Skyline Park on the rooftop at Ponce City Market in Atlanta. Photo by Silei Li, ACVB
The Street Everybody Knows: Exploring Ponce de Leon Avenue
Home to everything from tattoo parlors to upscale shops, this in-town artery tells quite a story.
If you've been to Atlanta, you probably have a Ponce story.
And if you don't, you should get one.
This 16-mile road is home to everything from tattoo parlors to underground nightclubs, upscale furniture shops, the latest dining spots, churches and historic homes. Connecting a number of Atlanta communities, Ponce de Leon Avenue is a life source for the city.
As a travel experience, it's singular for its straightforward route (provided, of course, you don't get lost in all the Peachtree limbs). You'll be hard-pressed to find another way to experience Atlanta from start to finish in one straight line with ample sidewalks, MARTA stops and a chance to hop on the Atlanta BeltLine, a paved, mixed-use trail frequented by joggers, bikers and boutique four-legged friends alike.
But don't be afraid to venture off the avenue at least a little, as it cuts through some of Atlanta's most attraction-packed neighborhoods. Start with Midtown, then explore Virginia Highland, Druid Hills, downtown Decatur, Scottsdale and all the way to Clarkston, home to the "most diverse square mile in America," according to TIME magazine.
Got a bike? Even better. While you might not want to pedal all the way up and down Ponce itself, you can hop on the adjacent Freedom Parkway Trail and discover the many green spaces of this tree-lined city. From the trail, connect to the BeltLine on one end, or make your way to Olmsted Linear Park on the other for a taste of natural history at the Fernbank Museum.
Exploring nature is a fitting introduction to the beloved roadway, although it may not seem like it. Given Ponce's more modern reputation as the backdrop for a raucous night out, few would characterize it as a mystical pathway to nature. But the wonders of the great outdoors are actually its ultimate essence.
History of Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Avenue
Which brings us to the avenue's backstory – and one very important thing you need to know before you head out: Ponce has very little – and everything – to do with Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer.
It all began with prowling for a drink after a long, hard day. Sound familiar? It's the draw of Ponce for many – and usually the start of a night you're not soon to forget. It's also how this Atlanta staple of good eats and great entertainment came to be in the first place.
In 1868, a railroad construction crew was hard at work laying the tracks of the Air-Line Railroad, the route of which would later become today’s ever-popular BeltLine. Cut off from their previous water supply at Yancey Spring, the crew members discovered two new cold springs on the same property.
These were no ordinary springs. For one thing, they tasted bad. In the words of one traveler in the 1870s, the waters had a "sulfurous, nasty taste." But what the waters lacked in flavor they made up for in alleged healing powers. Many on the crew claimed to have been cured of their work-related ailments after a few weeks drinking the sulfurous fluids. Was it true? (It wasn’t). Officially, we'll never really know, but their claims were enough to attract curious visitors far and wide. Dr. Henry Lumpkin Wilson, Atlanta's first official physician (turned real estate agent) then named them the "Ponce de Leon Springs" in honor of the Spanish explorer's quest for the fountain of youth, despite no evidence the explorer ever stepped foot near Atlanta.
So, you see, it has nothing and everything to do with Ponce de Leon. And that's what makes it the perfect Atlanta backstory, according to Sheffield Hale, Atlanta native and President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. "I love Atlanta because that's what we do really well. Puffery. Ponce de Leon is a wonderful example of a developer taking that to its logical extreme with the fountain of youth," Hale said.
And so the avenue grew. Trolley access, followed by a streetcar stop in 1879, dually incentivized use of public transportation and visits to Ponce de Leon Park, which over time acquired cabins, a pavilion and amusement park status (complete with a laughing gallery and merry-go-round).
In 1890 came the four-acre Ponce de Leon Lake where the current Midtown Place shopping center sits and Pairs Pond, situated roughly in the spot of the Ford Factory Lofts and Kroger supermarket. Ponce de Leon Avenue had become a premier destination for the city's elite, lined to the east with impressive mansions to match the monied Druid Hills addresses.
And as the park generated recreational interest, commercial ventures followed. In a move that would fully detach the name from its origin, the springs, pond and lake were all buried to build a baseball stadium, Ponce de Leon Ballpark, or "Poncey," in 1907 (the stadium later became the site of the city's first integrated baseball game). In 1926, the massive Sears building across the street followed.
Ponce City Market: Shopping & Dining Magnet
Today, if you're on the BeltLine, you'll pass by that same Sears building, along with the flock of shoppers, diners and revelers making their way inside. An amalgamation of retail, apartments, restaurants, and businesses like Mailchimp, Ponce City Market (PCM) is equally a place to snag new workout gear, meet up with friends for dinner and drinks, or clock in for a hard day's work at the office. The hard-to-miss revitalization of the Sears building opened to the public in 2014 and has been a rousing success ever since.
Nostalgia finds its way forward on the PCM rooftop. Seasonal attractions like an ice skating rink, as well as year-round games, recreate the amusement park aspect of the original Ponce de Leon Park. But as you look back, you're also looking forward, with a prime view of the city – and the promise of tomorrow. "You go up on the top of Ponce and you can see the future," said Hale.
Beloved Atlanta Landmarks on Ponce
Ponce City Market's iconic architecture, along with other successfully preserved historical structures along the avenue, like the Plaza and Fox Theatre and The Georgian Terrace, will do much to secure the unique character of that future. Their influence rests in both their preserved appearance and their ongoing, original use.
As you make your way farther down the avenue, don't just pose for pictures in front of the Plaza Theater – catch a feature film inside, then chat about it with your friends at The Righteous Room, a fantastic dive bar next door.
Same goes for The Fox Theatre in Midtown Atlanta. The venue, constructed in 1926, continues to host up to 5,000 audience members for contemporary performances.
And you can always count on closing out a night on Ponce at the Majestic Diner, which opened in 1939, and, given its 24/7 operating model, has technically been open ever since.
Meanwhile, the nearby Clermont Lounge keeps good, raunchy fun alive in the basement of the recently renovated Hotel Clermont. If chic, Instagram-worthy luxury is more your thing, the hotel's beautiful main levels and killer rooftop bar are just the place to enjoy Atlanta's forward progress on Ponce.
There's something for everyone, all on one avenue.
"Ponce has character and is more of a cosmopolitan, welcoming place because of what's been saved. It's kind of at the nexus of so many different regions and backgrounds of Atlanta," Hale said.
And everyone's watching to see what happens next. As author Mark Pendergrast put it in his 2016 City on the Verge, "For the foreseeable future, Atlanta will remain a 'city on the verge,' full of potential, hype, and hope."
In the meantime, there's no better place to explore Atlanta's past, present and future – and have an unforgettable day – than Ponce. It may not be a fountain of youth, but where else can you train for your half marathon, walk through civil rights history, party in a hotel basement and greet the dawn in an art deco diner, all on one street?