(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb

A plaque outside Decatur's city hall proclaims it is a city of "Homes, Schools, and Churches ... settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers."

A plaque outside Decatur’s city hall proclaims it is a city of “Homes, Schools, and Churches … settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers.”

I was invited to present a paper at this year’s Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. My paper is titled, “(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb.”

From the paper abstract:

Decatur, Georgia, is an Atlanta suburb of about 20,000 people. Founded in 1823, the city is the seat of DeKalb County. Its history is much like other Southern courthouse towns and it follows a familiar path: farms, stores, slavery, Civil War, World Wars, and Civil Rights.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur's courthouse square.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur’s courthouse square.

Inside those broad brush strokes are stories of segregation, exclusion, and enduring white supremacy. The past, like Decatur’s rapidly changing present, is contested space. Decatur is a town that is inverting: it is becoming whiter and wealthier as lower-income residents are displaced and the supply of affordable housing dwindles. As the city’s population changes, so too does the city’s official historical narrative.

CLATL-whiter

Creative Loafing, August 7, 2014.

Decatur-Census

Decatur has lost about 70 percent of its African American population since 1980.

Once a place with a substantial African American population who had many heritage sites, over the past 30 years Decatur has lost more than 50 percent of its African American residents. A similarly large number of African American historic places have disappeared: churches, schools, and homes that have been demolished to make way for new public buildings and homes for new upper middle class residents. Decatur’s African American history has disappeared alongside its people and places.

Allen Wilson Terrace being demolished in April 2014.

HOMES: Historic Allen Wilson Terrace public housing (built 1940) being demolished in April 2014.

Demolition. May 1, 2013.

SCHOOLS: Historic “equalization schools” being demolished, May 2013.

Former Antioch AME Church, demolished April 17-18, 2014.

CHURCHES: Historic former Antioch AME Church, demolished April 17-18, 2014.

This paper explores how Decatur produces history inside its gentrified spaces. It draws on more than 90 oral history interviews and four years of documentary research for a book on gentrification in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. The paper illustrates how spaces and stories are appropriated to reinforce the city’s carefully crafted image as a progressive, liberal, and sustainable community.

Lacking tradition-bound community festivals, Decatur has created an annual festival cycle celebrating the arts, books, beer, and wine. The city's spurious festival culture originated with an official "beach party" in the 1980s.

Lacking tradition-bound community festivals, Decatur has created an annual festival cycle celebrating the arts, books, beer, and wine. The city’s spurious festival culture originated with an official “beach party” in the 1980s. Each year (except for 2015), the city trucks tons of beach sand into downtown for its beach party.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

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