"Old" Atlanta

By King Williams

Every resident of Atlanta has had the frustration of being asked “oh wow, you’re really from Atlanta?” or being told some asinine version of “you’re the first person I’ve ever met that’s actually from here.”

Daddy D’s barbecue restaurant in the shadow of a newer development on Memorial Drive.
Photo by Kelly Jordan

Not only is it annoying, it’s also disrespectful. It implies that Atlanta was vacant before the asker’s individual experience. The anger and disrespect that long term residents of any gentrifying space, not just Atlantans feel from new residents come from the colonial mindsets that accompany them.

This is not limited to but includes: mentioning of the words “West Midtown,” argumentative Facebook neighborhood/Nextdoor groups, TEDx-styled talks on ‘bringing culture to Atlanta’, rise in McMansions, or gentrification bus tours, bro-based ‘Atlanta’ podcasts or a personal favorite, the ‘new’Atlanta Instagram influencer.

All of these reflects a purposeful obliviousness to anything outside of their world view and lack of effort to acknowledge what Atlanta was before their arrival.

This obliviousness removes an acknowledgement of an Atlanta that is very Black, very Queer, very alternative, with a history, arts and culture that has developed on its own.

And ‘New’ Atlanta is instead presented, as very safe, very opaque and non-threatening.

But “Old” Atlanta is the foundation for “New” Atlanta, whether anyone likes it or not.

“New” Atlanta is here but what exactly does it mean to be “Old” Atlanta?

Old Atlanta means different things to different people. For my parents, “Old Atlanta” refers to the Black Atlanta – with a capital “B” – of the 1970s, ’80s and pre-Olympics ’90s. These decades saw the rise of Atlanta as “The Black Mecca” and offered varying degrees of black success and ways of achieving the American dream.

An older  home about to be demolished and replaced by a newer home
Photo by Kelly Jordan

 

But for those older than my parents “Old” Atlanta is the Atlanta before the airport expansion in ‘82, before Maynard Jackson became mayor in ‘73 and even before MLK’s murder in ‘68.

For Gen X-ers “Old Atlanta” is the 1970’s to the 1990s and for Millennials it’s the 90s and early 2000s, with both groups looking at the popularity of club life in Atlanta of in the late 2000s as the high-water mark.

 

When did Old Atlanta end and New Atlanta begin?

“Old” Atlanta stands on the foundation of several once-in-a-generation events that have all happened in one place in a little more than a century.

The 1906 race riots, the great fire of 1917, the construction of public housing from the 1930s-60s, the creation of I-75/85/20 during the 1950s/60s, the stadiums of the 1960s/70s and the post-highway white flight of the 1950s-70s all fundamentally shaped “Old” Atlanta.

But for most people who’ve lived here for a while, maybe the single most unifying event was the 1996 Olympics.

And depending on who you talk to that was either the end of “Old” Atlanta or the beginnings of what would now constitute “New” Atlanta.

 

The preparation for the 1996 Olympics led to three important turn of events:

  1. The redevelopment of downtown Atlanta
  2. The early stages of the back-to-the city movement and
  3. The beginning of the end of public housing in Atlanta

Each one of these built the foundation of everything that ‘New’ Atlanta stands on: The Atlanta Beltline, gentrification, land banking, predatory real estate practices and the rise of the seemingly endless supply of cheap and available land.

And I’d argue the 20 years from 1996-2016 is the transitional period of ‘Old’ Atlanta into ‘New’ Atlanta.

Centennial Park, in downtown Atlanta. The site was part of a renovation of perceived blight downtown prior to the 1996 Olympics.
Photo by Kelly Jordan

Atlanta as a region, not just a city

As Atlanta has changed, so has its borders. Like any growing major metro region, the city itself anchors commerce and culture, but what defines the city is nebulous and expanding.

As generations of people have grown up, around and outside of the city limits, the definition and geography of what constitutes “Old” Atlanta has changed.

Due to the demographic spread of White Flight out of the city and Black Flight that followed later, as well as those significant generational events listed above, Atlanta’s population has spread outside of its city limits.

And with it, also the culture that comes from being from Atlanta.

So what does that have to do with ‘New’ Atlanta?

If you’ve lived in the city or metro during the 2010’s it may have felt like there are more people than normal moving into Atlanta, and you’re not wrong. According to Census data, the residential population of Atlanta has been growing between 2-3 percent year over year.

And If you’ve lived in the metro Atlanta area, you’ve seen growth at nearly the same rate. Census data shows that 663,000 people being added to metro Atlanta’s population from 2010-2018 alone. This has led the Atlanta metro area into being the 3rd fastest growing in 2018 and 4th fastest in 2019. This also has led to the city of Atlanta’s population growing from 420,000 to 498,000, approaching the largest population the city has had since 1960.

These population increases are combined with the constant disregard of historic buildings, landmarks, school buildings and former housing project sites, has made the city of Atlanta blank slate for developers with no regard for the city’s past.

Add to that, the mass gentrification of the 2010’s and you get an Atlanta that is noticeably different visually and demographically from what it was even in 2014 much less than it was in 2009 or 1999.

A new building is being built in the shadows of an older home in Midtown Atlanta.
Photo by Kelly Jordan

This has led to a Columbusing of what it means to be from Atlanta as a city and as a cultural statement.  The version of what Atlanta actually is versus how it is presented to the “New” clients of the city.

It’s the representation of a city as a showroom, a generic and seemingly blank landscape that is devoid of any human life. It’s the colonizing of spaces that gentrification so often presents, cities are places that should be “developed” to make anew.

 

New Atlanta is about colonialism, common in gentrifying areas and our city is no exception. 

New Atlanta isn’t a place as much as it’s an ongoing ad for Crate & Barrel. It’s the in-real-life version of a marketing pamphlet for Millennials and their Boomer parents who grew up in the ‘burbs and now want the hip urban lifestyle.

This historical amnesia Atlanta’s gentrifying neighborhoods are experiencing can only happen after the prior residents have left, whether it be by choice or by force.

This occurs when the critical mass of new people and amenities for the new group have overtaken those of the previous or existing demographic.

The Atlanta of new is less identifiable, less connected to anything and a space for the whims of whatever the real estate industry decides. It’s why Atlanta looks more and more indistinguishable from any other city in America and specifically appeals to people who’ve lived in those same nondescript suburbs across America.

Unless it’s put in check, “New” Atlanta will end up looking like a strip mall and will be abandoned as such as soon as the ‘new’ occurs elsewhere.

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at [email protected] or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.

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