Riffing on the Trail of Tears

I’m a troll, so say residents of Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood.

Why? Because I spoke and wrote on taboo topics: gentrification and racism in their neighborhood while I lived there.

Whether folks see the redevelopment taking place in Oakhurst as destructive gentrification or beneficial neighborhood upgrading, most people on both sides agree that the neighborhood is changing, taxes are rising, and residents are being displaced. If you’re on the neighborhood conservation and social justice side of the table, it’s bad. If you’re on the other side and a property rights defender or work in the real estate/construction business, it’s good. The commentary from both sides may be found in local blogs, community listservs, and in testimony before the city commission.

I thought it was bad and, in 2011 when I began writing about it, I thought it was an emergency. I spoke and wrote brusquely and emotionally because I was mad as hell that it was occurring where it shouldn’t be: the progressive liberal city that touts itself as the place where “Mayberry meets Berkeley.” I was angry that racism and opportunism were the rule and not the exception. I was writing about the type of emergency Walter Benjamin described in a frequently quoted essay,

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. (Walter Benjamin. “Theses in the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, 257. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.)

I wasn’t the first to characterize gentrification in Oakhurst as an emergency or as racist and destructive. Community activists had been writing about it since the 1970s. In 2008 then-Oakhurst resident Valetta Anderson’s play about gentrification in Oakhurst, Hallelujah Street Blues, was performed during the National Black Arts Festival. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in July 2008:

As Anderson puts it in the synopsis, this is the backstory of urban renewal: “For today’s ‘urban pioneers,’ gentrification is an exciting adventure in neighborhoods’ economic revitalization that enjoys banner headlines and government support. But the elders, who struggle to keep their lifelong investments —- their homes —- are voiceless in this clamor for ‘progress.’ “

Old Southern racism and New Southern neoliberalism are not fascism, but they are close cousins. My writing on gentrification and racism in Decatur isn’t an outlier, the marginal musings of what one resident described as a “frustrated minor academic.” And, they weren’t the sour grapes of a (former) homeowner with buyer’s remorse. There is a reflexive tradition in the humanities and as long as I disclosed my biases — I was a resident and I was angry — I remained committed to writing about the emergency. It turns out I am not the only writer to emerge from anthropology and Folklore and Folklife to reflexively take on gentrification.

I think of anthropological writing as an intensely personal as well as a scholarly activity,” anthropologist Michael Herzfeld told the Harvard Crimson in 2009 as he was discussing his book on gentrification in Rome, “Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome” (University of Chicago Press, March 2009). “I think that good ethnographies are works of art as well as works of science. I allow my distress and anger at what is being done to my friends to show because I also think that it’s important for the reader of the book to assess my position in relation to what I am studying.”

In August 2012 I compared urban renewal to Native American removal in a forum message on displacement and the people most affected by it: African American homeowners caught in a cycle of serial forced displacement in Decatur that began with slum clearance in the 1940s; continued with urban renewal in the 1960s; and, which is continued by gentrification in the 21st century.

I was labeled a “troll” for the post. My observations were described as “hyperbole” and “insane.” Oakhurst’s residents could not conceive that events taking place around them daily could be compared to things like Native American removal or Japanese internment.

Was my 2012 post trolling or hyperbole and was I pulling historical examples out of thin air to make my point? Or was I recapitulating more than a quarter-century of scholarship on displacement and gentrification? I think the published record speaks for itself.

The published source


Hartman, Chester W., W. Dennis Keating, and Richard T. LeGates. Displacement: How to Fight It. Berkeley, Calif.: National Housing Law Project, 1982, pp. 3-4. Marked-up Georgia State University library copy. Note the comment in the margin on page 4, “Removal of Blacks ‘the market at work’.”

 The comments from Oakhurst

This passage is excerpted from my original post on displacement sent to the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s Yahoo email list. I was angry that the people who once, briefly, were my neighbors could passively sit by as other neighbors were being harassed by builders and displaced.

US history has three pretty big morality stains on its image related to the wholesale involuntary relocation of people:
1. Native American Removal;
2. Japanese Internment; and,
3. Urban Renewal.
With me so far? Good. Now it’s a well-known fact that many of the surviving elderly African Americans who live in Oakhurst were subject to at least one or two episodes of urban renewal. And, Mr. Brock, the urban renewal displacements all started the same: Polite letters and uninvited polite visits from people trying to get them to move. Call me crazy — hell, many of your neighbors already have — but if there’s just one octogenarian who claims that she is being harassed and who is a former victim of urban renewal, then Mr. Brock, in my opinion, that’s one too many. Do you even care how many of your neighbors, including a former mayor, who have said that they feel harassed, threatened, and that their privacy has been invaded? — David Rotenstein, Aug. 15, 2012.

The next day, Oakhurst resident Ken Seefried penned a post titled, “Trolls: Re: Moderation. Seefried urged his neighbors to ignore me. He wrote, “See this for what it is. He’s engaged in emotional button-pushing; histrionics intended to yank your chain.” He then offered his opinion on my linkage of displacement to removal:

This guy is a frustrated minor academic who wants to equate local gentrification to Japanese Internment and the Trail of Tears. Really? I mean, we all remember when the 9th Cavalry road into Oakhurst Square, gunned down the local warriors, marched the women the children and the infirm to the interment camps (where most of them died of famine, influenza & smallpox) and torched all the poor peoples houses so the evil, racist developers could put up F.L.Wright-ish in-fills for upper class oppressors. It’s *exactly* the same as Native American Removal, right everybody? — Ken Seefried, Aug. 16, 2012.

In December 2012, Oakhurst resident Leif Terry, who in the summer of 2012 proclaimed that he had founded the “Oakhurst Anti-Defamation League” to counter the misinformation he asserted that I was spreading, penned a manifesto that he posted on his website. Terry too took issue with the removal motif I deployed:

3) A famous post in which David Rotenstein compared Oakhurst gentrification to the Federal relocation programs. He later claimed that he hand’t meant that at all (that it was one paragraph long typo perhaps?). What he did say was that Oakhurst gentrification is a precursor to forced removal by the Federal government, which is, I think, much more insane.

On topic? No.

Weird? Yes.

Trolling? Yes.

Ken Seefried composed an elegant reply that ended Rotenstein’s tolling, at least on that forum.

I had never head of Ken before this, but I sent him an email thanking him and warning him that David Rotenstein would now consider him an enemy and would blog about him. — Leif Terry, Dec. 1, 2012.

Angela Wynne is an Oakhurst resident who created several online identities to post responses to things I had written about Oakhurst. Among them were a Twitter account called @IHeartOakhurst and a scribd,com account where in 2012 she posed a document titled, “Rotenstein v. Decatur: The Truth.” From the document (since removed by the company for violating its terms of service):

When it became clear that Oakhurst residents wouldn’t automatically fall in behind him, he called those who disagreed with him racist and compared Decatur residents to characters in the movie Deliverance ,,, His hyperbole knew no bounds, and he went so far as to compare Oakhurst’s revival with KKK attacks and Native American removal on the Trail of Tears. — Angela E. Wynne, September 2012.

Critics of my work and property rights activists continue to write about the August 2012 post on displacement. E.J. Sadler is an Oakhurst builder who posted this comment to the Oakhurst Yahoo list earlier this year.

As he has equated Oakhurst’s gentrification to the Trail of Tears and considers bumping your bungalow from 900 sf ft to 1,800 sq ft an act of ‘Mansionization’, I wouldn’t count on it. — E.J. Sadler, Feb. 5, 2014.

The Connections

There is a clear and bright throughline connecting historical acts of forced displacement and the gentrification sweeping through Oakhurst in the present. There also is a clear and compelling public record that Decatur city officials and the city’s newer, younger and wealthier residents that belies the city’s claims of diversity, inclusion, and compassion.

The neoliberal and racist rhetoric deployed in social media and in public forums, like city commission meetings, underscores the linkage. The newer residents don’t think twice about describing elderly African American residents’ homes as ugly, dilapidated, crack houses, and sub-standard. Calling former residents thugs, criminals, and undesirable stands in stark contrast to the ways new residents describe new homes and new residents. They bristle when people call large new homes built at teardown sites  McMansions yet their own descriptions of older smaller houses and poor black residents don’t warrant a second thought.

Racism and classism permeate all corners of Decatur’s civic life. In an April 2014 city commission discussion of racial profiling, one resident told elected officials, “I know there’s something under the carpet and y’all should know it and a lot of African American people do know it,” she said. “That we feel like we’re not wanted in Decatur. I’ve been in the Decatur area since about 1986 and as the south side changes, it gets even worse.”

I saw under the carpet a lot faster than most folks because of my background in public history and anthropology. Growing up Jewish in the South didn’t hurt, either. What I saw angered me and it scared me. After moving to Decatur, the “carpet” was yanked up quickly as I began talking to my new neighbors about what one local pastor described as “real issues” and not the superficial trivia of trash pick-ups, grandkids, traffic, and crime (another story altogether).

I learned that Decatur had weaponized the Jewish Sabbath between 1902 and 1932 by creating a school week that ran from Tuesday through Saturday to, as author Tom Keating wrote in his 1999 book Saturday School, keep out “The Jewish.” Saturday, after all, is the Jewish Sabbath. Attending school would have required observant Jews to violate the Sabbath. For writing the first non-celebratory Decatur history, Keating was ostracized and marginalized. When I interviewed him in late 2012, his story was all too familiar.

Beyond the obvious connections made by displacement and gentrification scholars on contemporary displacement and historical events like internment and removal, there is the palpable and distinctly conscious effort by the city to erase African American history. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s when Decatur might have been approaching a Mayberry-Berkeley hybrid, official city documents described Decatur’s rich African American history and the many landmark-worthy historic sites associated with it. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, official city documents no longer mentioned the people or their significant places. The City’s comprehensive citywide historic resources survey and historic context does not mention blacks or their historic places; the City’s official “Historic Decatur” webpage mentions Decatur’s namesake nine times while there’s no mention of the city’s African American residents or their contributions to the city.

Between 2011 and 2014, city redevelopment projects demolished most of the remaining intact African American heritage sites including former segregation-era schools and the Allen Wilson Terrace apartments, Decatur’s historic public housing and its associated cultural landscapes designed, in part, by the same architect who designed Decatur’s city hall, Oakhurst Elementary School, and other officially recognized historic sites throughout the city. Whites can walk or drive throughout the city and visit the white community’s historic places. Now that most of the African American sites have been demolished by municipal redevelopment or by private-sector builders, people interested in interacting with Decatur’s black history will be confined to a few display cases in the new Beacon Municipal Center.

Like Native Americans, Decatur’s African Americans have been removed — from the past and the present — and evidence for them has become an artifact to be preserved in a new municipal building’s hallway as opposed to part of everyday life. So, was I correct in deploying the removal motif in writing about gentrification and displacement in Decatur? I’ll let readers and history decide.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein


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