Group seeking to find – and restore – the Flint River near the airport

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta’s largest mass of concrete – Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport – sits on top of the headwaters of the Flint River.

In looking over the acres and acres of concrete, it’s hard to envision streams and rivers that used to run through what once were working-class neighborhoods with 1950s-style homes lined with mature trees.

But Hannah Palmer and Ryan Gravel have done just that.

hannah palmer ryan gravel

Hannah Palmer and Ryan Gravel signing their books after the Oct. 6 Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable Notice the Mountain View T-shirt that Hannah is wearing.  (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Palmer, who grew up around the airport, has just published her book: “Flight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport,” which traces her ties to the communities that were enveloped and erased by the airport. One of those communities was the City of Mountain View, which actually was dissolved (its charter taken away) and obliterated from the map to make way for the “new” airport, which opened in Sept. 21, 1980.

Earlier this year, Palmer teamed up with Gravel, of the Atlanta BeltLine fame who has his own consulting firm – Sixpitch, to develop a vision of what the area around Hartsfield-Jackson could be if we were to reclaim our natural amenities – such as the Flint River. The Finding the Flint project is funded by American Rivers and the Conservation Fund in partnership with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Both Palmer and Gravel presented their ideas and vision at the Oct. 6 meeting of the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, a monthly meeting of people interested in the environment and sustainability.

They presented the vision that is now being promoted by the newly-formed Finding the Flint Working Group.

“You can see the river disappear under the airport, but it’s still there,” Palmer said. “How can we restore those creeks and how can we create spaces for people.”

“This is just to inspire people – to have people see the possibilities of the Flint River and to support the health of the river,” Gravel chimed in.

The vision also is fanciful. It imagines reconfiguring the hard surfaces of the airport into spaces where people are welcome. Instead of the airport just being a place where people go when they’re leaving town, the area around the airport could become its own destination.

Flint River

The Flint River’s headwaters are located under pavement near the airport (Photo from Sixpitch)

“There are not places to watch airplanes take off and land,” Palmer said. In their study, they identified several observation points that could be turned into viewing plazas for people attracted to the romance of air travel. Think Peachtree-DeKalb Airport and the 57th Fighter Group Restaurant.

Better yet, for us old-timers, we remember when the old airport (which was demolished a couple of years after the new one opened in 1980) had an observation deck right in the main terminal. I still remember us buying ice cream cones from a vendor at the entrance and walking up a ramp to see the planes take off and land.

“The airport is an underutilized amenity,” Gravel said. “We don’t take advantage of it as a place-making opportunity.”

So Sixpitch created a series of possible scenarios – showing what currently exists and then creating conceptual drawings of how those places could look if they were reconfigured for people and the natural environment.

“It’s really a non-place now,” Palmer said. “There’s a river here…but it’s a hostile environment. We want to create better public spaces around the airport.”

“We have a phenomenal opportunity to connect people with nature,” Gravel added. “You could have a 1,200-acre park on the south side of town.”

The Finding the Flint Working Group is inviting stakeholders to a meeting later this month to build support for the concept. The Aerotropolis Atlanta Community Improvement District and other organizations seem to be embracing the idea.

Flint River watershed

Map of the Flint River watershed near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (Special from Sixpitch)

“They consider this a priority, and they are focused on the greenway plan,” Palmer said, acknowledging the difficulty of working with numerous cities and counties that converge in the airport area and touch the Flint River. “If we are really going to help the river. we have to work across all these jurisdictions. We all care about the health of the river.”

Ben Emanuel with American Rivers – Georgia (working with the Flint Riverkeeper), said the Flint will have to remain piped when it goes under the actual runways, but it is possible to daylight sections of the river both north and south of the airport.

“There are ways to restore the stream corridor around the airport,” Emanuel said. “You can take an existing ditch and restore it into a creek.”

Given its elevated location, Atlanta natural geography is full of creeks, springs and rivers – many of which have been buried and put in tunnels. The Gravel-Palmer vision for the Southside is one that could be replicated all over Atlanta.

“We have buried almost all our creeks in Atlanta,” said Palmer, who has combined her love of history with urban design.

She is focused on the communities around the airport because that’s where she grew up – having lived in three houses that no longer exist because of the  expansion of the airport.

“I choose to be here because my roots are here,” said Palmer, believing the area can become an amenity for the entire region. “We want to create awareness and get people inspired with a big vision for the Flint River watershed. The Southside can be someplace with a soul, a heart and a river.”

Possible before and after shots of what can happen on the Southside:

Flint River

Existing ditch that is really the headwaters of the Flint River near the Delta Flight Museum (Special: Sixpitch)

Flint River

A conceptual drawing of how the ditch could be turned into an environmental amenity (Special: Sixpitch)

Flint River

A section of Flint River near the airport (Special: Sixpitch)

Flint River concept

A conceptual drawing of how that same section of the Flint River could look with a little tender love and care (Special: Sixpitch)

Flint River

The Flint River is just a ditch in some spots south of the airport (Special: Sixpitch)

Flint River

A conceptual image of how that same corridor could look if turned into a natural amenity Special: Sixpitch)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

10 replies
  1. Greg says:

    I find this project to most interesting, As a native of this area (East Point) much of this area is quite familiar to me . (Still maintain our old home there where my brother currently lives.) Back in prehistoric times (late ’60s) I dated a young lady whose family home was located in a comfortable neighborhood south of present day College Park cemetery on Virginia Ave. We would go our separate ways but one day in 1969, home from college, I drove down her old street for old times sake. What I saw then was like something out of an old Twilight Zone TV show. The streets were still there (deserted) as were the sidewalks and telephone poles…….but the houses had all vanished. Either moved or demolished…… all that remained were the driveways and perhaps some front steps here and there.. Within a couple of years, screaming jets were touching down in spots where not long before children had been riding their bikes and families were holding backyard cook-outs. And this would happen to a number of neighborhoods in the areas surrounding the airport as the years progressed. Time marches on.Report

    Reply
    • Joe Kitchens says:

      Recalling the old airport stirred a lot of memories for me. Living as a boy in College Park, life revolved around the airport with its deafening noises and jobs, it was a necessary if annoying part of of lives. And mention of the Flint also evoked thoughts of another, perhaps larger, version of what the Flint means. I worked for many years in the Flint River flood plain. The Flint has escaped its banks twice in my lifetime, flooding the city of Albany and leaving millions of dollars in damages. Except for such disasters, south Georgia is a forgotten place for many Atlantans.

      I hope the effort to recover the Flint headwaters will grow to include other potential partners and consideration will be given to the consequences of such a project farther downstream- good or bad. Surely the downstream communities are natural allies and are perhaps even entitled to input in a project that will impact them.

      With a couple of notable exceptions, Georgia’s rivers are pretty much ignored. The Flint is enormous and was once called the Thronateeska River. One early map refers to the Chattahoochee as the “Lesser Thronateeska.” The two merge to create the Apalachicola River at the Florida-Georgia border. It is one of the more pristine rivers in the state, with a rich history of steamboats, sport fishing and ski boats-and it runs through the richest agricultural district in the state. It remains nature’s artery that nourishes the heartland of southwest Georgia.Report

      Reply
      • Ben Emanuel says:

        Agreed! Among the multiple benefits we envision from Finding the Flint is to improve the health of the river downstream. The team continues to update the Upper Flint River Working Group on the project (this is a group of water utilities and environmental conservation groups throughout the Piedmont portion of the Flint basin), and we’d look forward to opportunities to communicate about the project with stakeholders further downstream as well. You make a great point that although the river is small in its headwaters, the Flint is big and important for Georgia.Report

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  2. Tom McHaney says:

    This is a marvelous and much-needed piece. I’ve read Palmer’s book and it’s marvelous, sort of like a mystery story in which things keep disappearing. Now we know about how a whole river could be put away. Let’s get it back! Atlanta, which might have been founded along a bigger river, is where it is because of the railroad, and if I’m not mistaken there’seen an underground river that runs along under the old railroad gulch where trains still roll and international containers are manhandled.Report

    Reply
    • Ben Emanuel says:

      Yes – thanks for the comment! Flint Riverkeeper is a close partner and supporter of the Finding the Flint effort, in part through a long-running FRK partnership with American Rivers focused on the whole upper Flint River basin.Report

      Reply
  3. Nancy Bush says:

    The first house I lived in is now under a runway, as is my grandparents’ home…I would love to see the area once again reflect the more natural and rural character that it once had…Report

    Reply
  4. Jeff Nesmith says:

    When I came to Atlanta as a young reporter to work on The Constitution in the early ’60s, I was told that the Flint River made up “under the Kimball House Saloon” at Five Points. Of course, by then the Kimball House was already gone, so I don’t know what happened to the Flint headwaters. Moved to the airport, I suppose.
    I also recall a little story we ran when they were condemning entire neighborhoods to make room for the airport expansion. Some company had bought a lot of the houses from the airport authority, which had condemned them. This company had a crew that would go out there and somehow put wheels under a house and haul it off. Well, one morning these house-haulers misread their map in such a way that a man who hadn’t yet moved out of the neighborhood came home from work one afternoon and his house was gone. I’ve spent a bit of time laughing over the years as I try to imagine what went through that poor man’s head when he pulled into his driveway.
    I’ve heard another Flint story that I always intended to try to run down but never did. According to a yarn some oldtimer once told me, there’s a section of the river in Meriwether County known as “the Bend.” An isolated community of people, largely moonshiners and general hell-raisers, lived at “the Bend” and were discovered by President Franklin Roosevelt during one of his visits to Warm Sprints. According to this story, FDR developed a fondness for these heathen and would have the Secret Service drive him out there on a weekend night and he’d sit there and drink ‘shine and listen to them fiddle and sing.

    Jeff NesmithReport

    Reply
  5. Dave Emanuel says:

    Greenville, SC is a poster child for the benefit of uncovering a river. There is a waterfall in the river that runs through the city and people who lived there for 30-40 years never knew it because it was covered by a four lane bridge. Several years ago, the bridge was removed, the waterfall was exposed and the river cleaned up. Those changes completely changed the character of the area and made that part of the city a destination instead of a place to drive through. Revitalizing the Flint will have the same effect.
    Dave Emanuel (no relation to Ben )Report

    Reply

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