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

New uses for old interviews II: Wrapping it up

Back in February I wrote about some of the challenges of donating old interviews done during graduate school in the 1990s for newspapers to the Atlanta History Center’s archives as oral histories. After some interesting attempts to get release forms signed more than 20 years after the interviews were done and more than a few collisions with data rot, the donation was completed in June.

01-WilliesNeon

Blind Willie’s, Atlanta, Ga., June 2013. Photo by author

On May 7, 2013, I met with AHC vice president for research services Paul Crater in the lobby of the Kenan Research Center to deliver a stack of file folders that included interview transcripts, research notes, publicity photos, and artist clips and bios sent to me by record companies, publicists, bar owners, and local promoters. The materials included interviews with Blind Willie’s blues bar owner Eric King and Atlanta-area musicians I interviewed for Footnotes, a short-lived alt-weekly that published in 1990 and 1991. The files included interviews with local bluesers Tinsley Ellis, Roger Wilson, and Michael Stone (a.k.a. Stoney B. Blues). Also included was my file and transcripts from five interviews done between 1991 and 1994 with former Allman Brothers keyboardist and Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton sideman Chuck Leavell.

Footnotes cover, February 27, 1991

Footnotes cover, February 27, 1991

Though Leavell lives on a tree farm outside of Macon, Ga., he’s an influential musician who over the past twenty years has become a leading Georgia conservationist and advocate for preserving the state’s musical heritage. Out of the hundreds of interviews I have done since the late 1980s, the AHC donation was but a small fraction of my collection to ensure that the donation conformed to the institution’s mission to collect materials about the “people, places, and events of the Atlanta Metropolitan Region.”

In the February post I described how I was able to get King’s signature on an AHC release form: he and I are neighbors. Getting releases signed by musicians, some of whom have moved away from Atlanta or who have simply disappeared, was more of a challenge.

Leavell was one of the first to consent and he sent a scanned copy of his signed release via email. Wilson, who in the 1990s fronted a band called the “Low Overhead Band” and who in 1991 sent me his press kit via U.S. Postal service with postage due, had just one request of me before he was willing to sign the release. After a month of email exchanges, Wilson finally wrote on February 13: “If you will vote for me here now to get onstage with Eric Clapton at Crossroads, I’ll sign the release.” I did (and so did my wife) and he sent the signed release–again via the mail but this time with full postage.

Pierce Pettis isn’t a blueser but he is a new folk musician who lived in Atlanta in the 1980s and 1990s while he was married to a Georgia State University English professor. I had reviewed a 1992 show he gave in Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I subsequently interviewed him for articles that were published in several newspapers. In early 2013 he was living in Alabama. I emailed his manager and a few days later Pettis replied, “As to the Atlanta History Center release . . . I’d be honored.  Please feel free to send it.”

Interview with Spike Driver lead guitarist and Footnotes blues editor Bryan Powell. Footnotes, August 28, 1990.

Interview with Spike Driver lead guitarist and Footnotes blues editor Bryan Powell. Footnotes, August 28, 1990.

My newspaper interviews were done with an old Sanyo microcassette recorder and I transcribed most of the early ones (1990-1991) in longhand on yellow pads and then typed them into a word processing program on my old Kaypro computer and its replacement, an old 5.25-inch double-floppy drive Compaq. I kept most of my microcassettes with interviews I had done with big name artists like ZZ Top, BB King, Carlos Santana, and John Lee Hooker, but I recorded over many of my interviews with local musicians like my Footnotes colleague and editor Bryan Powell who also fronted a blues band: Spike Driver.

Bryan Powell (left) and Rough Draft. Fatt Matt’s, Atlanta, Ga., February 22, 2013. Photo by author.

Bryan Powell (left) and Rough Draft. Fatt Matt’s, Atlanta, Ga., February 22, 2013. Photo by author.

Powell and I alternated weeks writing the blues column that appeared in Footnotes. One of my first Footnotes interviews was with Powell in his apartment and my profile of him ran in September 1990. In November 1990, we did a memorable interview in an Atlanta bar with blues legend Johnny Shines that appeared in Footnotes under both of our bylines. By early 2013, Powell was doing corporate writing and he still played guitar and sang with a local blues band: the aptly named “Rough Draft.”

I tracked Powell down at a Rough Draft gig in late February and gave him a copy of the AHC release. My wife and I enjoyed some barbecue as we listened to the band’s first set. When I returned home to begin processing Powell’s file I discovered that all I had were my handwritten notes from the September 1990 interview, his press kit, and the clip from my article. The interview I did with him was typed directly into my Kaypro and when I tried to access the files that I had copied from the old 5.25-inch diskettes onto new media back in the mid-90s, I discovered that they were unreadable digital gobbledygook. All that I was able to transmit from my interview with Powell were the notes, clips, and an empty space that data rot and poor archiving practices prevented being occupied by my 1990 interview transcript.

In March, King and I spent a couple of hours in his dining room going over the transcript from his interview, his belated Christmas gift, and talking about Atlanta’s blues scene after I had left in 1991. It was a nice way to close out a project that had its accidental inception almost 23 years earlier.

The Atlanta History Center’s Paul Crater inventories materials, May 7, 2013. Photo by author.]

The Atlanta History Center’s Paul Crater inventories materials, May 7, 2013. Photo by author.]

Compiling the AHC donation package and tracking down the musicians was a fun diversion. The exercise underscored a couple of important points. First, the importance of getting releases signed for all interviews so that they may be accessioned into an archive and to ensure that interviewees’ intellectual property rights are protected. Second, the very real pitfalls of data rot: changing technology and the limited lifespans of software formats and recording media (analog and digital). I had dealt with some aspects of this when a client hired me to transfer two dozen oral histories done in the 90s on DAT to CDs and a hard drive. The foundation’s previous public history consultant had recorded them on her personal DAT recorder and the organization, lacking its own DAT machine, had no way of accessing the narratives recorded to mark its 50th anniversary.

On June 6, 2013 the Atlanta History Center sent the Deed of Gift forms for me to execute. Once signed and returned, my extracurricular excursion into Atlanta’s musical past and my own professional past was done. Now it’s on to the next phase: finding a home for the other interviews I did with musicians during my decade as a freelance music writer.

~ David S. Rotenstein (Historian for Hire) is an independent consultant working in Atlanta, Washington DC, and beyond.

New uses for old interviews

four men at bar

Left to right: Roger Gregory, Eric King, Tom Robinson, Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the bar at Blind Willies. October 24, 1990. (Photo: David S. Rotenstein)

Can you remember where you worked during graduate school? To pay my way through Penn in the 1980s and 1990s I worked in cultural resource management and as a freelance writer. Although history and material culture are my true professional loves, the writing gig was the more interesting, though less profitable, job.

During a two-year break from classes–it’s a long story–I began writing a blues column for a short-lived Atlanta alt-weekly called Footnotes. Between August 1990 and March 1991, I wrote performance reviews and feature stories about musicians derived from lengthy tape-recorded interviews. I also interviewed bar owners and others to develop background material for future stories.

By the time I decided to return to Penn to finish my coursework, Footnotes had folded and I had begun writing about folk and blues music for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Charlotte Observer, and other papers and magazines throughout the United States. Always the historian, I held onto my research files and interviews, including verbatim transcripts for many of them. Continue reading

Preservation conversations: When history at work is history at home (Part II)

Before the mid-1960s, except for domestics and a few other exceptions, South Decatur was exclusively white. It was a place Decatur’s blacks knew to not be after sundown. They knew that they were welcome to clean houses, cut lawns, and bag groceries there during the day but the suburban dream being lived by their white employers was beyond reach. Things began to change as white flight transformed neighboring Atlanta neighborhoods and a turning point was reached in the 1960s when the City of Decatur embarked on a second phase of urban renewal in the historically black neighborhood known by its residents as the Beacon Community and by whites as “Nigger Town.”

Displacement created opportunity and the Beacon Community’s former renters, boarders, and homeowners began buying homes in South Decatur. Suddenly, the dream of becoming a suburban homeowner was becoming a reality. As the number of black homeowners increased, whites fled. The number of whites decamping from South Decatur spurred the Decatur City Commission in 1966 to enact an ordinance banning real estate signs on residential properties. Discriminatory lending practices (some of which persisted into the late 1980s resulting in the landmark U.S. v. Decatur Federal Savings and Loan case) combined with new homeowners unprepared for the challenges of homeownership and an aging population of whites who remained behind created conditions in the early 1970s that made the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development the leading residential property owner and manager in the city. Continue reading

Preservation conversations: When history at work is history at home (Part I)

What if after you bought the historic house of your dreams in a neighborhood that billed itself as “historic” you found out that your definition of historic clashed with that of your new neighbors? As a historian with nearly thirty years under my belt in history and historic preservation, that’s precisely what happened in 2011 when my wife and I bought a small Craftsman-influenced home in a Decatur, Georgia, neighborhood.

Our Decatur home was built in 1925 on a quiet street less than one block in from the tree-lined street that once carried the Gilded Age streetcar line that connected Atlanta to Decatur and which spurred development of the community in the years bracketing the turn of the twentieth century. Sure, there were some outsized and out-of-character infill homes and houses built on teardown sites, but the numbers didn’t strike us as anything out of the ordinary for a thriving urban neighborhood.

I had been aware that in 2007 local historic preservation advocates had tried, and failed, to have the neighborhood designated as a local historic district. And, considering how much the community (and city’s) marketing efforts focused on its historic character, I held out hope that the community’s historic buildings, landscapes, and diverse population might get another chance sometime in the future.

As a low-overhead history consultant, I worked out of our house once we moved in the first week of September 2011. I enjoy walking and talking to people and I regularly rode my bike through the neighborhood on my way to the regional trail network. It didn’t take long for me to notice the unusual amount of new construction underway–construction that didn’t appear to be occurring as we were hunting for a house earlier that spring and summer. Continue reading