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Ask any of south downtown's longtime business owners what stands out about the good ol' days, and you'll hear a constant refrain.
"When I started 54 years ago, when you walked on the street, there were nothing but people," says Bruce Teilhaber, owner of Friedman's Shoes, a Mitchell Street landmark located in a former hotel that specializes in selling mega-sized footwear to a clientele that includes pro athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal. "You had a square block with a bank. A square block with Southern Railway. The people created a wonderful atmosphere for the businesses. People felt safe on the street."
Darren Amato, owner of Rondo Distributing Co., a Mitchell Street spiritual shop and Atlanta treasure that sells lotions and oils to ward off bad juju, says the once-crowded streets were reminiscent of New York City.
"Atlanta wasn't just the center of business and banking, but people came down here to do their errands," he says. "You could look down Broad Street, you're looking to the Five Points MARTA station, you'd look down and see hundreds of people."
In early maps of the city, Peachtree Street between Memorial Drive and Decatur Street was still called Whitehall Street. In the 1850s, amid conversations about erecting lampposts and building a jail, the city adopted its first street-grid layout in the area, a simple, walkable marvel — most of which still exists. The city's oldest existing church, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, sits at the corner of Central Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive. The Atlanta Constitution, which in 2001 would merge with its north downtown rival the Atlanta Journal, was housed just a block or so southwest of Five Points.
Into the 20th century, south downtown established itself as a retail destination. Though shops came and went, large department stores moved in, including Rich's, Kessler's and Davison's, which would later move north on Peachtree and be bought by Macy's.
In low-rise buildings along Broad Street and to the south, shopkeepers sold everything the residents of a growing city could want. Upstairs, workers toiled or residents kept homes. Hotels that catered to railway workers and businessman popped up along the western end of Mitchell Street, earning the block the nickname "Hotel Row."
The foundation of this once-bustling neighborhood was Terminal Station, the soaring, art deco train depot built in 1905 on the neighborhood's western edge. Designed by P. Thornton Marye, the same architect responsible for the Fox Theatre, the station became the Southeast's regional rail hub and made south downtown Atlanta's front door for tourists, businessmen, railroad workers, celebrities and dignitaries.
Once outside, visitors could walk just a block to find a diverse collection of shops, factories and offices that stretched as far south as where I-20 now sits. Or they could hop on Atlanta's extensive trolley network that ferried workers, visitors and shoppers around town and into such then-suburbs as Inman Park and the West End. Families would come from across Georgia to pick up clothes and supplies.
"You never saw a store go out of business," says Teilhaber of the area's mid-century heyday "In those years, you had four shoe-repair shops, all on this one street. How many people do you need to have four shoe shops? And it was all while-you-wait business."
Richard Miller started working at his uncle's Rexall Pharmacy on Broad Street in 1965 as a 12-year-old. Every Saturday, he'd attend synagogue and then take the No. 16 bus from Virginia-Highland to work for seven hours at the store, which he later bought. Grocery stores sold everything a person would need to make three meals a day, as well as specialty items such as pig's feet to pig heads. At Roy's, where you could select a live chicken, get its head chopped off, and watch the decapitated fowl run around the store. Another shop sold "rat cheese" — cut from a block of sharp New York cheddar — for rodent traps or sandwiches. Yet another bar-be-qued chicken.
"It smelled so good," Miller says as he leans on the counter. "The street was so vibrant."
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