Sam Burnham, Curator
A recent AJC article directed my attention to the Facebook group Skip Mason’s Vanishing Black Atlanta History. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine that anything in Atlanta could be vanishing on the level that our friend Brian Brown documents at Vanishing Media. But that is where a segment of the urban South has an unlikely connection to the rural South. That connection is based on the fact that modern development and progress has little, if any regard for rural small towns or the historic black communities in the inner cities.
The AJC article gives a perfect example. The City of Atlanta recently saw fit to partner with Arthur Blank to drop a $1.5 billion monstrosity on one of these neighborhoods. The structure blocks the neighborhood’s view of Atlanta. It’s also the ugliest building ever constructed.
One part arena, one part mechanical sphincter, Mercedes-Benz Stadium was pitched as an economic engine that would help the community it was dropped on. I guess that depends on the definition of “help.” Sure there has been some development, mostly the type known as gentrification. There’s some fancy new development but nothing congruent with the long established residents. It’s done a lot to make the area less affordable. It hasn’t done much to improve the existing community.
These communities have suffered for decades due to neglect by the city at large but also from the unintended consequences of desegregation. A recent segment on GPB’s On Second Thought discussed, among other topics, the apprehensions of Zora Neale Hurston regarding desegregation. This was not an unprecedented viewpoint as other prominent black people echoed it but was largely sneered at. It has proven to be somewhat prophetic. Once bustling neighborhoods like Nashville’s Jefferson Street and Jackson’s Farish Street have totally collapsed and crumbled. The Southern Foodways Alliance documented the Farish Street example in one of their productions. Geno Lee, owner of Jackson’s Big Apple Inn on Farish Street has communicated how desegregation was “good for black people but bad for the black community” - meaning that it helped people advance individually but they often left their neighborhoods behind.
But it seems kind of shallow to stack the blame for this phenomenon on desegregation. People follow opportunity. These neighborhoods thrived during segregation in part because there was no opportunity elsewhere. So I don’t want to make out like segregation was a positive good. It wasn’t good and it’s part of the past as it should be. The focus now should be on opportunities within these historic communities and giving the current residents something to be proud of. So seeing Skip Mason using his Facebook group to mobilize these neighborhoods to recognize their history and their culture is encouraging. That’s how a community can build on that sense of pride. People are sharing memories of the people, places, and events that built their communities. The older residents are showing the youngsters what once was and perhaps what could be again. Partner that with real opportunity and you have a realistic chance to benefit and revitalize the established community.
I’ve thrown several links into this article. I do that because I’ve done some background on this issue and I’m wanting to provide some access to that background. Understanding the history will help us all understand what needs to be done. Any time an old traditional community dies we all lose. We are lesser as a society because Farish Street in Jackson is in ruins. We’d be better as a society if it was filled with restaurants, music halls, businesses. It would benefit us economically as well as culturally. As always, the answers are local. Local food, local business, local pride, local architecture, local opportunity.
Finding ways to get the more centralized entities out of the way is primary. Pull down the barriers holding back the local economy. Work with local leaders, who know what’s happening on the ground, rather than assuming we know what’s best from the outside. And for goodness sake, don’t drop multi-million dollar townhouses and bourgeois coffee shops on them. That only runs the historic population off and replaces it with milquetoast modernity. That’s just not good enough.
Build the community tather than displace it.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire