By Maria Saporta
New Year’s Eve has always been one of my favorite nights of the year.
Growing up, my family would welcome the New Year at the spectacular neon Coca-Cola sign on top of the Russell Stover store on Peachtree Street at Margaret Mitchell Square.
When it was announced in the late 1970s that the original Coca-Cola sign was coming down, my family and I went below the radar to try to save it by throwing a New Year’s Eve party for the city.
Years later, when I wrote about my love for the sign and our New Year’s Eve tradition, then Coca-Cola CEO Doug Daft decided to bring it back – two blocks south of its former home – adorning the Olympia building at Five Points – where it stands today.
(Two of my Atlanta Journal-Constitution columns described my unique relationship with the Coca-Cola sign are included below).
So it should come as no surprise to readers when I tell you how much I enjoy going to the Peach Drop whenever I can get friends to join me.
And before the Peach Drop – in the 1990s, we would witness the turning of the year at First Night – the Midtown Alliance’s fabulous venture to combine the New Year’s celebration with a family-oriented sampling of the arts, culture and fireworks.
Atlanta had borrowed that idea from Boston’s First Night. My sister actually was married at midnight on the cusp of 1989-1990 in Boston, and we celebrated First Night by enjoying public art illuminated on buildings and watching street performers – warming our hearts despite the super cold night.
What makes a public celebration on New Year’s Eve so special?
It gives us the freedom to wish total strangers a Happy New Year – with a hug or a smile or a cheer. It is an opportunity to break through the glass wall that keeps people we don’t as strangers rather than friends.
New Year’s Eve is the one night a year when almost everyone we see is an instant friend.
This past New Year’s Eve during the Peach Drop, I saw an attractive young woman walking in the middle of Peachtree Street – wearing a sleeveless shirt and a short skirt despite cool temperatures.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked as I wished her Happy New Year.
“No,” she answered with a big smile, asking me if I was from Atlanta.
“Yes, I’m a native,” I told her.
And then she smiled even more, cheerfully saying: “I love your city. I totally love your city. I want to come back.”
Another observation – which we see during our Atlanta Streets Alive events – people love walking in the middle of streets usually reserved for cars. When pedestrians take over the streets, we can’t help but feel festive.
For all those reasons, the City of Atlanta should always have a public celebration on New Year’s Eve. We came very close to not having a Peach Drop this year until the City of Atlanta decided at the last minute to move forward with the festivities.
It is not known whether the prospective new owner of Underground Atlanta – WRS Inc. – plans to continue the tradition when it begins its development. At the very least, the Peach Drop likely would be temporarily displaced during construction of high rise residential towers.
To be truthful, when compared New York City’s spectacular Time’s Square Ball, the Peach is pretty lame. Maybe the new owners could turn our two-dimensional peach into a disco-ball peach that surrounds the tower.
Or we could move the celebration to Woodruff Park to reunite the event with the Coca-Cola sign. Or we could see if the state wanted to create a major New Year’s Eve event at Centennial Olympic Park to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Olympics.
No matter what happens with the Peach Drop, we as a city should always have a public New Year’s Eve celebration with music and fireworks along a pedestrian-only Peachtree Street where strangers turn into instant friends.
Two 2002 Coca-Cola sign columns in the AJC:
Atlanta must preserve remaining treasures:
Memories of vanished icons keep lifelong activism bright
March 18, 2002
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Section: Business Horizon
By Maria Saporta
The secret is out. I am an incurable, lifelong activist, or if you prefer, troublemaker.
I came by it honestly. Growing up, our idea of a family outing was going to a Civil Rights march or an antiwar demonstration. My parents, until their dying days, were citizen activists, always working on ways to make Atlanta a better place.
Memories of my early activism resurfaced this past week. In Georgia Public Television’s special on Peachtree Street, which aired last week, there’s a clip of me as an 18-year-old passing out Save the Fox leaflets to cars while standing in front of the grand old theater.
Southern Bell executives wanted to tear it down for their new office building, and I remember the argument being that the Fox was old and useless because Atlanta now had a much newer Civic Center.
Fortunately, the outrage over the Fox being torn down was so strong that it sparked the beginning of an awareness to preserve what was left of our history. I still mourn the loss of Terminal Station, Union Station, Carnegie Library, Loew’s Grand among others — irreplaceable treasures that helped define the soul of our town.
Horizon Theatre, in its annual fund raiser recently, portrayed one of my formerly secret activist campaigns as one of its “Atlanta Stories.”
Once upon a time, right in front of the Candler building downtown, stood the most spectacular red neon Coca-Cola sign. It swirled. It flashed. It mesmerized. At the base of the circular sign was a digital time and temperature box, providing a most useful point of reference for the city.
It also served as Atlanta’s Times Square. Every New Year’s Eve, my parents, sister and I would welcome in the new year at the Coca-Cola sign. The streets would be filled with people, hugging and kissing, filled with that wonderful sense of optimism and innocence that comes with a new year.
But toward the late 1970s, as downtown became viewed as a dangerous place to be, the crowds thinned out. I remember one year that my family shared the sidewalk with only a handful of others.
Then in 1979, the word came that Georgia-Pacific Corp. was building its headquarters across the street from the Coca-Cola sign and it didn’t want another corporate logo in its front yard. So Coca-Cola Co. agreed to take down the sign.
My sister, Elena, and I were aghast. In total secrecy, we decided to throw a huge street party at the Coca-Cola sign to welcome in 1980. We printed up small posters that we passed around or posted anywhere we could. We printed up press releases that we sent out to every newsroom around town — with no contact information.
I did have a friend from high school working part time at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Howard Pousner. His job was putting out the Saturday Calendar section, and he showcased our “Save the Sign” New Year’s Eve party, complete with a photo and story.
When we realized this party was gaining momentum, I did get a little nervous. At a social gathering, Elena and I asked a friend of ours, Rob Rivers, who was then working at the city parks department, whether we should get a permit to throw our New Year’s Eve party.
Rivers wisely told us that it was better to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission. Even if the city told us no, we couldn’t stop what had now become a highly publicized event.
We decided to just go with the flow. Until New Year’s Eve. On the 6 o’clock news, several television stations had live shots of the Coca-Cola sign saying thousands of people were expected to ring in the new year in front of the endangered landmark.
All of a sudden it hit me, what if something really bad happened? Would we be liable? Would we be held responsible?
So I called up Zone 5 of the Atlanta Police Department. In my best, but fake, Southern accent, I told the officer that I had just seen the spot on TV about the party at the Coca-Cola sign, but with all the crime that had been going on downtown, I wanted to know if the police would be down there.
What he told me was music to my ears. “Ma’am, don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll be down there all over the place. Come on down. And Happy New Year!!!”
Thousands of people showed up to ring in the new decade and say good-bye to one of the most colorful icons of Atlanta. People took over the streets, closing down Peachtree. Pryor, Forsyth and Carnegie streets were completely closed off to cars.
It was one of my most special New Year’s Eves ever. My family and I had brought back an Atlanta tradition — without being found out — until now.
The Coca-Cola sign is gone, as are so many other wonderful symbols of Atlanta’s past. We are an ever-changing city, but not necessarily a city that changes for the better.
We have to ask ourselves if we want to live in a city that destroys its old memories and unique beauty in favor of parking garages, faceless buildings and vacant lots.
Are we really going to let the Georgia Bar destroy downtown Atlanta’s only pocket park, cutting down nine majestic willow oaks so it can build a brand new parking garage?
As you can tell, I’m still the activist at heart — still trying to do everything I can to enhance city’s vitality. After all, I still believe Atlanta is a city worth saving.
Coke’s spectacular sign will light up city again
December 16, 2002
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Section: Business Horizon
By Maria Saporta
How fun. The Coca-Cola sign will light up downtown once more — a symbolic move that bodes well for Atlanta and its renowned corporate citizen.
The company’s decision to bring back the neon spectacular indicates that this column can make a difference.
Back in March, I wrote a column about what the Coca-Cola sign meant to me and my family growing up in Atlanta. It was our Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It became our cause celebre when the news came out in 1979 that the sign was coming down after gracing downtown for decades.
My family and I tried to save the sign by anonymously reviving an Atlanta New Year’s Eve tradition by throwing a party. Thousands of folks showed up to welcome 1980 — closing off all the streets around the sign.
It just so happened that Coca-Cola Chief Executive Officer Doug Daft read my nostalgic column that day. He walked into colleague Clyde Tuggle’s office and asked, “What’s the deal with this sign?”
Tuggle, an Atlanta native whose mother remembered when they first put it up in 1948, told his boss how significant the sign had been to Atlanta’s streetscape.
“He said, ‘That’s terrific. We need to put the sign back,'” Tuggle said of his conversation with Daft. “I said, ‘We can look into it.’
” ‘No, you don’t understand,’ ” Daft insisted. “‘Put the sign back exactly the way it was.'”
Daft also recognized the symbolism of bringing back the sign. It would be a dramatic way to quash any rumors that Coca-Cola was moving its headquarters to New York.
“I have lived in Atlanta for 11 years, and of course the sign wasn’t there when I came here,” said Daft in an interview. “It just seemed odd to me that for what is our hometown, and for what will always be our hometown, why there wasn’t a major Coca-Cola sign here.”
So the sign, which is under construction at some undisclosed location, is coming back.
The circular sign, with a pinwheel lighting display, will be an exact replica of the historic sign stretching 33 feet in diameter — imagine a three-story building. A community message board will be at the base of the sign, which also will flash the time and temperature.
The major difference from the original sign is that this one will be two-sided and sit on top of the historic Olympia Building at Five Points. (The original building that supported it 22 years ago is long gone). One side will face Woodruff Park, which was created with Coke money, and the other side will face Underground Atlanta, only three blocks from where Coke was first served in a soda fountain at Jacob’s Pharmacy in 1887.
The project to re-create the sign fell to Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola’s archivist, who was working for the company when the original sign came down. “The challenge was to see what kind of technology we could bring to have the retro look but have contemporary imaging — enhance what was there and take it to the next level.”
The other challenge was finding a company with the technical capability to re-create a sign from the original specifications. The job fell to Art Productions, a Peachtree City company that Coca-Cola has used for other big projects including the imaging at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Coke, which is renting the space from the Georgia Building Authority, will seek the necessary city permits for the sign, but civic leaders don’t see that as a problem.
“For us who have been around and are Atlanta natives, it is an exciting way for Coca-Cola to be a part of what’s going on downtown,” Tuggle said. “We wanted to do something tasteful that fit into the ambience of downtown.”
The sign caps a series of recent efforts to get more involved with the city, from donating land for a new aquarium and planning to build a new World of Coca-Cola to sponsoring the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.
Starting in 1932, the company had a neon presence on a crest of Peachtree Street at the Margaret Mitchell Square intersection. The sign was first upgraded in 1938 with a weather display showing snowflakes, raindrops, clouds or sun rays. Then in 1948, the dramatic circular Coca-Cola sign became the bright red beacon on Peachtree Street.
It’s difficult to explain what role the Coca-Cola sign played in the psyche of Atlanta. It was the meeting place. It was the icon of Atlanta — reinforcing that link between Coca-Cola and the city where it was born. The New Year’s Eve celebrations at the foot of the sign began soon after.
The story of how the sign came down also is a corporate saga of Atlanta. Former Gov. George Busbee recalled the state’s intense efforts to woo the Georgia-Pacific headquarters to Atlanta in the late 1970s from Portland, Ore.
“We had the deal all worked out,” Busbee recalled of his negotiations with then-Georgia-Pacific CEO Robert Flowerree to locate the headquarters on the site of the old Loew’s Grand Theater. “And then Flowerree said the Coca-Cola sign had to go.”
There was no way Busbee was going to tell Coca-Cola legend Robert W. Woodruff that his sign had to go. But at one of their monthly luncheons, Woodruff asked Busbee how the Georgia-Pacific bid was going.
“We have called it off,” Busbee told Woodruff. “They wanted us to move the Coca-Cola sign.”
“Well, we can find another place for that sign,” Woodruff said.
It’s taken 22 years for Coca-Cola to find that other place. Now we have a new focal point where we can celebrate the New Year, a la Times Square — maybe with a revival of First Night, maybe an extension of the Peach Drop at Underground. It will be a new gathering point.
Daft hopes the new sign will end the rumors that the company is moving.
“There should not have ever been any question about that,” Daft said. “I don’t think there’s any greater indication we could say to Atlanta. This is our hometown. This is Coca-Cola’s birthplace.”