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This Bizarre 1980s Atlanta Promo Video Celebrates ... Highways and Office Parks

This Bizarre 1980s Atlanta Promo Video Celebrates ... Highways and Office Parks
YouTube/TightFistedTitans

Few cities exemplified 1980s America like Atlanta.

With its highways, corporate office parks, and a barely urban downtown, Atlanta offered what real estate developers and Chamber of Commerce officials around the country hoped to see their cities become. "Atlanta is not a city. It is a landscape," Rem Koolhaas wrote in his acclaimed 1989 essay on Georgia's capital.

And indeed, Atlanta was rewarded for its particular brand of urbanism. The region saw incredible growth -- the population jumped from 2,326,551 to 3,068,975 in the 1980s. Its airport became the largest in the country, and it acquired a line-up of Fortune 500 companies that would make most mayors blush. Even more validation came in 1990, when the IOC announced Atlanta would be hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics.

So how did Atlanta see itself back then? This promotional video gives us some clues:

Atlanta: A Visual Postcard promotes all the things most tourism videos would probably shy away from in 2013 -- an intimidating mixing bowl of highways, shopping malls, and "futuristic" office buildings that allegedly brought "urban flavor to the suburbs." All in all, a place that symbolized "the new South."


Some of the thrilling places highlighted in the promotional video

But all that economic growth also led to the decline of the city proper. Atlanta quickly built itself back up after the Civil War, but its downtown slowly became a frustrating mix of suburban-minded roadways and skyscrapers. Between 1970 and 1990, the city lost 20 percent of its population while the metro area exploded. 

But 1980s Atlanta wasn't a completely lost cause to urban-minded folk. Even the video above mentions Piedmont Park, the historic Fox Theatre (a victory for local preservationists), and the Virginia-Highland neighborhood (which successfully fought off a proposed highway in the 1970s). But other mentioned attractions haven't fared as well since. Atlanta's rapid transit system, built in 1979 still struggles thanks to sprawl and limited funding. And downtown's "Underground Atlanta," (celebrated, in the video, for its "array of restaurants, clubs and shops") declined steadily through the 1990s. Recent Yelp reviews would scare almost anyone away from a visit.  

Still, the city's population has grown modestly since the 1990s. And urban-minded infrastructure like the BeltLine and Ponce City Market have become hot. But its physical legacy, the one constructed in the years leading up to Atlanta: A Visual Postcard are still very much in place. 

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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