Will a mural transform the scary Boulevard Tunnel?

Not on its own. But it will be a big step in the right direction for improving walkability in Cabbagetown and Old Fourth Ward.

When I moved to Cabbagetown a couple of years ago, I quickly learned what it means to be “on the other side of the tracks.” Literally. For those of us who live south of the CSX and MARTA rail lines that slice through the heart of intown Atlanta, getting around can be problematic.

There are two main ways to reach Cabbagetown from Downtown: the Krog Street Tunnel or the Boulevard Tunnel. Most of you know the Krog Tunnel; it’s famous for graffiti and serving as a kind of public bulletin board, with hand-painted signage for festivals, concerts, and, at least once, a marriage proposal. Taking your picture at the Krog Tunnel is now a cliché: my husband and I walk by the tunnel several times a week and invariably see bands shooting publicity stills and SCAD students working on assignments. A surprising number of families have their portraits taken at the tunnel. The tunnel is going to be featured in an upcoming television adaptation of the comic book Constantine and it was the inspiration for an original Atlanta Symphony Orchestra composition.

The Boulevard Tunnel, on the other hand, is downright scary. Sure, there’s graffiti—of the gang-tagging variety. The lights are dim. While the Krog Tunnel is busily trafficked by pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional urban horseman, the Boulevard Tunnel gets the most use as a public restroom. Stairwells on either side of the tunnel lead up to DeKalb Avenue. Hidden from public view, the staircases evidently are a great spot to relieve oneself, or engage in a little self-medication. The stairs are littered with food and feces. The entire tunnel reeks of urine.

Thousands of commuters drive through the tunnel every day, but this is not a place that draws foot traffic.There are no weekend tourists, aspiring photographers, or musicians. Even those of us who live in the area avoid walking here. Because of the way the stairs are constructed, as you enter the tunnel, it’s impossible to look ahead and know if anyone is in the stairwell or not.

My husband and I walk a lot; it’s one reason we chose to live in Cabbagetown. And occasionally, we do walk through the Boulevard Tunnel; which is the most convenient way to walk Downtown or to Truly Living Well urban farm, the restaurants and bars on Edgewood Avenue, or the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.

Walking through the tunnel, we’ve seen a guy sitting in the stairwell smoking crack. We’ve stepped over a discarded syringe. On a recent Friday morning, we walked past a discarded shoe, two insoles, a pair of pants, a half-dozen empty Stryrofoam containers, several paper cups, a pair of underpants, something that appeared to be an old sock, a couple of lighters, cigarette packs, and yards and yards of soiled toilet paper.

My neighbor, Nicole Braxley, also likes to walk. Unlike me, she decided to do something about the tunnel rather than just complain. About a year ago, she launched the Boulevard Tunnel Initiative and enlisted help from volunteers, city officials, and community groups. The guardrails in the tunnel were repaired and, where, missing, replaced. The lighting was improved. There have been community clean-up projects and efforts to cover the graffiti. All good. But within days of every clean-up project, the stairwells have filled up with trash and the walls are tagged again.

Next week, the Boulevard Tunnel Initiative kicks into much higher gear. Living Walls will be painting a mural in the tunnel, and is covering the roughly $10,000 it costs to bring in the artist, buy supplies, and organize the volunteer painting crew. The mural project will take from April 16 to April 26, during which there will be a number of events and fundraisers. In preparation, there is a big clean-up in the tunnel tomorrow.

In addition, a security camera connected to the Atlanta Police Department’s monitoring system will be installed in at least one stairwell, with the estimated $10,500 expense covered by fundraisers, a Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) grant, and donations from the Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association and Tom Aderhold, developer of the former Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill loft complex. (Disclosure, I live in that development, as does Braxley.)

Why has the Boulevard Tunnel languished while Krog flourished? Partly it’s a matter of location. The tunnel is right on the edge of NPU-N, at the border of Cabbagetown’s boundaries, right between two city council districts that had their lines redrawn relatively recently. The tunnel is crossed by two bridges, one is the CSX line and the other is DeKalb Avenue. Those nasty stairwells are located between the two bridges. “No one wants to claim the stairs,” says Braxley, explaining that simply locating the right power source for the security camera proved to be a drawn-out process.

“It is a bit of a betwixt and between,” says Jonathan Miller, chair of NPU-N. “It is literally on the edge of the NPU, and there hasn’t been much attention to it. People didn’t live there until relatively recently.”

Now, in addition to the roughly 700 residents of the cotton mill complex, there are apartments on Edgewood Avenue and Decatur Street, and crowds at the businesses in the Old Fourth Ward. Having the tunnel cleaner, safer, and more pedestrian friendly would be a boon to the Atlanta Streetcar, which will have a stop just a few blocks away.

Natalyn Archibong, who represents Atlanta City Council District 5, in which the tunnel is located, says, “continual advocacy from the community has been helpful in spotlighting the problem,” and credits Braxley for making the tunnel more of a priority. “There are a lot of issues on the city’s plate, a lot of concerns. It wasn’t something that doesn’t deserve concern, but the community needed to bring it to the forefront,” she says. Archibong introduced the legislation needed for the mural to be approved and has been working with the Boulevard Tunnel Initiative on the security camera project.

Will a mural and one camera make that much difference? Archibong says that what will most contribute to the tunnel’s transformation is traffic—other than the dubious activities in the stairwells. “We need as many pedestrians as we can get,” she says.

Braxley is even more pragmatic. “We can’t take away the trash and the drug deals. A mural is not going to make the stairwells go away. But if more people walk through the tunnel it will negate some of the bad stuff. It will make a difference.”

And she’s right about that. In the mid 1990s, when I was a stay-at-home mom living in Decatur, I took my daughter and her preschool friends to Zoo Atlanta at least once a week. The fastest way to get there was going through the Krog Tunnel, which back then had no lights and was spattered with gang graffiti. As we turned onto Krog, the kids in the backseat of my car would shriek in mock terror: “The scary tunnel! The scary tunnel!” They continued to shriek as we made our way through Cabbagetown and past the still abandoned cotton mill. Back then, I would never have predicted that one day I would be living in the old factory. And I would have considered it even less likely that the Krog Tunnel would become a tourist destination.