How could there even be another episode of The Making of Modern Atlanta after that last one? What more is there to say about Atlanta?
First of all, it may take a bit of explaining to tell you what’s going on in this picture below. Once upon a time, there was a “construction” industry in Atlanta. They actually “built” “buildings” rather than just setting off news stories about planned developments. These “buildings” and their corresponding “construction” required a great deal of “money” that came from “jobs” and “investments”.
Now you might better comprehend the context of this episode.
For what was this heroic accomplishment? To meet up with his old pal, fellow History Twin Dana White. (Not to get to his pre-booked Dragon*Con suite for a Game of Thrones orgy, okay people?) It’s appropriate that we’re meeting them at the Sundial, because we’re here to talk about the development of Downtown Atlanta and the building boom of city’s skyline – from a cluster of mid-rise office buildings around Five Points to today’s “linear chain of skyscrapers” – and all the conflict stirred up in between.
There’s some background on the color line between Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue. After that historical interlude, while the H.T.s are strolling through the hotel lobby, they pass a black guy and white guy just leaning on the railing chatting, and a black woman and white woman scurry behind them. I don’t know if this was intentional while White speaks the very words, “Modern Atlanta grew in large part by dismantling its color line.”
Okay, just WAIT A SECOND. If Atlanta eliminated its geographic color line in the business district, then why did Auburn Avenue fall into decline while the central city along Peachtree gained skyscrapers, hmmmmm?
“What’s the ‘key’ to understanding this transformation?” (It is a car key.)Dr. White speeds off in his Mercury Grand Marquis. I was so hoping that after the Peachtree Plaza appearance and now the viaducts background, he would tie in some Sharky’s Machine trivia, but all he cared about was explaining the history of the freeway system.
Uh oh – if we’re going to talk about the freeway system that splices Downtown Atlanta, then someone’s going to have to be interviewed to explain themselves and the justifications for putting it there. Just please don’t let it be…oh no, it is…
Every time I hear Leon Eplan talk about the interstate I want to give him a hug. “We really did not dream or fully understand what the implications of what we were doing – neither the scale nor the form in which this new technology and facility would have. We thought we were always going to have a downtown area and people in outlying areas were going to drive downtown to work and to shop and to be entertained. We’ve since understood over the last 40 years the full nature of implications of what we did. And that is that the highways draw people out to new territories. That people, having more leisure time, shop on the weekends. That the workplace begins to scatter over to where the people are and where the shopping is so that we began to scatter our population in a form which we now call suburbia.”
Leon, you’re breaking my heart!
At last, a little comic relief, with the Wits’ End Players performing their hit “They’re Tearing Up Peachtree Again.”
Let’s now bring in John Portman to explain the true “restructuring” and modern evolution of the central city, starting with Peachtree Center and the “fundamental” concept of “people first and things second.”
That’s all well and good, but what were the real issues being grappled with? Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter/once executive director of then-Central Atlanta Improvement Association George Goodwin will get frank with us. Beyond the fact that black businesses started locating to other places in the city besides Auburn Avenue because they finally could, there was also a new line dividing Downtown – the expressway.
On the insider discussions in the 1950s of where to “bow out” the interstate and to leave more of the central city intact: “John O. Childs – real estate man, very close friend of the mayor…he said, ‘Well, fellas, I tell ya, the difference in whether you’re outside that expressway curve or inside that expressway curve is gonna be the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad!’”
Sweet Auburn couldn’t quite get its sugar back, even with a series of revitalization plans starting as early as the 1970s. The much-hyped plan in TMOMA is this 1991 plan – “Sweet Auburn: A Centennial Renaissance.” Wait, what’s that sound? Like a ding, ding, ding? All aboard the “never panned out” trolley!
The 1991 plan (everyone in this episode keeps calling it “the 1991 plan” like there was a new plan every year, so they have to differentiate them that way) also included a redesign of Peachtree Street.
Dr. Larry knows there’s potential in Auburn Avenue, but, “At the same time, I’m not optimistic just because of the way Atlanta has dealt with development in the past. There is not a premium placed on preserving our history, those things that were significant in bringing us to the point where we are. Instead, there’s much more emphasis on high-rise buildings and high-tech development rather than trying to bring some marriage of the two together and really creating a livable, cohesive environment.”
I just want two quick glasses of sauvignon blanc and a long nap after every one of these episodes.
Just under the surface of this episode, there are so many emotions that we as Atlantans grapple with constantly – particularly, guilt/remorse and defensiveness. And now that there are so many foreclosures for a nice price, and the thrill of gentrifying the Old Fourth Ward – well, it’s particularly acute!
Dan Sweat justifies that endless opportunistic streak of Atlanta – “The mindset generally was, ‘We’ve lagged behind investment; now it’s our turn’” – while bristling at being treated “unjustly” by preservationists despite his admission that, “We turned our back and ignored those things that we did have, that should be preserved.”
Oh LAWD, Tim Crimmins is back and ready to really dig deep.
“Atlantans believe nostalgia should advance commerce, not stand in its way. Historic preservation is not our city’s strong point. The name ‘Peachtree’ is so indelibly linked to the mythic, romantic image of Atlanta – Gone With the Wind and all that - that every developer wants to be able to sell a fashionable Peachtree Street address. Which creates a problem – there isn’t enough Peachtree Street to go around. The Atlanta solution – “
[At this point in the show (I can't do it justice) Dr. Crimmins somewhat dramatically removes his sunglasses and uses them to gesture slowly as the camera pans towards a Peachtree Center Avenue street sign.]
” – make more Peachtrees.”
[OBLIGATORY MONTAGE OF VARIOUS ROUTES NAMED PEACHTREE.]
Tim again: “All this street renaming has reached the point that real historical significance is being sacrificed to myth.”
(Pouring second glass of S.B.) “But more has been lost than street names – much more.”
After we go through a series of historic buildings that were torn down for this and that, there is finally some good news – the salvation of the Fox Theatre. Beauchamp Carr expounds briefly on “the worthiness of preservation from a spiritual point of view.” DO GO ON!
“However, at the time that we started with the campaign to save the Fox in the mid-1970s, Atlanta had never, up to that point, had a project to save anything architectural of any significance.”
“It’s fitting that somewhere under the asphalt of one of these Downtown parking lots lies the unmarked grave of Hardy Ivy. I suspect he’s rolling over in it.”
“Clearly, Downtown Atlanta is reluctant to draw on its past to shape its future. But what of that future?”
Dan Sweat is brought back in again to, in so many words, explain the concept of “live, work, play.” Naturally (for 1991), Underground Atlanta is used to illustrate the “play” element. But where did people live Downtown?
This is the second consecutive episode that starts to wrap up in Underground and uses it as some sort of illustration of how Atlanta isn’t as racist anymore.
How can Atlanta learn to see history as a friend, not a hindrance, to progress and prosperity? How can Sweet Auburn be vibrant again?
“The heart of historic Atlanta has been given new life. Will the same hold true for its black soul?” [Slow zoom into Rev. King's grave. END SCENE.]
This 26-minute episode hit on so many heavy development issues and had so many good quotes that they couldn’t all be included here.
I want to think that all the people involved in the making of The Making of Modern Atlanta who are still alive, especially those in this episode, get together every year for a little reunion, to catch up and to laugh about how nothing has changed and yet everything has changed in Atlanta. It would be so awkward to find out there was some falling out between the History Twins a while ago and they’re not speaking anymore, like one of them gorged on too much chicken nuggets and sherry at Lois Reitzes’ 1999 Peach Bowl tailgate party and threw up all over the others’ first edition signed copy of Atlanta and Environs.
Next up: Part Three – “Taming the Outback” (or, to those who have seen it, “the one about the suburbs” or “the one with the Dunwoody moms”)
Previously: The Making of Modern Atlanta: 20 years later