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Torpy at Large: A visit to ‘holy hell,’ aka south downtown Atlanta

The area south of Five Points is downtown Atlanta’s unmade bed.

Actually, Councilwoman Cleta Winslow says it’s worse than that.

“I’m ashamed of how we look; south of Marietta Street looks like holy hell,” she said at a recent council meeting. “We have two sides of downtown Atlanta. That needs to stop.”

The councilwoman, who represents that side of downtown, trotted out the Haves/Have Nots argument in an effort to nudge fellow City Council members to approve a huge subsidy for a developer to build up the Gulch.

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The Gulch is the decrepit mishmash of railroad tracks next to where the Falcons play, a 40-acre hole in the ground in need of $1.75 billion in taxpayer-supported TLC.

The plan is being pushed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and would benefit a Los Angeles developer who vows to invest $5 billion, including the tax money, to build a mini-city there. Benefits from the plan would trickle down to the long-languishing south downtown area.

Or so the theory goes.

On Monday, I headed to City Hall to watch the council debate the plan. Instead, I decided to wander about and immerse myself in “holy hell.”

It’s an area filled with courts and government offices and lots of old buildings brimming with potential. But that brimming has been happening for a generation or two.

If the Gulch gets green-lighted, it would be the third big development play by out-of-towners in south downtown. There’s also a South Carolina investment group, WRS Inc., which bought the Underground and aims to give the attraction its third incarnation.

And there’s Newport US, a group of German investors who have bought some 50 properties, many of them raggedy but historic buildings. They aim to restore them and create an old-timey downtown for millennials.

Willie Alexander, a barber working at A-Town Barber Shop near City Hall, brought up the conundrum that surrounds much of the new investment going on. The area suffers from a pervasive negative vibe because of homelessness, petty crime and drug sales, so Alexander says a revamp would “be good for the community.”

“But they’ll run off African-Americans because of the rent going up,” he said. “They’ll bring up the neighborhood, but those who have been there don’t benefit.”

Barber Willie Alexander worries that the proposed wave of rehab in south downtown Atlanta will push away folks like him.  (BILL TORPY / AJC)

Johnny La has run a tailor shop on Mitchell Street for 23 years. The massive insignia of the new Mercedes Benz Stadium looms down the street to the west. His building hasn’t been purchased — yet — by investors.

La is unsure how the Gulch will help him.

“Rents will go up, many merchants will suffer,” he said. “Maybe it’s a good thing for the big people. But for a small businessman like me?”

He shrugged before continuing, “You’ve got to remember that I’m a small potato. But a lot of small potatoes make up a city.”

Aziz Palas has run Sunrise Fragrance at the corner of Mitchell and Broad streets for 18 years. When I told him of the “holy hell” comment, he smiled and said, “I’d agree with that.”

Aziz Palas said the streets of south downtown Atlanta are often like the wild, Wild West. Hours later, he was right.  (BILL TORPY / AJC)

Much of the block of south Broad Street has been purchased by Newport. Most buildings, which are now vacant, were painted years ago with colorful murals to distract from the state of disarray.

Palas would like a renaissance. But he’ll believe it when he sees it. They’ve talked of one since he’s been there.

He said crime there ebbs and flows. And it seems like the faucet is on. “Last year, it was like the wild, Wild West,” he said. “We had two gunmen running down the street shooting it out.”

Palas’ words were prescient. Eight hours after our discussion Monday evening, a vehicle drove up and someone inside opened fire on a crowd of people hanging out on Broad Street. Three men and a woman were shot. None of their injuries were life-threatening.

The next morning, a cleanup crew boarded up a window that was shot out and a long trail of blood on the sidewalk led toward Palas’ corner.

Some of the buildings in south downtown Atlanta are old gems, such as this one at the corner of Mitchell and Forsyth streets.  (BILL TORPY / AJC)

Stuart Jackson, an accountant who lives within shooting distance in a department store turned lofts, called 911 on the noisy crowd of people and cars there three hours before the shooting. He has been calling 911 since moving there in 2000, witnessing a steady stream of drug traffic.

“The police always say, ‘We’re working on it.’ They tell us to call, that they need data. We call almost every night. They have 18 years of data. There’s 18 years of them telling us, ‘Things don’t happen overnight,’” Jackson said.

“Since 2000, we’ve been dealing with three mayors (four, actually), three police chiefs (four, again) and at least five Zone 5 commanders,” he said.

Jackson said he knows the dealers and gang members by name. He said there’s a second generation of the Broad Street Bandits. He said the older Bandits complain to him that the young ones have no respect.

In south downtown Atlanta, Stuart Jackson has been watching mayhem on the streets below him for 18 years.  (BILL TORPY / AJC)

Jackson said two young guys were shot in front of his building not long ago. It was an electric scooter drive-by shooting. Even miscreants embrace new technology.

Atlanta Police Maj. Darin Schierbaum is the newest in that line of Zone 5 commanders. He, too, is frustrated. Police find themselves caught in a never-ending battle of a game of catch-and-release.

For years, police complained that the courts are allowing criminals to return to the streets too easily. Prosecutors and judges point at each other, or at the crowded jails. Jailers who say they don’t have enough room point at the politicians. The pols don’t want to raise taxes because the citizens don’t like that. And the citizens call the cops …

Schierbaum said police have locked up about 1,850 people on that stretch of Broad Street since the beginning of 2016. That’s 56 people a month, although the trend is lessening somewhat.

He said police know what is going on at that location but can’t just chase away people for lollygagging. He said cops are teaming up with MARTA and federal police to do more patrols, as well as adding undercover officers and foot patrols.

They are also upgrading the street cameras. They want to keep “holy hell” in focus.

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