By Hannah E. Jones
In October, “Decades: 1992, 2002, 2012” was unveiled in Atlanta’s largest linear greenspace — Freedom Park. Spanning the length of the park, the photo exhibition shows how the neighborhood has evolved over three decades.
“Decades” was created by photographer Steve Williams who has lived in Atlanta since 1983, moving to the city after studying photography in college. His first place was near Freedom Park which, at the time, was a vacant lot. For over 30 years — from the ‘60s to ‘90s — the plans were highly opposed, with residents rallying against the original plans for Atlanta’s freeway system which would’ve taken I-485 and the Stone Mountain Freeway through the city.
“It went to court. I then started photographing [the neighborhood] — it was a pretty big deal for the area,” Williams said.
He added: “The interstates they wanted to put in would have ripped out a lot of neighborhoods.”
Atlanta residents know how this story ends, though. Freedom Parkway was constructed in 1994, representing a small portion of the controversial routes. Thanks to the work of engaged citizens, the city received a new 210-acre park boasting eight miles of paved paths, all where the freeway would’ve run. Today, the urban park is an instrumental piece in increasing Atlanta’s connectivity, as its paths link to the Atlanta BeltLine and Stone Mountain Trail.
Once the plans were settled, Williams continued to document the area — revisiting those same sites, each a decade apart, to showcase the neighborhood’s changes over time. Williams selected 24 sites for the project, choosing locations that could represent the area as a whole while also considering the photo’s composition.
“[The sites are based on] what I thought was an interesting picture to begin with,” he said.
Some locations changed drastically over time, like a sea of kudzu in Poncey-Highland that is now a paved path. Another series on Barnett St. shows a poorly maintained sidewalk bordering a vacant lot, which is now a walking path alongside a green space. A few of the sites, though, hardly changed at all — like the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Poplar Circle.
Each set of photographs are displayed on a triptych, which sit at the sites where the photographs were taken. All but two of the displays have been installed, as the Atlanta BeltLine didn’t allow the photos to be featured along the pathway.
“Decades” was originally slated for a one-month run in Freedom Park, but has been extended for an undetermined amount of time. Williams hopes to donate the project to the city, making it a permanent installation in the park.
For this project, Williams shot in a black and white film. Today, he has a collection of about 700 negatives and he’s working with Emory University to archive them.
“That gives me some relief that all this work won’t just get thrown away when I pass on,” Williams said.
For him, this is a story of a grassroots movement making real change — with residents coming together and making their nook of the city a better place. He sees these images as a key piece to telling the story of the neighborhood and the people who call it home.
“[This tells a story of] when communities get together, they can make changes to benefit themselves,” Williams said.
He’s also documented other parts of the city over time, including Cabbagetown, the Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail and more.
This year — 2022 — is next in line, and Williams has already taken the next round of photos which will eventually be added to the project. For now, he’s focused on securing a permanent home for the series.
If you’re interested in seeing “Decades” in person, lace up your walking shoes and check out the map below showing the location of each site.
Fantastic work and dedication by photographer Steve Williams to take us through time in such a meaningful way and align the shots so artfully at 10 year intervals!
So cool! I remember how it looked in the 90s. Thanks, Steve
Nice article so happy for you my friend and neighbor. Congratulations
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