By Jennifer Perren
For now, I live in the country, in a rural area of Georgia that my father's side of the family settled down in over 200 years ago. My mother's side of the family, however, is from the city, from Atlanta.
Growing up, I spent a great deal of time in the city. And as I've visited over the years, I've seen the changes to my city. I have also read and listened to many different opinions regarding the evils of our capital city in my day, and I understand the point of view. I have seen the crime, first hand. I've watched corruption unfold, I've sat in the traffic, I've seen beautiful old, historic, buildings come down and more modern contraptions built in their place. Atlanta has grown like these pines out here on my great grandaddy's old farm, up and out. In my mind, it will be as my mother said to me once when I was maybe 6 years old - we were driving through downtown and the interstates were being constructed and revamped - I asked "when will they be finished with these buildings and roads?" To which she replied, "Jennifer, this is Atlanta, we'll always be building".
I can imagine that she probably heard that from her grandfather, a mason and builder. Born Giovanni Amendolia, Sicily, 1896. He came to America at the age of 16 quickly passed through New York, becoming John Amandolia at Ellis Island, and onto Philadelphia, where he worked as a carpenter's assistant. His first English word was "nail". He was determined to be an American, however, and upon doing so, he was drafted into the Army during WWI. He was not deployed overseas but rather sent to police the troops that were stationed here in Atlanta. Which is where he met my Great Grandmother, Lenora Willoughby.
Blue eyes and dark hair, she was a bright, funny, feisty girl. They fell in love and were married, which was not without its challenges as Italian Americans were not exactly welcome with open arms at that time. My family is unique in that not many Sicilian/Italian immigrants settled in Georgia. I have yet to meet another family that has been here in the Atlanta area as long as we have. Most stayed up north where they had built communities. My great grandmother, though, did not care and in fact was determined to raise her family here in her home, regardless of what anyone thought or felt of her husband's nationality. They lived and worked together in Atlanta their entire lives. John became an expert carpenter and was involved in many projects that we can still see in our city today, including Hartsfield Atlanta Airport and Rich's on Broad St.
They raised a family, including a brown eyed girl, Dorothy Camilla, my grandmother. Also, another lively, funny, feisty, girl. My grandmother was a fighter her entire life. She faced prejudice growing up because of her dark hair and skin and was bullied in school. Her brothers protected her daily and one day, one of them said to her "the next time you get beat up at school, I'll beat you up at home, it's time for you to fight back". From then on, my grandmother never let anyone pick on her, or another weaker person - ever, for the rest of her life. History repeated itself when she caught the eye of my grandaddy, a soldier passing through town, down from the mountains of Virginia during WWII. He saw her on the street in Atlanta, fell in love with her and remained that way until the day he died. Together, they fed, clothed, defended, entertained, and ministered to the people of the city as well as our family and friends - anyone who came into their lives for over 60 years.
They taught their children as well as grandchildren a great love for this city and its people. My grandmother would take us all to the zoo, to the Braves game, to the Varsity, anywhere she felt we would enjoy, she shared her love of her hometown with us. My grandfather devoted his life to his family and spent his retirement feeding and sharing God's love with the homeless and needy of Atlanta, and we went along. I have never once been afraid in any city, I attribute this to my time with him. I haven't spent a whole lot of time at swanky bars, I've maybe been to the Fox 3 times, but I know the city, I grew up there, went to school there, ran around there, I've laughed, cried, lived, learned, worked and played there.
Atlanta has ugly, the same can be said for any small town in Georgia or any other state, you can't move away from dark hearts. I can tell you this, every, single, time I drive east on I-20 and come up over Riverside Drive, I can't wait to see the city - it's still there, I get feeling that I can only describe as joy. I have lived all over this country and seen every major city, all the skylines - there is none more lovely to me than mine.
What makes a city are it's people, it's families, it's stories, it's character. I like to compare myself and the people in my family to Atlanta - to our symbol the phoenix. Our resilient nature, our determination to rise to any challenge, up from the ashes of any defeat.
I don't know what the future holds for Atlanta, but I do know a lot of her history. It's still there in the people, in the families, the historical sites that remain, and if you're very lucky, the pretty Georgia girls might tell you a story or two.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire