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Downtown after dark 

The historic neighborhood doesn't need warnings for people to stay away - just more people

NO MAN'S LAND: Walking through Downtown late at night doesn't feel dangerous as much as lonely

Dustin Chambers

NO MAN'S LAND: Walking through Downtown late at night doesn't feel dangerous as much as lonely

It's like that friend. The one you've known forever. The one who means well, who deep down is good, but simply can't quite get it together. His problems are, if not self-inflicted, then at least things he should've seen coming. You know all this and it aggravates you and you tell him as much because, having suffered alongside him, it is yours to say. But for an outsider to say it? No. That you won't stand for.

That's how I felt when I learned the French Foreign Ministry had recently issued a travel advisory for Downtown. I've lived here 13 years, worked as a Grady Memorial Hospital paramedic for seven. This part of the city might be flawed, but it's mine.

Indignant, I went to the ministry's website. Turns out that Atlanta's not the only place the French are urged not to tread. Thirteen U.S. cities were given warnings. And while the only city on the West Coast to be blacklisted is Los Angeles, all of Florida is, for the French, a danger zone.

That a handful of mayors angrily and publicly defended their cities shouldn't surprise you, but what should, however, is how the French government reacted. Faced with the full fury of, among others, Cleveland's top elected official, the Foreign Ministry in some cases backed off.

To be fair, the U.S. State Department issues its own travel advisories, France included. For Paris it warns of a rise in hate crimes against the LGBT community, evidently spurred on by an ongoing debate over gay marriage.

Atlanta was given no reprieve. The warning remains. CNN Center, Centennial Olympic Park, the strange-looking SkyView Ferris Wheel, which was displayed near the Louvre before coming here — all simply too dangerous.

So I decided to visit, at night, and see what dangers lie in wait for the unsuspecting Frenchman. Or anyone for that matter.

I started at Five Points. I arrived at 8 o'clock and was promptly panhandled. The man claimed to be looking for construction work and asked if I, alone on the street, had any to offer. He nodded when I said no, then grudgingly arrived at the point. Could I spare a little money? He left empty-handed but upbeat and remained, if shabby, certainly non-threatening.

Which is good, because there aren't many cops Downtown, despite the fact that the Atlanta Police's headquarters is located on the neighborhood's southern edge. In fact, the heaviest police presence I saw were three APD motorcycles parked outside Dunkin' Donuts. I looked but didn't see the officers.

I continued along Marietta Street and, though alone, I didn't feel threatened. It was nothing but Christmas lights and couples and more families than I'd expected. The clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages. It was all very festive.

Except the Five Points MARTA station. That remains, undeniably, rough. Men loitering in the shadows, yelling to each other, to passersby, to whomever. You can't get around on foot if you don't trust the public transportation.

Five Points is an issue Atlanta simply must deal with because it is here alone in this ever-changing city that you can walk through history. There is the second-story window under the Coca-Cola sign from which, decades ago, a cop directed traffic; there's the Flatiron building, older than New York's; the Ellis — formerly the infamous Winecoff Hotel, and everywhere the subtle proof that Atlanta existed prior to the 1996 Olympics.

I continued east to Georgia State, near the historic mile marker that notes where Atlanta was founded. The university has worked to make its streets walkable, but despite a few campus police cars and a super-stretch golf cart ferrying a lone student back to her dorm, the area was quiet.

Here I broke my own laws, slipping under the interstate into the neighboring Old Fourth Ward and continuing east on Edgewood Avenue. Good thing, because it comes alive. Grady Homes is gone and the bulldozed apartments along Old Wheat and Hilliard streets have been converted into urban gardens. Now there's Church and — on Mondays — the primal screams of a hard-fought ping-pong victory. But danger lurks. Uneven cement and trolley tracks are murder on narrow tires.

Further north, it was all hotels and high-rises, some even equipped with skywalks connecting them to help inhabitants avoid this rambunctious land altogether. The walk was safe but lonely since the restaurants along Peachtree were empty. Except Hooters. It was packed and loud, the whole world suddenly nothing but chicken wings and Miller Lite. Listen close and you can hear the manager of Hard Rock whispering, "Ah, but for tiny orange shorts ..."

As I wandered south past Alabama Street the mood changed. The Capitol is quiet but Trinity Avenue is crowded with homeless men and women. There's City Hall and the municipal jail and everywhere people standing around. Nobody said a word to me but I doubt anyone, French or not, would feel safe wandering Pryor Street at night. Magic City was hopping. The Greyhound Station, crouching in the dark, teemed with riders.

Then west, to the CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park. Suddenly, life. Crowds of families, boisterous and unhurried, unconcerned, all headed for perhaps as unexpected a thing as there is in a hot Southern city — an ice rink.

It proves that people come here, feel safe here, have fun here. There's just not enough of them. Downtown doesn't feel dangerous so much as lonely. What the area needs is not more law enforcement but more to do — more people. The ice skaters and the Ferris Wheel riders, even the Hooters girls, prove that if you build it, Atlantans will come. So whatever the outsiders say, have faith in your friend because, though he'll stumble, he'll keep surprising you, keep getting up. That's why, whatever his faults, you'll always love him.

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