The former nightclub is long gone, its address now attached to a Japanese restaurant that has sake specials on Thursdays and half-priced wine on Sundays. There’s a Georgetown Cupcake bakery a couple of doors down, and across the street is a new high-end condo building where even the cheapest units run seven figures.
This quiet stretch of Atlanta’s Buckhead district was once at the thumping heart of the city’s vibrant, all-night party. Nineteen years ago, it was also Atlanta’s most infamous crime scene, the center of one of the most shocking and unforgettable stories associated with a Super Bowl. As revelers poured out of the Cobalt Lounge in the early morning hours on Jan. 31, 2000, a group partying with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was involved in an altercation that resulted in two deaths. Lewis and two members of his entourage were charged with murder, but the football star eventually pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge and the others were later acquitted.
For many, this is the lasting memory from that Super Bowl; the tragedy, charges and ensuing court proceedings dominated news coverage for the weeks and months that followed the St. Louis Rams’ win over the Tennessee Titans in the Georgia Dome, which ended with Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackling Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson one yard short of the goal line to prevent a potential tying touchdown as time expired.
As the Super Bowl returns to Atlanta next week for the first time since 2000, football fans will see a glitzy new stadium, a growing, changing city and a popular neighborhood changed forever by a night of revelry and murder.
In many ways, the transformation of Buckhead Village is the most tangible legacy of that incident. Lewis served probation and resumed his stellar football career. No one was ever convicted of the murders. But the bar-filled neighborhood was never the same, and one of the country’s most decadent party scenes had officially fizzled.
“I believe it was really catalytic because the community really did come together to say, ‘Wait a minute. This is symptomatic of nightlife run amok,’ ” said Jim Durrett, executive director of Buckhead Community Improvement District.
By the late 1990s, the tech boom brought Atlanta an influx of cash and jobs, the 1996 Summer Olympics brought attention, and the burgeoning hip-hop scene brought street cred. A bustling nightlife centered in Buckhead Village thrived. Trying to encourage growth, the city had waived a requirement necessitating new businesses to build parking lots, and bars and clubs started booking DJs and pouring drinks. At one point, there were about 100 bars and restaurants with alcohol licenses all located within three or so blocks of each other. It was like Bourbon Street after a quick rinse-off — barhopping, bar-crawling and bar-stumbling the norm.
“I’ve been all over, and back then there was no better mecca for partying than Buckhead,” said Stephen “Steak” Shapiro, a popular radio personality who founded the site Atlanta Eats. “It was what everybody talked about — just a tremendous scene, the epicenter of entertainment.”
Sam Massell was Atlanta’s mayor from 1970 to 1973 and has lived in Buckhead since 1952. He has another way of describing the scene: “It was pretty much like the wild West.”
“You had all these young business owners with little experience,” explained Massell, now the president of the Buckhead Coalition, a group of community businesses and residents. “There was so much competition coming in, and some clubs saw this cash cow and started bending rules — underage drinking, prostitution, illegal drugs, other ailments that really made the place undesirable for any community and dangerous for both patrons and residents. It was a pretty dark picture, frankly.”
Even before the 2000 murders, some in the neighborhood were demanding change. Massell recalls visiting the Cobalt and meeting with club owners, who boasted about having hired security and patting down patrons. “I said ‘Hell, sounds to me like you’re catering to a bad crowd. You shouldn’t need to pat down people that go to restaurants and other places of entertainment,’” he said.
The party came to a screeching halt following Lewis’s arrest. There had been fights and criminal activity in the area before, but the national headlines surrounding Lewis’s arrest and the murder charges cast the neighborhood in a dangerous and unfriendly light.
“It was one of the biggest names in the NFL accused of having a role in a murder right in the heart of your city — that’s a lot of unwanted marketing and attention,” Shapiro said. “Once they laid down the law in Buckhead, it really changed the complexion of the city.”
Some time around 4 a.m., a member of Lewis’s entourage was struck in the head with a champagne bottle in the street. The fight escalated from there. While he was never accused of stabbing either 21-year old Jacinth Baker or 24-year old Richard Lollar, Lewis was still charged with murder because of his role in the incident. He later admitted he lied to investigators in his initial statement. Midway through the ensuing trial, Lewis struck a deal and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction. He served 12 months probation and later reached undisclosed settlements with the families of both victims.
In many ways, the murders served as a tipping point. Neighborhood groups were meeting, politicians plotting and the area’s bars and clubs started to feel the squeeze.
“It was immediate,” said Larry Hall, who opened the popular bar Park Bench Buckhead 26 years ago.
Crowds disappeared just as city officials began enforcing and enacting more codes. Building and health inspectors knocked on doors. Police officers seemed ever-present, cracking down on underage drinking and drunken driving. Then in 2003, the city council forced bars to close an hour earlier, at 3 a.m.
The clubs started to go away. Cobalt served its last drink barely seven months after the murders. Soon popular late-night haunts such as Backstreet, Mike N’ Angelo’s, Uranus, Chaos, Mako’s and Lulu’s Bait Shack became part of Buckhead’s history books.
Hall says only about 10 of the area’s bars from that raucous period survived and still operate nearly 20 years later.
Meanwhile, real estate developers bought parcels of land with heady plans to transform the area. But the recession hit and much of the work stalled around 2008 — eventually stopping altogether. Cranes sat still and the progress froze. It took nearly three years for new developers to come in and begin work in the district.
The result is high-rises and mixed-use buildings that feature retail, residential and office space. Upscale eateries, luxury boutiques and high-end retails shops line the streets — Hermes, Dior, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin, Canali.
“It puts Rodeo Drive to shame,” Massell says.
A couple of blocks away from the former Cobalt location is where Baker and Lollar were stabbed to death in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000. Today there’s a 22-story condo building on one corner, a bank on another and across the intersection an open lot that will soon be home to yet another mixed-use high-rise.
There are still bars and entertainment venues, but they’re no longer concentrated within a couple of blocks.
“You’re now talking about a totally posh, bourgeoisie part of the city that millennials have no interest in,” Shapiro said. “It’s really geared toward the upscale, older audience to sip martinis and drink craft beers.”
Shapiro says that even if Buckhead feels tame, Atlanta as a whole is much more interesting than two decades ago, with plenty of other entertainment options. Buckhead’s transformation has allowed other parts of town — Midtown, West Midtown, Inman Park and East Atlanta, for example — to evolve and grow.
“There was a time for Buckhead, and it was fine,” Shapiro said. “It was a great place to party. But I don’t think anybody misses the thought that that’s what Atlanta was known for. Atlanta has a lot more layers today. It’s a much hipper and cooler place to be.”
And just as Buckhead recovered, so too did Lewis’s career. Though questions surrounding that January night remain unanswered 19 years later, the linebacker went on to become a Baltimore icon and was inducted last year into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He’ll return to Atlanta this week and again be a part of Super Bowl festivities. Lewis is hosting a Super Bowl party of his own this time around, about 15 miles south of Buckhead, with music, drinks and celebrities. Tickets start at $750.
Jesse Dougherty contributed reporting from Atlanta.
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