March 2015: 1990s Atlanta: A city in the making

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When I graduated from college in 1991, it felt like half of the guys I knew growing up were moving to Atlanta. We were from a small town in upstate New York, and back then, before Al Gore invented the Internet, reports of life in Atlanta trickled up through limited filters: from newspaper stories about the mad preparations for the Olympics, from the ubiquitous Braves games on TBS, but mostly from friends themselves, who would visit home at Christmas, like evangelizers anointed by the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re out in Buckhead every weekend,” they’d say. “You have to see it to believe it.”

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

At this point I should probably add that timing was never my strong suit. I didn’t appreciate Nirvana until after Kurt Cobain died. I didn’t discover Roth IRAs until my 30s. And I didn’t move to Atlanta until the fall of 2000, as the dot-com bubble was deflating, the Florida presidential recount was dividing the nation, and Ted Turner’s disastrous merger with Time Warner had demoted Atlanta’s best emissary. The Olympics, just four years earlier, already felt like ancient history, even though the city itself still seemed full of promise. Atlanta was like that child actor from 1999’s The Sixth Sense: You played the role of a lifetime, and you’re only 11? Good luck.

Today we’re more than 15 years out from the end of the 1990s. Enough time has passed to permit some perspective on the decade that changed so much about Atlanta. If the early 2000s were spent lamenting what had come (and gone), the years since have seen Atlantans defining their city not on the world’s terms, but on our own. I could be projecting, I could be overreaching, I could be crazy, but Atlanta in 2015 seems more comfortable in its own skin. Not content, maybe, but confident.

So when we decided to devote 20 pages to the 1990s, we wanted to be clear-eyed and not wistful (well, maybe a little wistful) about the decade. And we wanted to show, in ways both subtle and obvious, how those years shaped the city we are today. Since I never stepped foot in Atlanta once during the 1990s, this package was overseen by someone who was here for all of it—Rebecca Burns, our deputy editor and resident historian. She’s also a completist by nature, so as we were wrapping up the issue, she was assessing its worth more by what it left out than what it included. So, in honor of her, here are some things you won’t see mentioned in this package: Burrito Art, Angela Bowie, flower pot sandwiches at Good Ol’ Days, and tankinis. Rebecca sends her regrets.

BeltLine, ho!
BeltLine, ho!

Photograph by Rebecca Burns

Taking it to the streets
“Too myopic” is how one reader reacted to my February editor’s note, in which I questioned the timing (and expense) of Atlanta’s streetcar against the larger context of the region’s transit woes. “The streetcar is but the first leg that sets the base for its expansion when the BeltLine comes along,” the reader wrote. Indeed, at his State of the City speech on February 4, Mayor Kasim Reed expressed plans to connect the streetcar to the BeltLine. Other readers shared my skepticism, though. “I rode it for the novelty,” wrote one reader, “and it epitomized what’s wrong with transport policy in Atlanta: ill-conceived, inefficient, and ineffective.” Another said the streetcar, instead of contributing to the efficiency of Atlanta transportation, is a “dangerous, bulky hindrance we could have done without.” I wrote back to say that I’m still rooting for the streetcar, and I hope my predictions are proved wrong.

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.

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