of the industrial wasteland. Surrounded by parking lots and abandoned buildings, the Olympic fervor had yet to reach the site by 1993 ...

As the Olympics drew closer, head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Billy Payne recommended that the city create a large gathering space in downtown that would serve as a central gathering space during the games and leave a lasting legacy for Atlantans to enjoy. In 1994, it was decided that the derelict, abandoned industrial neighborhood just north of the railroad tracks would serve as the perfect place for a park; after all, there wasn't much there to miss. And so the fate was sealed. San Francisco-based design firm EDAW took on the challenge, transforming expanses of pavement and rundown buildings into a gathering place for the world.

The success of the park — as a vestige of the global gathering that changed the city — is visible in the neighborhood that has grown up around it today. As the city prepares to celebrate the anniversary of the event that put the transformation in motion, it's nice to look back and gauge how far this pocket of downtown has come.

Tune in to WABE 90.1 tomorrow (Friday, July 31) at 10 a.m. for a special segment following up on this article.

· Sanborn fire maps [Digital Library of Georgia]
· Should ATL Chamber of Commerce Sell Park-Side Locale? [Curbed Atlanta]
· State Sees Green in Centennial Olympic Park Expansion [Curbed Atlanta]
· Old Maps Reveal Compelling History Around Woodruff Park [Curbed Atlanta]
· Atlanta's First Apartments are Hiding in Plain Sight [Curbed Atlanta]

Centennial Olympic Park

285 International Boulevard NW, Atlanta, GA 30313 404 223 4412 Visit Website

Georgia Aquarium

225 Baker Street Northwest, , GA 30313 (404) 581-4000 Visit Website