Atlanta has always been a city that’s in a hurry to bury its own remains.
But what if you could stand on Peachtree Street and see what’s no longer there? At the intersection of Peachtree and Broad, you would see the present-day Flatiron Building, a historical artifact in its own right. But then you would see a row of businesses lining the other side of Peachtree, where Woodruff Park and the fountain now sit. With technology, imagination and incredible attention to detail, a handful of Atlantans are making views into the past like this possible.
Their tools range from photography to GPS technologies to 3D imaging, but they all share a vision that puts Atlanta’s past right before your eyes, often right where you’re standing.
For Christopher Moloney, that vision began in New York City, with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
Something strange in your neighborhood
One day in 2012, Moloney, a huge movie buff, was on his way to his job at CNN's New York office. His walk took him by Columbus Circle, where he suddenly realized that the climactic scene from "Ghostbusters" was shot from the same vantage point as where he stood. As he explains, "I just printed off a picture of the scene, and went outside at lunch break, held it up, took a picture and posted it." And so a photography project was launched.
Moloney posted his collection of then-and-now movie scenes on a Tumblr account he called FILMography. It soon became a viral sensation, getting covered by Huffington Post, USA Today, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other media outlets. Although it's primarily a digital project, his images were displayed at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
Last August, Moloney, 37, moved to Atlanta to take a job as a writer at the HLN network. From his home in Little Five Points, he continues to add to the FILMography collection, adding new images from an ever-growing list of Georgia filming locations.
Then-and-now historical photo comparisons have been around for a while, but Moloney put a few new twists on the technique. First, he’s exceptionally good at finding the perfect vantage point for his images, so that the old photo he’s holding up looks like the view through a temporal wormhole. It’s an eerie effect that blurs yesterday into today.
Second, he uses stills from movies. These “before” images come from places we know well even if we’ve never been there. And they still work as historic photos, preserving streetscapes and skylines as they looked during a particular day’s film production. Moloney gets his movie stills by taking screen captures off of his laptop, or from old media kits.
But movies aren't the only subject for Moloney. Now that he's an Atlantan, he's begun to record some of the city's older neighborhoods, including Little Five Points, Inman Park and Old Fourth Ward, using the same technique. In these photos, yesterday's hipsters smirk at you from Moreland Avenue and high school students pose for yearbook portraits at Bass Lofts.
He says that he’s already witnessed change during the seven months he’s lived here. “Just walking down Edgewood, it’s kind of crazy,” he says. “Some of those buildings have been gutted since I’ve been here.”
Moloney finds inspiration in other Atlanta photo-history projects. “I’ve lived in a couple different places,” he says, “and sometimes there’s no real connection to the city. And people who have an enthusiasm and a pride in their town is pretty exciting.”
One of those sources of his inspiration is the Atlanta Time Machine.
Every then and now
Since 2004, Greg Germani has been assembling an online treasury of Atlanta's past at AtlantaTimeMachine.com. The site is like a cluttered attic, where you can rummage though postcards, old advertisements, posters and 45 rpm records. The main attraction however, is an extensive collection of then-and-now photos, many of which update images found in the Georgia State University Special Collections and Archives.
Not being an Atlanta native, Germani sometimes gets stumped trying to locate an old photo's vantage point. Whenever this happens, he turns to David P. Henderson, an early fan of the site who knows Atlanta's streets like a London cab driver possessing The Knowledge.
Henderson, a 47-year-old Conyers restaurateur, is the son of a Delta pilot. He spent much of his childhood exploring the old Atlanta Airport terminal, collecting postcards and taking his own photos. As a young adult in the late 1980s, he began exploring abandoned Westside factories and documenting Atlanta’s grittier streets with his camera.
Henderson began contributing then-and-now photos to Atlanta Time Machine, including a whole section on the Atlanta Airport, which he has since spun off as a book and as a separate website called SunshineSkies.com. Henderson also maintains a Flickr collection of his photos of metro Atlanta from the 1980s and '90s, and a blog called Return to Atlanta, which records his revisits to the places he shot 25 years ago.
Henderson still speaks with the giddy enthusiasm of a dude who’ll race you on his dirt bike to show you some empty factory ruins. But returning to his old haunts has gotten more difficult. “I was getting stuck in traffic!” he says. And parking in a once-seedy part of town can offer its own lesson on gentrification. “I went down [to Old Fourth Ward] to take the current picture of an old photo, and this guy came out and said, ‘This is valet parking only. You can’t park here.’ "
Make way for Waymarkers
The traffic island at downtown’s Five Points holds a secret — a benchmark spiked into the ground in 1927 by U.S. Coast & Geodetic surveyors. The marker is part of a national network of precise survey points that map-makers depend on — in this case, to locate the heart of Atlanta’s downtown. This is significant, because in 1928, federal surveyors created one of the most comprehensive maps of Atlanta’s streets and buildings, and this point would have been one of the places to begin measuring from.
You’d be forgiven if you walked by this marker without noticing — it lies about two feet underground. To see it, you’d have to remove a very grimy manhole cover, lay on your stomach, reach down past decades of buried brickwork, and wipe away layers of mud to reveal a dull metal disc.
Really, who would go through the trouble?
Byron Hooks, for one. He’s a retired BellSouth programmer who has been cataloging thousands of Georgia landmarks for 25 years. Hooks has made it his life’s work to show Atlantans what happened in the place that they’re standing, by identifying and mapping the city’s historical markers, monuments and other artifacts that lie in place.
Using the handle Lat34North, Hooks is a frequent contributor to Waymarking.com, a crowdsourcing site that catalogs notable locations and landmarks. He also manages two websites that document his discoveries — Civil War Battlefield Monuments (www.cwbfm.org) and Lat34North (www.lat34north.com).
Hooks' interest in Atlanta's history was kindled while growing up in East Atlanta. "One of my aunts lived near the monument to (Union Gen. James) McPherson," he says, "and I played Little League baseball near the monument to (Confederate Gen. William) Walker."
“Unfortunately Atlanta has done a poor job of preserving its history,” he says. “Many of the historic markers along our roads have begun to disappear for one reason or another.”
Vandalism, roadside wrecks and new construction have all taken their toll, Hooks says. “If what is placed on the Internet is truly forever, then the records I and others have there are preserved for future generations.”
It's what's inside that counts
There’s a digital 3D re-creation of Broad Street in Atlanta from the year 1930 that’s so immersive, you may need the clanging of a vintage streetcar to remind you to stop gawking at the storefronts and get out of the virtual road.
It's called Atlanta Explorer, and if it looks an awful lot like a video game, that's because the 3D rendering technology that created this bygone downtown Atlanta environment is very similar.
This vision of Atlanta's history comes by way of team led by Michael Page, a geographer and environmental science lecturer at Emory University. Through Emory's Center for Digital Scholarship, Page and his students have worked for years to create a database of what 1930 Atlanta looked like, based on information and addresses culled from atlases, directories, death records and infrastructure diagrams. Much of this data came from the university archives of both Emory and Georgia State.
The database includes building footprints, the names of occupants, administrative boundaries and street-level details like lamps, water systems and transportation routes. In all, there are 80,000 points of interest, and they are all geocoded — meaning that they can be precisely mapped with specific latitude and longitude locations. The year 1930 was selected because it's so soon after the comprehensive 1928 map of the city (remember that Five Points survey disc?). "It's a really good time, a stable time, in Atlanta's history," Page says.
Page explains the project’s next step: “What if we could take our data from the geodatabase, and create a game engine where somebody could walk around Atlanta city blocks and touch buildings and get data from it?”
To do that, his group turned to the architecture firm nVIS360, which specializes in 3D modeling. As a pilot effort, they worked together to create a digital 3D rendering of a couple of blocks surrounding downtown's Flatiron Building. The 3D walk-through includes building facades, lights, streetcars and even manhole covers.
As whiz-bang as the 3D visualization is, it’s not the star of the show. The real heart of the project is that database of geocoded information. Click on a building, and you get historical information on when it was built, what it housed and when it was demolished.
That information can be sliced and diced in all sorts of ways — say, to map black-owned businesses or, combined with another database, to show which residents belonged to which church. “The 3D is really interesting, but I think the utility of having a geocoder from the city directory is a lot more powerful,” Page says.
The pace of change in our city has accelerated dramatically since 1930. Notable places can disappear before we even knew they were there. It takes an effort to record how places look today, to plot points and to build an archive.
And while some of our neighbors are devoted to roaming the city and capturing these views, it’s something that we can all be a part of. What any of us record today becomes treasure for tomorrow’s historians. Every time we take a photo and record its location, then share it publicly, we’re helping future generations understand how their city evolved.
Maybe someday a photographer will rediscover one of your images, print it, take it outside on his or her lunch break, take a new photo, and post it.