I have been curious about Plunkett Town and the African-American neighborhoods near the airport that were bought out around the same time as Mountain View. Both communities have been physically erased, the streets renamed, and there’s not much on the internet to guide my research. The only way to get information is to talk to people who remember the area, and that is not an easy task. As with Mountain View, there’s a lingering hush over these places, and people are cautious about how to describe what happened there.
As I continued to inquire about Plunkett Town, I kept hearing references to “Poole Creek.” What little evidence I could find of the place made it seem mythic, a world that had grown in legend since disappearing from the landscape.
A pastor told me to look up The Anointed Pace Sisters, a gospel group that started at his church in Plunkett Town. I found a 1993 recording of a performance of “Back to Poole Creek” on YouTube.
As the grainy video opens, singer LaShun Pace, wearing a long sequined jacket, stands at the front of a church sanctuary. Her mother, a smaller woman in purple, sways by her side. The altar is lined with Easter lilies, the pews packed with congregants fluttering paper fans.
“Y’all know how God would name a certain place in the Bible?” she began, smiling as if she’s among friends. “This place shall be named Poole Creek.”
Approving cheers came from the congregation.
“In Poole Creek you came to know God in a very real way. There was a lot of hard times in Poole Creek. You shed many tears in Poole Creek.”
She half sang, half preached in a powerful soprano voice, each line punctuated by a flourish from the organist. This is what’s called in the Pentecostal tradition the “sermonic hymn,” a showstopping performance that gets the entire congregation energized before the sermon.
LaShun “But not only was Poole Creek a place of tears and sorrow, but God took Poole Creek and turned it into a river of joy. And he turned it into a sea of love.”
She beckoned to her sisters and brother to join her on stage.
“He took the sea of love and turned it into an ocean of life. Who was it that brought you through all those years?”
Mother Betty Ann Pace stepped up to lead the chorus, eyes closed. Listening to her sing, I instantly thought Aretha Franklin’s gospel roots. The Pace siblings gathered around their mother and two standing microphones, turning their backs to the audience and the cameras. At this point, the choir and most of the congregation were on their feet.
Watching the eleven minute song, it gave me goosebumps to hear a flight path neighborhood compared to a site of biblical tribulation. I realized that this was the first time music has ever come into my research. I didn’t have to ask what Poole Creek meant to LaShun Pace, or how she felt about its demise. She was singing the story of this lost place in all its complexity. By the time Father Pace took the mic, people were dancing in the aisles. Every one of them had their own version of Poole Creek.
But where was it exactly? And what happened to it?
You don’t have to go far back to find maps that show Poole Creek Road in Southeast Atlanta. It started at Plunkett Town, near Old Dixie Highway, and ended at Jonesboro Road. Today, the road is named Southside Industrial Parkway, a 1.75 mile curve through a dismal landscape of warehouses and overgrown, vacant land, no creek in sight. This is a familiar scene on all sides of the airport, and I suspected that the area was once residential.
Searching for “Poole Creek” in the airport’s online environmental records led me to a remarkable document. The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Noise Land Reuse Plan is an enormous and formal report, consisting of 235 low quality scans of legalese, maps and charts. It explains the FAA’s methodology for determining noise levels near the airport and outlines the worst impacted areas on a map with bold red “noise contours.” Within this boundary, the airport could apply for federal funds to buy out residences, churches, and other "incompatible uses” on designated “noise land.”
Most fascinating to me were the hundreds of spreadsheets detailing every single parcel acquired by the airport from the early 1980s through 2009, including the purchase price, date of transaction, and the source of federal funds used to make the purchase. I knew that every single line of data represented a family, a business owner or a pastor, and a team of attorneys negotiating at a closing table. Each transaction marked a turning point for them.
My home in Mountain View was nowhere to be found, neither were the details on Plunkett Town. Both were part of a pilot program that preceded the airport’s official noise mitigation program. Also missing were the huge swaths of College Park, Riverdale and other neighborhoods that are directly under the airport today. Only formally designated noise land was documented.
I studied the document into the early hours of the morning, pondering the scale of the airport’s land acquisition. How could it be so enormous, so obvious, and yet so misunderstood by the people who lived there. It was startling to think that the relocation of Mountain View was not isolated undertaking, a thing of the past, but an ongoing, continuous campaign. The transactions seem to peak in the mid 80s, but airport buyouts continued through the next 20 years.
The Noise Land Reuse Plan had a whole section on Poole Creek, confirming that the airport acquired approximately 455 homes on Poole Creek Road in the early 1980s using a combination of federal slum clearance and “airport improvement” funds. I also located Gilbert Gardens, a 220-unit public housing project near the intersection of Poole Creek and Gilbert Road. It was built in the flight path and demolished in 2005. Today, about half of the land has been redeveloped for light industrial uses, warehouses and offices. The other lots sit empty and haunted, crumbling driveways and fences still marking the entrance to old homes.
It seemed like Poole Creek was a poor black community just over the county line and just inside the worst noise contour. It encompassed both Plunkett Town, a dilapidated 1930s settlement for blacks, and Gilbert Gardens, a housing project just as segregated and forsaken by the 1980s, and some houses in between. I thought I had solved the mystery.
But there was more.
Deep in the comments among Instagram posts tagged #poolecreekfamily, #poolecreekforever, #poolecreekneverdies, #poolecreeklegends, a strange line jumped out at me “I can tell by your feet that you come from Poole Creek.”
You don’t have to know about Poole Creek is to understand it’s an insult, a playground taunt. I asked my kids' babysitter, Tara, a southside native and generous interpreter of black Atlanta, if she had any idea what it meant. She laughed at me. She heard kids chanting it at Vacation Bible School just last summer.
“It means you need a pedicure,” she told me. “It means you look broke.”
Imagine my surprise when I started to share this discovery with my Dad, who is neither black, nor an Instagram account holder, and he finished the rhyme for me. He remembered the line from childhood and it had a similar meaning for white kids in Forest Park in the 1950s. It was a way of calling someone poor or low class. It was an insult lobbed at the kids from Blair Village. But he couldn’t explain clearly what Blair Village was, or where, exactly.
So I went back to my two best sources, Facebook reunion groups and Franklin Garrett's massive, 3-volume history Atlanta and Environs. He mentions Blair Village in a section about one of Atlanta's earliest settlers, Adam Poole.
“A new low rental apartment development, known as Blair Village, now occupies the site of the Poole settlement. One of the principal streets in the Village retains the Poole name as Poole Creek Drive, while the Poole family cemetery was carefully built around and the site not destroyed.”
I joined a lively Facebook group called “Blair Village Survivors,” where I became member number 359. All of us, judging by the profile pics, were white. The group's collective photos and memories of Blair Village conjure a place that seems like a kingdom unto itself. Childhood memories of "a more innocent time" --the pool, the woods, the basketball court, the creek. Late summer nights skateboarding down Wascanna, floating in the pool, cookouts in the courtyards, chasing girls at the drive-in theater. The apartments themselves were not as beloved as the life that took place in the courtyards. In photos of prom dates and kids building a snowman the apartments are in the background, solid, square and plain.
Historic aerial photos showed a street pattern of sweeping loops off Poole Creek Road, dotted by low brick cottages clustered around courtyards, a kind of low-budget, low-density Garden Style. At about 200 acres, Blair Village was almost as big as the city of Mountain View, and with 1600 units, the development likely rivaled its population too.
Today we would call it "affordable housing." This uniformity in design, almost military in its precision, coupled with Garrett's description as a "low rental" development, caused me to wonder... was Blair Village some kind of surplus military housing? Was it "the projects"? Atlanta pioneered public housing in the late '30s with Techwood Homes, an all white housing project that replaced a black slum known as Techwood Flats. Could Blair Village be a white housing project?
How exactly do you define "the projects?" Gilbert Gardens, which was built right next door to Blair Village in 1970, was a developed, owned and maintained by the Atlanta Housing Authority using federal funds. It was clearly, "the projects."
If Blair Village was new as of Garrett's writing in 1953, it was likely part of the post-war housing boom in Atlanta. Nearby, Ford's Hapeville Assembly plant and GM's Lakewood Assembly factory provided steady blue-collar jobs to returning WWII vets. Even if Blair Village was privately developed, the vast majority of late '40s to early '50s apartments built in Georgia were financed and underwritten by the U.S. Federal Housing Authority (FHA). Federal funds subsidized low-income white housing, but it wasn't called "the projects," and it didn't carry the stigma.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legislated an end to segregation in public housing, schools, and transportation, it triggered white flight from the city of Atlanta to the suburbs of Clayton County. As middle class families were fleeing the city, the airport buyouts in this area were swinging into gear.
Was Blair Village ever racially integrated? By 1968, the swimming pool was filled in with dirt. I am still fuzzy on the details, but tax records imply that the property sold to the City of Atlanta redevelopment authority. Blair Village was demolished in 1981, at the same time 455 houses next door on Poole Creek Road were wiped out by the airport.
It's confusing that these two distinct efforts were happening at the same time in Poole Creek: slum clearance and airport acquisitions. At times, they accomplished the same goals. Which came first, the slums or the airport?
The Blair Village "survivors" are generally clueless about what happened to the place. Did the airport buy it or the city? Just like in Mountain View, they see its demolition with resignation, as a kind of cleansing, of crime, corruption, of the bad old days.
It took twenty more years for the airport to buy out Gilbert Gardens, a $7 million transaction between two parts of the city of Atlanta: the Atlanta Housing Authority and the Department of Aviation. The noise impact was just as bad there in 2004 as it had been since the modern airport opened in the 1980s, but the timing was finally right. By 2009, Atlanta had shut down and eradicated all of its public housing projects.