At the turn of the new century, when the Super Bowl was last played in Atlanta, Buckhead Village was the city’s Sodom and Gomorrah.
Packed into a few blocks between East Paces Ferry and Pharr Road, one could find all-night parties and wall-to-wall revels.
Music poured out of the clubs, and beers sloshed onto the sidewalks; ladies flashed the cars on Peachtree, and gentlemen seemed determined to find a hook-up, or a fight, or both.
Buckhead Village was bulldozed. Where once you could buy a $15 grain alcohol punch (in a fishbowl) at Lulu’s Bait Shack, now you can buy a $500 scarf from Hermès.
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A visit to the Shops Buckhead Atlanta on a Friday night reveals a twinkling paradise of shopping. There are white LED lights outlining the limbs of every tree on the block, and Sheryl Crow crooning from speakers hidden in the landscaping.
Deluxe shoes are on display at Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin, high-priced furniture at Ligne Roset, but the stores are closed by this hour. A trio of young women pose for a photo in front of a mural. A yellow Lamborghini waits at the Shake Shack. Two security guards exchange greetings. There is no beer sloshing.
It’s clean. It’s fancy. It’s safe. But perhaps not as much fun. “Atlanta’s nightlife was better back then,” said Brian Arlt, a club owner and promoter, who was working at Cobalt the night that Buckhead went bad.
That was, of course, the night of Super Bowl XXXIV, Jan. 30, 2000, the night that two Buckhead partiers, Richard Lollar and Jacinth “Shorty” Baker, were stabbed to death.
It was about 4 o’clock in the morning, and the two had tussled with the entourage of star Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis was not in Atlanta to play in the Titans-Rams matchup, but only to enjoy the scene.
The combatants had been to a VIP party at Cobalt, and an argument ensued after closing time. Baker died on the sidewalk, at East Paces Ferry and Grandview; Lollar died later, in the hospital. Within a day and half Lewis would be in handcuffs, charged with murder.
The incident, and the nationally publicized trial that followed (Lewis pleaded to a misdemeanor, and received probation), became a turning point in Buckhead’s fortunes. Some say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But neighbors and city leaders had been complaining about Buckhead for a while.
“We had almost 100 alcoholic beverage licenses in a six-block area,” said former mayor Sam Massell, founding president of the Buckhead Coalition. “There was prostitution, underage drinking, sales of illegal drugs.”
For Robin Loudermilk, president and CEO of the Loudermilk Companies, the telltale moment was finding a stray .380 bullet in his parking place in front of the Aaron’s Rents building. “Maybe it fell out of some guy’s pocket,” he said “Things had to change.”
Loudermilk and his father, Charles Loudermilk, founder of Aaron’s Rents, joined other business leaders to form the Buckhead Alliance. They began installing better lighting, seeking more security and tighter controls on clubs. The city curtailed drinking hours, pushing closing time from 4 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.
The Loudermilks also began buying parcels and tearing down buildings, including Cobalt. Their plan was to buy and hold, but they sold some Peachtree frontage to commercial developer Ben Carter, whose projects included the Mall of Georgia.
In 2007, Carter announced an ambitious plan to transform the area into a $1.5 billion mini-city called the Streets of Buckhead, with luxury condos, 5-star hotels and high-end shopping.
Then Buckhead ran into some more bad luck. In 2009, the project froze while it was still a hole in the ground, stymied by the financial crisis. The Streets of Buckhead became a ghost town.
“We were here when the cranes stopped moving,” said Angela Sawicki, an assistant manager at the Irish pub Fado. Many other taverns and restaurants had gone elsewhere. Fado remained. “We were a pub in the middle of a building site for six or seven years,” said Fado general manager Colm Reilly.
After years as an eyesore in the middle of Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhood, the Streets of Buckhead project fell into the hands of OliverMcMillan, who recast it as a smaller scale project. It was called Shops Buckhead Atlanta; it opened a few stores at a time, beginning in 2014.
While Charles Loudermilk opened his own stylish entertainment venue — the renovated Buckhead Theatre — some of the other nightlife options survived by moving elsewhere. The Havana Club found a home farther east, on Piedmont. Tongue & Groove moved south to the Lindbergh City Center.
“We’re one of the survivors,” said Tongue & Groove co-owner Michael Krohngold. “Where the old clubs stood now is all that high-end retail. It’s beautiful. It’s nice. It’s hard to believe it was what it was back then.”
Some of the clubs moved across Peachtree to the West Village, but those are also under pressure according to Krohngold.
These days Krohngold, 58, is an early-to-bed guy, sort of like Buckhead itself. He’s content to binge on Netflix at his Alpharetta home and shop at the Avalon.
So where will Super Bowl visitors go this time? In the year 2000, there was only one destination. In 2019, many things have changed. “Our region’s got a million more people than it did (in 2000),” and a half-a-dozen entertainment districts, said Kevin Green, president of the Midtown Alliance.
Social media also plays a huge role, he said. “In 2000, there wasn’t even a Myspace let alone Facebook, FourSquare or Yelp. People had to go somewhere where they expected to find a scene. Now you can curate your own experience.”
Robin Loudermilk plans to curate his Super Bowl experience somewhere else, perhaps at his South Georgia farm.
Reilly has plans for several parties at Fado, and said the tavern will host the Budweiser Clydesdales for a visit on Friday, Feb. 1.
And for those who pine for the Wild West days of drinking until 4 a.m., Krohngold notes that the city has relaxed control on drinking hours during Super Bowl week, extending them from 2:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Just like they used to be.
“A little bit of irony there,” he said.