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.

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Greyfields: a historic preservation gray area

Too frequently historic preservationists have failed to appreciate the entire urban landscape … Parking, as part of urban history, should not be rejected out of hand by any history aficionado — John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture

The National Council on Public History has published a new article on History@Work titled Blacktop History: The case for preserving parking lots. It examines the suburban parking lot as an unloveable yet important historic resource type.

Free Public Parking Big Factor In Silver Spring Success Story. The Washington Post, Nov. 27, 1949.

Free Public Parking Big Factor In Silver Spring Success Story. The Washington Post, Nov. 27, 1949.

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Racism is alive and well in Decatur, Ga.

Isn’t that In the Heat of the Night? Wasn’t that in one of them old movies? This is 2014. Racism is alive and well. — Joel Drew, statement to the Decatur City Commission, April 21, 2014.

The evening of April 21, 2014, a handful of Decatur residents presented testimony before the Decatur City Commission on racial profiling by the city’s police department. Local journalists ignored the appearances (e.g., the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Creative Loafing). One local blogger glossed over the specific allegations of racism in Decatur. Even the Decatur City Commission minutes from the April 21 meeting failed to capture the remarkable narratives from the evening.

This post contains verbatim transcripts made from the April 21, 2014 meeting. The source audio and video used is archived on the City of Decatur website. Each entry below begins with the city’s official synopsis of the comments entered into the meeting’s official record (meeting minutes) followed by the verbatim transcript. The entries are presented in the order in which people appeared.

For more on racial profiling in Decatur, read A Lesson in Racial Profiling and Historical Relevance (National Council on Public History, History@Work, April 10, 2014). Continue reading

Thomas U. Walter: A day in Pittsburgh

From Thomas U. Walter’s diary, Thomas Ustick Walter Papers, The Atheneum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, May 8, 1856.

Arrived at Pittsburgh at 1 A.M. Took lodgings at the “Monongahela House” — slept until 8 A.M.

Took a carriage and rode around the city — it was a Philadelphia look but excessively smokey and dirty — some well built houses, but no appearance of comfort. Allegheny City, on the other side of the river, look somewhat cleaner, but the whole region is filled with smoke and dust from the great number of furnaces always in blast., the factories and the steamboats, all of which use bituminous coal.

 

Thomas Ustick Walter Papers. Microfilm copy, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 4133.

Thomas Ustick Walter Papers. Microfilm copy, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 4133.

Mile marker 101

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAEmily made it to mile marker 101 and beyond. Yesterday Laura and I sat with her on our vet’s office floor as he injected the drugs that ended her chronic pain and her life. Our basset hound was two months shy of 16 years old. Emily overcame every health problem she ever had: a bad heart, arthritis, bloat, and the full spectrum of infections that dogs can get but she couldn’t outrun time.

moonshine-bonjovi2013On my bike ride this morning along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail I passed local folk musician Moonshine walking and playing her fiddle. She was alone and it reminded me that I hadn’t seen her with her dog, Bon Jovi, in a while. When I met them last year, Bon Jovi wasn’t doing well and I couldn’t bring myself to stop this morning and ask Moonshine about Bon Jovi. If I’m right — and I hope that I’m not — I hope that Emily has met Bon Jovi and they are off exploring the best trails they can find.

Emily D. Basset, Aug. 10, 1998 - May 23, 2014.

Emily D. Basset, Aug. 10, 1998 – May 23, 2014.

 

Portland (Me.) flatiron building

The former H.H. Hay building is located at the intersection of Congress and Free streets in Portland, Maine. Geographer Loretta Lees documented gentrification in this district as a case study of “small city gentrification” [PDF]. Lees wrote in 2003,

Recessions in the late 1980s and early 1990s slowed but did not entirely stop the pace of redevelopment downtown. By the mid-1990s investment was spreading up the slope from the Old Port and along Congress Street under the auspices of the city’s Arts District and the philanthropic efforts of Portland native and microchip heiress Elizabeth Noyce.

The City of Portland documented the area in a historic designation report for the Congress Street Historic District:

Congress Street is Portland’s “Main Street,” the peninsula’s primary east-west commercial and transportation axis. The richness and diversity of its architecture and public spaces, particularly along the section extending from Franklin Arterial to Bramhall Square, constitutes a unique record of Portland’s residential and commercial
development history …

… It was not until the 1970’s that Portland’s economic stagnation began a long slow path to recovery. With the availability of Federal “Urban Renewal” money, the ambitious Maine Way public infrastructure program signaled a new interest in and concern about downtown by city leaders … At the same time historic commercial buildings such as the Congress Square Hotel (#110) and the Upper H.H. Hay Building (#109) were rehabilitated for new uses.

Last week’s Society for Industrial Archeology conference was based in the heart of gentrified Portland and the conference hotel was only a few blocks away from this highly photogenic building. Below are some views that show the building between c. 1890 and now.

H.H. Hay building, Portland, ca. 1890. Credit: Maine Memory Network, Maine Historical Society.

H.H. Hay building, Portland, ca. 1890. Credit: Maine Memory Network, Maine Historical Society.

Credit: Congress Street Historic District Designation Report, City of Portland, Me.

Credit: Congress Street Historic District Designation Report, City of Portland, Me.

Congress and Free streets, May 2014.

Congress and Free streets, May 2014.

Former Hay building, May 2014.

Hay building, May 2014.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

Decatur urban renewal plan: 1963 map

BeaconHill1963cOn October 14, 1963, the Decatur, Ga., City Commission enacted a new urban renewal plan for the city’s historically black Beacon Community. The new plan included land use restrictions and zones targeted for new commercial development and housing. The plan included building height, setback, and parking restrictions and it limited the types of business that could operate in the urban renewal area.

Two zones for new businesses were created: a “Local Commercial Area” and a “General Business Area.” The former allowed 22 business types, from “apparel shops” to “tailor shops.” The latter permitted 26 additional uses, including “Any use allowed in local commercial use areas within this project.”

Souper Jenny restaurant in urban renewal area along West Ponce de Leon Ave., March 2014.

Souper Jenny restaurant in urban renewal area along West Ponce de Leon Ave., March 2014.

After meeting resistance to the proposal to relocate African American families to an area in unincorporated DeKalb County, Decatur designated part of the new urban renewal area for multi-family housing. Density in the new housing — which became the Gateway Apartments (now slated for redevelopment) — was limited to 21.6 “dwelling units per acre.”

Gateway Apartments, 2014. Slated for demolition and redevelopment.

Gateway Apartments, 2014. Slated for demolition and redevelopment.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

The 1,000 year house

Decatur, Ga., builder Clay Chapman boldly claims that he’s building what he calls a “Thousand Year House” in a project he has dubbed Hope for Architecture. I first reported on Chapman’s project in a December 2013 post, Day Zero: Brown is the New Green.

@1000yearhouse tweet.

@1000yearhouse tweet, May 14, 2014.

Chapman’s construction project is part publicity stunt, part marketing campaign for architect Steve Mouzon’s “original green” concept. Since breaking ground last year Chapman has published regular blog posts and tweets illustrating progress at the site. And, he has hosted high profile visitors, including noted new urbanist architect Andres Duany and local leaders.

Chapman describes the new 5,300 square foot house built where he demolished a 1,541 square-foot home as “sustainable” and affordable. To date, the new house has required more than 124,000 pounds of concrete and has taken delivery of more than 100,000 bricks.

I rode by the “1,000 Year House” earlier today and here’s what I saw:

241 Maxwell St., Decatur, Ga. May 11, 2014.

241 Maxwell St., Decatur, Ga. May 11, 2014.

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Making history relevant

I have worked in and around historic preservation for more than 30 years and I don’t how many times I have tried to explain why historic preservation is relevant to life today. The examples I cited in the past always came from work done by others. And then I encountered Decatur, Ga.

As Decatur systematically erases its black history from the urban landscape and the city continues to hemorrhage African American residents, the linkages between how the city’s white privilege renders past and present residents invisible become more evident. One former black resident agrees that Decatur’s treatment of African Americans and their history is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Read “A lesson in racial profiling and historical relevance” on the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site. The day the article appeared, the Decatur-Avondale Estates Patch site asked to reprint it. As a historian who practices public history, this underscores how the NCPH defines the field: “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.”

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur's Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur’s Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

Former equalization schools after about 90% demolition. March, 2014.

Former equalization schools after about 90% demolition. March, 2014.

Beacon Demolition, April 2014.

Beacon demolition, April 2014. The orange construction barrels are parallel to the point where the historical marker shown in the first photo was located.

 

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein