As a poet and novelist, I am often asked by writers and publishers to “blurb” a book, which means to write a short endorsement that will appear on the back cover. I have written many, but never in my capacity as editor of Atlanta INtown. So, I was quite tickled when Jeffrey Morrison reached out to me about writing a blurb for his book “Atlanta Underground: History From Below,” which is out now in hardcover from Globe Pequot Press.
The blurb reads: Jeffrey Morrison descends into the buried and nearly-forgotten heart of Atlanta with a meticulously researched and fast-paced historical narrative coupled with stunning, noirish photographs and archival images that illuminate a city in flux. Atlanta has famously demolished some of its most historic buildings as it aggressively strives to be a modern, international city. As this underworld vanishes in the name of progress, “Atlanta Underground” is a must-read for history buffs, city planners and guardians of history now and in the future.
If you only think of shops, restaurants, The Masquerade and the Peach Drop when someone mentions Underground Atlanta, then let Morrison take you to somewhere you’ve likely never been in the heart of Downtown.
The area in question is The Gulch, a warren of below level parking lots, train tracks, tunnels and streets that date back from the city’s earliest beginnings. This area has been in the news a lot lately, including these pages, as it barrels toward transformation into a massive mixed-use project called Centennial Yards. Many might not know that “Underground Atlanta” also stretches east all the way back to Georgia State University and that remnants of the old Omni Coliseum are still down there, too.
If you’ve ever parked in The Gulch for an event at State Farm Arena or Mercedes Benz-Stadium, then you’ve caught a glimpse of the underworld beneath Atlanta, but Morrison has been leading tours there for more than a decade and his personal fascination became the genesis of “Atlanta Underground.”
Morrison got the idea for the tours from a prompt in the old DIY magazine, ReadyMade. The prompt was to “lead a tour of somewhere you know well.” As an architect and advocate for preservation, Morrison had been exploring and photographing The Gulch and its environs since the 1990s. He started leading lunchtime walks for his fellow architects, but word spread of the “Unseen Underground” tours and they grew quickly to become anticipated public events in the Spring and Fall. His tours have been since been included in the annual Phoenix Flies celebration hosted by the Atlanta Preservation Center and he’s also given tours for Central Atlanta Progress. His last “Underground Tour” in October attracted 75 people and his upcoming tour in March is sure to be even more popular thanks to the book. You can check out the Unseen Underground Walking Tours page on Facebook or AtlantaFromBelow.com for more details on the upcoming tour.
Morrison originally thought of self-publishing a coffee table-style book of his photographs with short captions. But after his walking tours started to get buzz in the media, Globe Pequot Press reached out to him. The resulting book features 60 of Morrison’s photographs and a more complete history of Underground that took months of research to complete.
The photographs showcase the forgotten roadways, tunnels and monumental concrete structures – including a great staircase that is actually an emergency exit from the World Congress Center – that symbolizes this dark beauty of what lies below. But this underground is constantly in flux.
“From one month to the next, things change down there,” Morrison said. “Stadiums come and go, arenas come and go, bridges come and go.”
Morrison laments the 2018 demolition of the decaying Interlocking Tower, the last remnant of the grand old Terminal Station that disappeared in 1971 to make room for the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, and the removal of the original Zero Mile Post – that marked the city’s beginnings as a railroad hub in 1842 – to the Atlanta History Center. A replica of the post is now in place, but Morrison said it doesn’t have the same historic look or feel.
If the Centennial Yards project goes off as planned with the buildings sitting atop a giant podium to leave room for parking and the railroad tracks, it will create even more underground to explore, Morrison said.
He’s also excited that the former Norfolk Southern headquarters on the edge of The Gulch is being renovated into homes, shops and restaurants. “The reopening of the old Nelson Street pedestrian bridge that runs between the buildings would reconnect Downtown to Castleberry Hill, and that would be amazing for the neighborhood.”
Morrison is also still hopeful that high-speed commuter trains might one day make The Gulch their hub, which has been on the drawing board for decades. How the Centennial Yards project will affect that is still unknown. “They should leave room underneath Centennial Yards for those tracks to thread through. The city and state need to advocate for it.”
And if that happens, it means Morrison’s underground will change once again.
Jeffrey Morrison will sign copies of “Atlanta Underground” on Saturday, Dec. 21, from 1-3 p.m. at Posman Books at Ponce City Market.