Racialized land use: Decatur, Ga.

It is a safe bet that few Decatur, Ga., residents know Cotis Weaver and Atef Mansour. Despite their relative anonymity, both men occupy important places in the city’s land use history. In 2003 Weaver and a handful of residents in the city’s Oakhurst neighborhood fired the first shot in Decatur’s 21st century gentrification wars when they sued the city over a proposed rezoning and subdivision. Mansour, in 2005 and 2006, made headlines when he demolished a 1,450-square-foot one-story Lamont Drive home on the city’s north side and began building a 5,000-square-foot two-story replacement. Both cases illustrate one role race plays in Decatur’s hot real estate market and the different outcomes of opposition to new development. Continue reading

The Walk

Thanks for your witness and devotion to justice — Rev. Nibs Stroupe, Oakhurst Presbyterian Church (Decatur, Ga.), Oct. 21, 2014.

After almost four years in Georgia, I am back in the Washington, D.C., area. Back home. The Georgia experience was one of incredible professional and personal growth. We lived and worked in a place where Old South racism mixes in a toxic civic cauldron with New South neoliberalism. Structural racism and privilege permeate all levels of Decatur, Georgia, society from city hall to city streets.

Decatur’s residents have shed their white hoods and replaced them with social media accounts and middle class respectability, PR firms, and false choice urbanism. For me, it was a rare opportunity to go from being an unwitting participant observer in a gentrifying neighborhood to an advocate for economic and racial equity.

The Decatur experience was transformative. I will use what I learned to be better: a better historian, better citizen, and better person. This week I began that journey on a walk with Rev. Jeffrey Thames, founder of Hope Restored, Inc., a Silver Spring, Maryland, nonprofit with a mission to work with the homeless and to open up the pipeline from incarceration back into the community.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

Atlanta’s “Them”

Them-coverLast month the I put together a photo essay on a gentrifying Atlanta, Ga., neighborhood for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site. The essay combines photos from Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood with places from Nathan McCall’s 2007 novel, Them.

I compiled the photos after developing a self-guided bicycle tour of the area depicted in Them. My friend, Nedra Deadwyler, read the post and decided to create a community engagement opportunity using the business she founded earlier this year, Civil Bikes. Nedra’s business combines history, sustainability, and urbanism. According to her website,

Civil Bikes is not your average bike touring company–Civil Bikes envisions itself as a member of a larger community. For this reason Civil Bikes hosts fun and progressive programs to promote biking, social dialogue, and the arts.

I was honored after Nedra read my Them essay and she decided to incorporate my informal tour into her programming. Check out Civil Bikes and keep an eye out for the book discussion and tour later this year:


For more about Civil Bikes, read Alex Baca’s wonderful October 2014 CityLab profile of Nedra, “Touring Civil Rights History on Two Wheels.”

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

Revive the old ones

I came across this 1937 planning newsletter article titled “Revive the Old Ones” while working on a project in the Library of Congress. Its message is as applicable in 2014 as it was in 1937.


Credit: American Society of Planning Officials News Letter, Nov. 1937. Library of Congress, http://lccn.loc.gov/sf81006025.

The urban displacement blues

Look closely and you will see not a damaged and decrepit Mississippi River town, but the anguish and despair of inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. — Steve Goldstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 1992.

KingBiscuit-03Helena, Arkansas, in the 1980s was a struggling Mississippi River port town when city leaders embarked on an ambitious economic turnaround using blues music and history as its foundation. I first visited Helena in the early stages of this “revitalization” during the spring of 1988 while working as a folklorist for the State of Arkansas. Results of some of my research there were published in a 1992 Southern Folklore article, “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.”

Ethnomusicology was the basis for my work in Helena and the subsequent article. Concepts like displacement and gentrification weren’t on my radar screen as I turned ethnographic experiences into written accounts. More than 25 years later I look back on Helena’s efforts to jumpstart its economy and the social engineering that went into turning the city away from its industrial past and towards its tourism-based future and I see the forces reshaping cities around the world in play in the Mississippi Delta. Continue reading

New tools, old tricks save Atlanta industrial building

Update: Read the Fall 2014 Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter article on the effort to save the Trio building: Social Media and Shoe Leather Save Historic Dry Cleaning Plant.

Trio Steam Laundry dry cleaning building shortly after its construction. Credit: The Atlanta Georgian Sept. 26, 1910.

Trio Steam Laundry dry cleaning building shortly after its construction. Credit: The Atlanta Georgian Sept. 26, 1910.

The two-story brick former Trio Laundry Dry Cleaning Building is located in Atlanta, Georgia’s gentrifying Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. It was constructed in 1910 in a light industrial district that included a shoe factory, mattress manufacturers, and machine works.

The Trio Steam Laundry Company was was Atlanta’s first large-scale commercial laundry business. In the summer of 2014 city contractors began demolishing Trio’s dry-cleaning building and community activists organized and mobilized to save the historic building. Read about their efforts in my new History@Work piece, “New Tools, Old Tactics Deployed to Save a Historic Atlanta Building.”

North Facade with "Save Me" written across, Aug. 2014.

North facade with “Save Me” written across it, Aug. 2014.

Original Trio Steam Laundry Company building (built 1905) at 19 Hilliard Street.

Original Trio Steam Laundry Company building (built 1905) at 19 Hilliard Street across from the dry cleaning building. The building was sold in 1945 to the Atlanta Brush Company and in the 1990s it was converted into lofts. Photo Aug. 2014.

A construction worker loads part of the building's crumbled cornice into a front end loader Aug. 29, 2014.

A construction worker loads part of the building’s crumbled cornice into a front end loader Aug. 29, 2014.

Affordable housing was one person's wish for the former Trio building's adaptive use.

Affordable housing was one person’s wish for the former Trio building’s adaptive use.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

Decoding Atlanta art, artifice

Last week a homeless camp appeared beneath the bridge carrying Freedom Parkway over Atlanta, Georgia’s, BeltLine trail. The camp sprouted in corridor that has become world-renowned for its public art installations and its more vernacular graffiti tags and ephemeral performance art.

"Homeless camp," Atlanta Beltline, August 22, 2014.

“Homeless camp,” Atlanta Beltline, August 22, 2014.

"Homeless camp," Atlanta Beltline, August 22, 2014.

“Homeless camp,” Atlanta Beltline, August 22, 2014.

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Bridging Atlanta’s old meat and produce district

PART I: Setting the Scene

Four decades after Thomas Brady went into the livestock business on Atlanta, Georgia’s Central Avenue, he became embroiled in litigation to prevent the construction of a viaduct near his property there. Brady’s lawsuits were among a handful of legal moves by downtown property owners who opposed the city’s plans to construct viaducts carrying Central Ave. and Pryor Street over railroad tracks in Atlanta’s congested business district. His legal battle over property rights and the validity of the city’s bond referendum funding viaduct construction was the final chapter in a career that helped change Atlanta’s economic and cultural landscape at the turn of the 20th century. Construction of the two viaducts, in turn, opened up downtown streets and made possible Underground Atlanta.

Thomas B. Brady (1837-1929) was born on a Greene County, Ga., farm. He moved to Atlanta in c. 1881 and went into the livestock business with John A. Miller. After more than a decade as partners in sales and feed stables on Loyd Street (Central Ave.) and Marietta Street, the pair dissolved their firm. Brady moved to Cobb County where he owned a stock farm and where he became president of the People’s Ice Company. He is best known in Atlanta history for returning to the city in 1902 and founding Atlanta’s first union stockyards west of Marietta Street.


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Downtown Atlanta Aug. 9, 1926

On the morning of August 9, 1926, photographer Walton Reeves photographed streetscapes near Atlanta’s old railroad depots. Attorneys representing a litigant in a case challenging the construction of the Pryor Street and Central Avenue viaducts hired Reeves to document the area around their client’s property.

Reeves stated in the affidavit attached to his photos that he is,”a photographer by profession and makes a practice of taking out-door scenes.” The statement submitting the photos into evidence described where and when they were taken:

The pictures hereto attached are true and correct photographs on either side of Pryor Street and Central Avenue crossings in the City of Atlanta and the same correctly depicts the conditions existing at said crossings between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. on August 9th, 1926.

The photos show the old railroad train shed and surrounding commercial buildings; none was individually captioned.


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