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
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
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