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

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 2)

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave.  Photo:  Slavery at South Carolina College team.

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave. Photo credit: Slavery at South Carolina College team.

Continued from Part 1.

As well as trying to convey a sense of these enslaved workers as people, the team of graduate students working on the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website also sought to connect this history to the physical landscape. Harnessing the power of place to tell the story of slavery, we emphasized the built environment of the historic college. The antebellum section of the campus, referred to today as the Horseshoe because of its shape, survives as the historic heart of the modern university. But the most important reason to emphasize the built environment is that slaves physically constructed it. 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

Making my thesis work for me

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss

Currently, public history educators are discussing whether their graduate students should be required to write master’s theses. Although some students (including myself) at times bemoan the thesis as impractical and suggest a public history project or portfolio as an alternative, I found my thesis experience to be integral to my development as a public historian. My research inspired me to reach out to scholars and professionals whose work paralleled my own. It has also opened new doors as I transition out of academia and into a career interpreting the past for public audiences.

My thesis research grew out of my experience volunteering and working as a seasonal interpretive ranger at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the late nineteenth-century Ohio home of the 20th President. I set out to write about the evolution of the historic landscape of the site, and I wanted to integrate my interest in historic site interpretation into my work, especially because a graduate course on this topic would not be offered during my two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). When I heard about the site’s plans to write a new long-range interpretive plan in early 2013, I asked to participate in the process. Continue reading