A look back at a long-gone Atlanta
It’s no secret that Atlanta is widely and rapidly gentrifying, changing the geography and culture of a city that seems to perpetually seek “progress.” Gentrification, the typically planned process by which individuals in the upper-middle class displace poorer individuals in traditionally working class or poor neighborhoods by purchasing property and upgrading it through renovation and modernization, is evident along the city’s Beltline from the Old Fourth Ward to the West End. Breweries, boutiques and brunch spots! Oh, my!
In fact, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study, Atlanta is the nation’s fourth fastest gentrifying city behind Washington, D.C., Portland, and Seattle, and this fact is faced with mixed opinions. Using data from the 2000 census and the American Community Survey from 2010-2014, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia identified neighborhoods in the dynamic, or high-pressure, stage of gentrification: Pittsburgh, Capitol View, West End, and Bankhead. The rest of the westside communities are also speeding through the gentrification process, including Vine City, Sylvan Hills, Venetian Hills, and on over to SWATS — from Adamsville as far as Greenbriar. Proponents claim that gentrification is a sign of economic growth, bringing improved infrastructure, increased access to retail and recreation, and opportunities for small businesses in previously “blighted” communities. However, the social costs of this speedy development include the loss of established small businesses and involuntary displacement of long-time residents who cannot afford the exponentially rising property taxes and rental prices. While warehouses are transformed into live-work-play spaces, an affordable housing crisis looms over the city like a thick cloud of pine pollen.
This is not the first (or second or third) time Atlanta has faced this crisis of identity, seeking economic growth and making high-minded claims to social progress while sacrificing the under-privileged inhabitants that compose the city’s culture. Think back to the construction of the Atlanta airport, the development of government housing projects, the decades-long battles over the interstate system, and the welcoming of the world to the 1996 Olympics. As far back as the post-Reconstruction era and the early 20th century, Atlanta has wrestled with ideals of social and economic progress alongside a deep-rooted commitment to racist and classist oppression that accompanies city planning.
The burning of Atlanta during Sherman’s March to the Sea marks the genesis of the mythology of Atlanta as the great and flourishing city emerging triumphantly from the ashes. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw an influx of poor white and black laborers and farmers creating a tension through fierce competition for jobs and residences. Additionally, there was an emerging African American middle class thriving along Auburn Avenue and Ph. D Row, a residential area near the Atlanta University Center. Jim Crow was brutally and systematically enforced. Atlanta faced a severe housing crisis. City planners, policy makers, business owners, and community organizers from both white and African American communities found themselves in conflict at the intersections of economic power, racial equality, and geography. In short, who would live where?
This ongoing frequently-violent conflict culminated in the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906, when mobs of white Georgians, inspired by racist comments by Georgia Gov. Hoxe Smith and a series of sensational headlines about black men raping white women, for days attacked and killed innocent black men and destroyed homes and businesses in and around Atlanta. Again invoking the phoenix mythology, the city wanted to move on from this “burning” and into the 20th century, creating policies and practices around zoning cloaked in the hope of “avoiding another riot.” This often looked like establishing “present Negro areas,” proposing “Negro expansion areas,” and the widespread construction of segregated Federal Housing Authority housing projects.
Flames would engulf the city in the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, yet another literal context for the phoenix metaphor. The fire originated from four separate fires on the morning of May 21, 1917: a downtown cotton warehouse, a fire in the West End, homes ablaze on Woodward Avenue, and a fire on the roof of a Grady Hospital “pest house”/quarantine house/storage facility on Decatur Street, where firemen found stacks of cotton mattresses on fire. It was fueled by heat, wooden cottages, and strong winds. In approximately 11 hours, over 50 blocks of Darktown (guess the etymology of that town name!), now known as the Old Fourth Ward, up to the edge of Piedmont Park were destroyed. Adding to the damage inflicted by the fire, many properties were demolished by dynamite to create gulfs to trap the fire, resulting in the displacement of 10,000 African Americans (almost a tenth of the city’s population) and millions of dollars of damage. Homes (including author Margaret Mitchell’s birth home) and businesses became ash-covered ruins in the weeks that followed. The newly homeless Atlantans set up camps in Piedmont Park, vacant lots in the area, and shelters of churches. After the fire, the area was forever transformed, with apartment buildings replacing single family homes.
Which brings me to the point of this article.
In the name of progress, Atlanta, the city I love, has surrendered geographical spaces of social and cultural import. It has allowed for the displacement of some of its most vulnerable citizens, many of whom shaped (and continue to shape) the city’s cultural identity. Here is a glimpse into an old Atlanta, older than what we commonly refer to as Old Atlanta (pre-770 area codes). What were these communities like? Who lived there? What was the geography? Also, what currently exists in their place? These former Atlanta communities from over a century ago may no longer exist, but the current city literally follows in their footsteps.
Not long ago, Atlanta’s motto was “Every Day is Opening Day.” Maybe that’s still the motto, IDK. At any rate, this motto would have applied to Atlanta over a century ago, when there was an abundance of amusement parks all over the city. There was Ponce Springs or Ponce de Leon Amusement Park in 1903. The White City Amusement Park, now the site of Parkside Elementary School near Grant Park. The Lakewood Fairgrounds became a summer resort and musical venue in 1895. Yes, indeed, every day was indeed an opening day… and every day was a segregated day. These parks admitted “negroes and colored people” as servants only. Enter the construction of Joyland.
In 1921, Joyland, known as the “colored Lakewood,” opened as an amusement park for African Americans. A creek ran through its center and was flanked by tall oak trees. The park opening was attended by the mayor of Atlanta and several prominent preachers from black churches around the city. Joyland Park was a civic victory for proponents who campaigned tirelessly for a park African Americans could attend. Fun fact: the Race Riot of 1906 was quelled by African American residents of the area around Joyland who smuggled guns and arms into the post office from Macon and Savannah. There’s some mystery surrounding what came of the amusement park, though folks speculate that it closed some time during the Great Depression.
In 1926, community members formed Joyland Park, an African-American subdivision in the area surrounding the park. Those who lived here were mostly farmers, farmhands, and laborers. To address the city’s housing crisis, the Joyland Park housing project was later built. The George Washington Carver Homes were completed in 1953 to house 990 African-American families. During Atlanta’s historic wave of closing and/or demolition of all public housing at the turn of the 21st century, Carver Homes was replaced by the Villages of Carver, a mixed-income development community. A number of Atlanta’s civic leaders are from Joyland, including Arthur Langford, Jr., after whom the current public park was named in 1995. Arthur Langford Park includes a playground, a skate park, some of the same old trees from the original park, and the creek still cuts its path through the center.
Just south of Georgia Tech along Techwood Drive (Centennial Olympic Park Drive), Tanyard Bottom was a de facto integrated neighborhood during the early 20th century characterized as a “shanty town” or “slum.” Tanyard Bottom was an impoverished, mixed-race settlement composed of poor white and black laborers who worked in the warehouses and on the railroads. This level of integration (one-third of the 1600 families were African American) provides a contrary narrative to the state of segregation in Atlanta during the time, borne out of the necessity for members of both races to live close to the factories in which they worked.
In June of 1933, demolition of Tanyard Bottom began, and in 1935, the first Public Works Administration — a branch of FDR’s New Deal — housing project, Techwood Homes, was dedicated. Construction was completed in 1936. It’s interesting to note that the PWA established a “neighborhood composition rule,” stating that federal housing projects should reflect the previous racial composition of their neighborhoods. So, in theory, Techwood Homes should have been integrated. But, of course not. Techwood Homes was designated as “whites only,” and further exacerbated the housing crisis for the evicted African Americans who crowded into other “established Negro areas.” Furthermore, the new housing development was designed for lower-middle class white families, so the previous white residents of Tanyard Bottom were either forced to live in other areas or illegally double-up in housing units to meet income requirements.
Techwood Homes was demolished in preparation for the 1996 Olympics and is now Centennial Place Apartments. The area is surrounded by an increasingly sprawling Georgia Tech University and popular tourist attractions such as the World of Coca-Cola, the Children’s Museum, the Georgia Aquarium, and Centennial Olympic Park.
Beaver (or Beaver’s) Slide was an African-American settlement, also designated as a “slum,” in the area near Morris Brown University, Clark College, Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College, known collectively as the Atlanta University Center. City and university authorities frequently cited the area’s high levels of criminality and need to be “cleaned up.” Most of the inhabitants of Beaver Slide were lower-income laborers. Legend states that the town got its name from then-Atlanta Police Chief James Beaver observing the community from a hillside, losing his footing, and “sliding” down into the slum. There’s also a blues song documenting the area entitled “Beaver Slide Rag” by musician and bootlegger Peg Leg Howell.
Like many of the communities in this article, Beaver Slide was identified as a “slum” during Atlanta’s aggressive public housing project development, largely to justify its demolition. It was argued that the area simply needed investment to improve infrastructure for electricity and running water. Beaver Slide homeowners were bought out at low prices and renters were evicted. Those homeowners struggled to find affordable housing. They also lacked the support of leaders from the nearby black higher learning institutions, many of whom lived on Ph.D. Row in Vine City, who felt the area around the schools needed to be “respectable.” So, Beaver Slide was replaced by University Homes, the second PWA housing project in Atlanta. University Homes, built in 1938, was the African American counterpart to Techwood Homes, housing hundreds of lower- and upper-middle class families.
University Homes was demolished between the years of 2008 and 2009, and the land is now fields of grass dotted by the remains of apartment buildings, brick steps leading to imaginary entrances, bordered by barbed-wire fences. The property is currently a part of the University Choice Neighborhood Housing Plan, which claims to bring mixed-income housing to the former site of Beaver Slide by 2023.
There was a time, some years ago, when I first began hearing the term “West Midtown.” My response was typically, “Da hell is that?” Well, it’s that area west of Atlantic Station, north of MLK, Jr. Drive and along the Marietta Street corridor. West Midtown, a rapidly developing area, including the Westside Provision District, is an explosion of high-end restaurants, retail stores, and residences. The area’s current aesthetic is a nod to its industrial roots. What is now West Midtown was home to much of Atlanta’s industrial and Civil War history. Gen. Sherman used the extant Norfolk Southern rail lines to invade Atlanta and, in the wake of the city’s recovery, several residential settlements popped up, including Knight’s Park/Howell Station, Underwood Hills, and Blandtown.
Blandtown is located along Huff Road between Howell Mill Road and Marietta Boulevard. It was one of the first black settlements around post-Civil War Atlanta. The community was named after Felix Bland, a freed man to whom Mrs. Viney Bland bequeathed the land in her will. One story behind this bequest is that Mrs. Bland, a white landowner, paid for the university education of her former Felix and later willed him her estate. However — and get this — Mrs. Viney Bland is listed as “Negro” in the 1880 census, along with her husband Samuel, who was also black and purchased four acres for $200 in 1871. The pair had four children, including Felix, none of whom were ever enslaved. Fascinating story, either way.
Bland lost the land due to unpaid taxes, and it was subsequently bought and developed into a residential area by Bob Booth. The mostly African American community had four churches, schools, and a health clinic; many of its residents worked in industries nearby — a mill, the railroad, a fertilizer factory, and a stockyard. A fire burned through Blandtown in 1928, incinerating 15 homes, two restaurants, and a church. True to Atlanta’s phoenix spirit, the town was rebuilt and continued to thrive into the early 1950s.
Encroaching rail lines, interstate construction, and industrial rezoning contributed to Blandtown (and Knight’s Park and Underwood Hills) becoming a residential island. The neighborhood was eventually swallowed up in a sea of industrialization, being officially rezoned in 1956. By the 1990s, many of these factories and warehouses would be abandoned, save for some really good discount warehouse retailers where one could cop three suits for $99.99, including a matching pocket square. The current wave of gentrification was initiated in this same decade with the repurposing of warehouses into art centers, lofts, retailers, and restaurants.
At its height, Blandtown was made up of at least 200 homes. In 2020, only four remain. On English Street, artist Gregor Turk, owner of one of the four last Blandtown homes, has created a nine-foot art installation that marks the legacy of Felix Bland. It is a billboard that reads “the Heart of Blandtown,” and it is surrounded by homes exceeding values of half a million dollars.
Buttermilk Bottom/Buttermilk Bottoms/Black Bottom
Sisters are fine and foxy
The prettiest thing you’ve ever seen
Tall, black and sexy
And every time you see ’em they’re clean
They all wearing different gangsta hats
Cause they think that’s where it’s at
They switching and walking and talking
And driving them Cadillacs
On Saturday night they’re drinking
Come Sunday they all start thinking
And praying to the Lord to save us
Save us all from Buttermilk Bottom
Buttermilk Bottom (1973) — Spirit of Atlanta
The lyrics from the song above by Spirit of Atlanta accurately describe this old Atlanta neighborhood that was razed a decade before in 1963. Buttermilk Bottom, aka Buttermilk Bottoms, aka Black Bottom covered some of the terrain in the Old Fourth Ward along the edge of downtown in the floodplain of Atlanta. Folklore suggests that the community earned its name from the smell of backed up water in the downward sloping sewers in the area. An alternate explanation has the source of the smell run-off from a nearby dairy processing factory. Buttermilk Bottom was an impoverished and severely under-developed African American neighborhood. It suffered from a lack of investment or interest, having no telephones or electricity, and minimal running water — many buildings still used outhouses — in the mid-20th century. That’s right. You read that right. In the middle of the city in the middle of the 20th century, there was an area called Buttermilk (or Black) Bottom that did not have telephones, electricity, or running water.
Off the main roads, the streets in Buttermilk Bottom were dirt roads well into the 1960s. Along these streets were hundreds of wooden-framed homes with lively front porches. Music permeated the area, pouring out from cars, homes, churches, and juke joints. Many of the Bottom’s residents worked as domestics in the wealthier homes nearby along Charles Allen Drive or in one of the “garden neighborhoods,” better known as Inman Park and Coppin Hill. Buttermilk Bottom was a culturally generative site, despite and because of harsh conditions inflicted on the community through oppressive racial and class discrimination.
“How big was Buttermilk Bottom, anyway?” you may find yourself wondering, probably trying to mitigate the shock of that fact by hoping it was maybe a square block or two. Nope. While it’s difficult to mark the exact boundaries these days, the land that was annexed and developed by the City of Atlanta in the 1960s in the name of improvement consists of the now-defunct Atlanta Civic Center, the Georgia Power headquarters, Bedford Pine apartments, Renaissance Park, and Central Park. A fire in 1970 along Boulevard destroyed several homes, and the homes along Peachtree were replaced with office buildings. The annexation and redevelopment of Buttermilk Bottom was particularly controversial and underhanded. Ivan Allen, Jr., and the City of Atlanta completed a series of maneuvers that placed the spectre of urban renewal over the lives of the city’s residents. For example, there was the coordinated evasion of the Federal Housing Authority’s rule that the destruction of existing housing must be accompanied by replacement public housing. Allen’s administration allocated 300 units in Bowen Homes; unfortunately, these units were already allocated for other relocation services. The City of Atlanta also directly lied in negotiations with the Urban League regarding promises to provide housing for the displaced mostly-renting Bottom residents, with Mayor Allen having no intention of doing so. No residential land was allocated in the redevelopment plan for the affected area.
Community members would eventually organize under the group U-RESCUE (“Urban Renewal Emergency: Stop, Consider, Understand, Evaluate”) to resist the persistent demolition of homes and to protect the rights of residents. Despite their efforts and some victories, very little low-income housing was ever developed for the folks who called the Bottom home. U-Rescue Villa, a public housing complex, was a result of the organization’s work, and the Cosby Spear House remains as a home for senior citizens.
These neighborhoods are just a small fraction of communities that have either prospered or gone the way of the steam engine through Atlanta’s prevailing desire to reach the ever-moving horizon of the “New South.” This survey of a teeny sample of Atlanta’s community development since the Civil War surely holds some parallel points worthy of consideration. What are the social and human costs of urban renewal and economic development? What cycles are we reproducing? What would an Atlanta that truly lived up to its ideals look like? Through periods of fire and destruction to periods of renewal and “opening days,” Atlanta has latched onto the phoenix. This is inspirational, sure.
Here’s hoping that one day Atlanta will mature enough to know it doesn’t need to burn the whole shit down in order to grow and bloom.