Historic preservation shines a light on a dark past

Trinity High School demolition, 2013. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Trinity High School demolition, 2013. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Between 2011 and 2014, the city of Decatur, Georgia, demolished 200 public housing units built in 1940, under the auspices of slum clearance. In 2013, Decatur’s two city-owned former equalization schools were demolished for a new civic complex and police headquarters. In one gentrifying neighborhood, the private sector sent more than 120 former African American homes to landfills, continuing a cycle of serial displacement begun a century ago. In another neighborhood, a developer demolished a historic black church to clear land for new upscale townhomes. The widespread disappearance of African American landmarks began just two years after the City of Decatur released a citywide historic resources survey that made no mention of the community’s black residents, past and present, nor their historic places.1

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Fragile history in a gentrifying neighborhood

1.Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo by the author.

Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit:  David Rotenstein

Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.

Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values.  Continue reading

“Them” in Atlanta: A gentrification photo album

book coverIn 2007 Atlanta journalist Nathan McCall’s novel Them was published. The book is a fictionalized account of a very real Atlanta neighborhood–the Old Fourth Ward–undergoing gentrification. The neighborhood is a place where civil rights historic landmarks jockey for attention and dollars among hip bars and restaurants. A recent historic preservation battle exposed tensions that pit adapting old buildings for new uses versus tearing them down for new developments. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part II)

townhouses on wharf

Portland’s waterfront has been the site of considerable redevelopment in recent decades. Photo credit: Wendell

Continued from Part 1.

Portland’s gentrification and redevelopment attracted the attention of Loretta Lees, a United Kingdom professor with family in Maine. She documented the rehabilitation of residential, commercial, and industrial properties and the reconfiguration of public spaces in Portland’s upgrading downtown neighborhoods. New people, new capital, and new regulatory regimes aimed at protecting new investments collided in Portland’s streets and squares. Lees honed in on the city’s youth culture and its clash with business owners and city officials in competing to use adapted old spaces.

The Portland conflict Lees documented occurred in a global process that sanitizes and homogenizes urban spaces via socially engineered diversity initiatives. Since Portland isn’t New York or some other big city, its downtown gentrification provided Lees with an opportunity to observe urban conflict on a smaller scale. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part I)

blacksmith in shop

Sam Smith holds an axe head and displays other objects he has fabricated and some of the raw materials (many of them salvaged) that he uses in his work. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein

Sam Smith’s blacksmith shop is part living history laboratory and part urban sustainability experiment. He is a former history major who turned passions for the past and metalworking into a business that produces objects, artisans, and history in contested space on the edge of a gentrifying Portland, Maine, neighborhood. His business, The Portland Forge, is a local craft shop that could succumb to a global process that is displacing artisans and small-scale industrial operations in cities worldwide. Continue reading

Blacktop history: The case for preserving parking lots

parking lot

Toco Hill Shopping Center, suburban Atlanta, c. 1961. Photo credit: Tracey O’Neal Photographic Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

In early 1950, developers opened a “park and shop” center in suburban Washington, DC. By 1950 “park and shop” was an established commercial property type, and the phrase was in common usage (by general public and developers). Media coverage of its opening focused on the spacious new supermarket and other retail establishments, as well as on a state-of-the-art theater with late-Art Deco detailing, designed by a nationally-recognized architect. But the center’s ample free parking lots got as much attention as these other features, reflecting how central the automobile was in the creation of what was becoming a dominant American commercial landscape. A February 12, 1950, Washington Post article noted that the center “will have easy parking space for 600 cars, with no need for backing and scratching that new fender.”

Sixty-three years later, historic preservation planners recommended designating the property under that county’s historic preservation ordinance. But although the parking lots were considered part of the cultural and historic landscape, the planners recommended treatment for the property that privileged preservation of the buildings only. Although adhering strictly to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation for the movie theater and shopping center itself, the recommendations to the county planning board encouraged redevelopment of the parking lot. This omission challenges decades of preservation practices that require preservationists to consider the tout ensemble–the entire scene. Continue reading

A lesson in racial profiling and historical relevance

people at meeting

Don Denard is hugged by supporters as he arrives at the Decatur City Commission meeting, February 18, 2014. Photo by author

In December 2013, an African American man was detained by Decatur, Georgia, police after he was seen leaving his home. An officer issued a suspicious person alert based on the “reasonable articulable suspicion” premise–the legal basis for many states’ “stop and frisk” laws.

Don Denard has lived in the Decatur home he was seen leaving since 1987. He is a former school board member and an active participant in Decatur’s civic life. Yet on December 15, 2013, he was just another black man walking in a community that is becoming steadily whiter and wealthier and where all such men are regarded, as Denard says, with the presumption of guilt. Continue reading

Bridging the new digital divide: Open records in the age of digital reproduction

deed books

Deed books line the walls of the DeKalb County, Ga., land records research room. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein.

The depression of 1893 hit the Atlanta Suburban Land Company hard.  The Georgia firm, founded in 1890 to develop residential subdivisions along a new six-mile streetcar line linking downtown Atlanta with Decatur to the east, had bought nearly 2,000 acres in its first two years in business. But by 1896, it was more than $100,000 in debt, and a receiver held its assets. In its fall 1896 term, the Fulton County Superior Court ordered the receiver to sell the remaining real estate to settle the debts.

More than a century later, I requested the case files. The Fulton County Clerk employee who handed them to me once they had been retrieved from offsite storage told me that if I wanted copies of the tri-folded documents, I would have to request them from the service counter, and another staff member would photocopy them on a Xerox-type machine for fifty cents apiece.

My request to take flash-free digital photos was rebuffed despite my explanation that it would be better for the aging documents than forcing them flat against a copier’s glass platen and then closing the machine’s cover. I also questioned whether mandatory third-party intervention for copying records was consistent with Georgia’s Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. §50-18-70), and I was invited to speak with the county clerk. Continue reading

Documenting gentrification: A video rough cut


map showing teardownsIn 1975 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated a one-square-mile part of Decatur, Georgia an Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program neighborhood. The designation meant that the city’s housing authority could sell distressed properties in its inventory to qualified buyers for one dollar.

The 113 homes sold between 1975 and 1982 initiated successive waves of gentrification in the inner ring Atlanta suburb. By the turn of the 21st century, Decatur was home to hip restaurants and bars and the former urban homesteading neighborhood had become fertile territory for teardowns and mansionization.

After my wife and I moved to the neighborhood in 2011, I watched and filmed one of the former dollar homes being demolished. My subsequent research into housing history in South Decatur brought me into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory as a historian who specializes in architectural and industrial history: the contentious nexus of race, class, and privilege in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Continue reading