In 1969, a group of Atlanta businesspeople decided to create an underground entertainment complex of restaurants, shops, and bars in the historic hub of the city, centered on the Zero Milepost that marked the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad in the 1800s. The area had flourished until the early 1900s, until it became so congested that permanent concrete viaducts were constructed over it, elevating the street system and routing traffic over a maze of railroad tracks. Merchants moved their operations up to the new level, using the lower level for storage space. For most of the 20th century, it remained a deserted catacomb.
The 1969 entertainment development idea was great, but unfortunately the complex declined and closed after a little more than a decade. In 1989 -- after a public-private infusion of $142 million -- a larger, livelier Underground reopened to much fanfare, becoming once again an entertainment mecca and urban marketplace. Local civic leaders pinned their hopes for downtown revival on the complex, and for some time it looked as if the concept would work. But, beset by lease disputes, financial problems, and changes of management, Underground has failed to sustain its early promise, and its most recent management company struggles to overcome the complex's seedy reputation.
Occupying 12 acres in the center of downtown, Underground Atlanta sports oscillating searchlights emanating from a 138-foot light tower, an outdoor staging area used for performances and concerts, and the cascading waters of Peachtree Fountain Plaza. Underground comprises about 75 retail operations and restaurants, many of them national chains. Markers throughout the complex indicate historic sites. Their origins are fascinating, so be sure to pick up an information sheet at the visitor booth and take your own self-guided tour. Humbug Square -- where street vendors and con artists flourished in the early 1900s -- has a colorful market with turn-of-the-20th-century pushcarts and wagons displaying offbeat wares. The complex is still worth a look if you're in the downtown area, but keep in mind that it's mostly a tourist attraction at this point. It's still struggling to find its place in the urban mix, perhaps because locals prefer the shopping and entertainment areas in Buckhead and Virginia-Highland.
The Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 404/222-6688) operates its most comprehensive center in Underground Atlanta, at 65 Upper Alabama St. Open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm, Sunday from noon to 6pm, it includes displays and interactive exhibits depicting the city's rich history. There's also AtlanTIX!, a ticket booth where visitors can purchase day-of-show, half-price tickets to theater, dance, and other live performances throughout the metro area.