Poole Creek, Blair Village, and the Meaning of “The Projects”

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 the black and white communities were  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 and confused about why they were obliterated.

The more I inquired about Plunkett Town, the more I heard references to “Poole Creek,” a place I had never heard of. What little evidence I could find of Poole Creek made it seem mythical, a world that had grown in legend since disappearing from the landscape.

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Back to Poole Creek

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 crowded 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. I couldn't believe my luck.

“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.

“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.”

LaShun 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 forward to lead the chorus, eyes closed. Listening to her sing, I instantly thought of 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, I realized that this was the first time music has ever come into my research. It gave me goosebumps to hear Poole Creek described as a site of biblical tribulation. I didn’t have to ask what the place meant to LaShun Pace, or how she felt about its demise. She was singing the story in all its complexity, turning tears shed into a river of joy. By the time Father Pace took the mic, people were leaping and dancing in the aisles. Every one of them had their own version of Poole Creek.

I recognized this combination of pride and sadness about being from the southside. But where was Poole Creek 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. The road started at Plunkett Town, near Old Dixie Highway, and ended at Jonesboro Road near its namesake water way. Today, the road is named Southside Industrial Parkway, a 1.75 mile curve through a dismal landscape of warehouses and overgrown, vacant land, with no creek in sight. This is a familiar scene on all sides of the airport, and as I drove the wide and pot-holed parkway, I looked for remaining signs of the neighborhood.

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 seated across from a team of attorneys at a closing table. Each line on the spreadsheet marked a turning point.

My home in Mountain View was nowhere to be found in these records; neither were the details on Plunkett Town. Both were part of a pilot program that preceded the airport’s official noise mitigation efforts, early attempts to stem residential complaints about the noise. Also missing were the huge swaths of College Park, Riverdale and other neighborhoods that are underneath the airport today. Only those useless parcels designated as "noise land" were documented in detail.

I studied the document into the early hours of the morning, pondering the scale of the airport’s kingdom. How could this land acquisition program 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 CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) and AIP (Airport Improvement Program) 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.

Based on The Pace Sisters' song and these airport records, 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.



(Blair Village 1960 & 1967)

Blair Village

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 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 little artifact 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 world unto itself. Commenters are mostly there to share childhood memories of “a more innocent time,” —late summer nights skateboarding down Wascanna Road, 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, the woods, the basketball court, and the creek. In photos of prom dates and snowball fights, the apartments line up 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 courtyardsa kind of low-budget, low-density Garden Style configuration. Today we would call it “affordable housing.” At about 200 acres, Blair Village was almost as big as the city of Mountain View, and with 300 buildings, the development likely rivaled its population too.

Not everyone remembers Blair Village as the good old days. Some commenters were candid about crime and traumatic memories of the Village. One commenter said the Village should be called “hell on earth” and that he felt safer when they moved to Capitol Homes, a notorious public housing project.

So was Blair Village “the projects”? Its uniformity in design, almost military in its precision, coupled with Garrett's description as a “low rental” development, caused me to wonder. 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. Was Blair Village a white housing project?

This led me to an even bigger question: what exactly are “the projects” anyways? And why does it matter what we call them? Gilbert Gardens, built right next door to Blair Village in 1970, was developed, owned and maintained by the Atlanta Housing Authority using federal funds. It was by definition “the projects,” and it became, over time, exclusively inhabited by African-American families and infamous for drugs and crime. Few people can explain the technical definition of affordable or public housing, but the meaning of “the projects” has grown to include any standardized housing that isolates and concentrates crime and poverty.

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 plant provided steady blue-collar jobs to returning WWII vets, bringing explosive demand for housing. Even if Blair Village was privately developed, the vast majority of apartments built in Georgia from late 40s to early '50s 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.

Negro Expansion area 1965

Was Blair Village ever racially integrated? I found a map of Negro Residential Areas that highlighted one side of Poole Creek as a “Negro Area 1962,” with the other side marked “Transitional 1968.” Blair Village was supposed to stay white. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legislated an end to segregation in public housing, schools, and transportation, middle class white families fled to the suburbs. It was one of those racial battlegrounds that could neither integrate nor remain segregated. By 1968, the swimming pool at Blair Village was filled in with dirt and the complex was losing residents.


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So what happened to Blair Village? I found the 1979 Neighborhood Plan for NPU-Z, the "neighborhood planning unit" which included distinct boundaries for Plunkett Town, Poole Creek, Gilbert Gardens, and Blair Village. The plan, a 4-page pamphlet really, recommended the demolition of Blair Village, calling it "not fit for human habitation."

"While most of the NPU’s housing is in good condition, two areas are showing signs of major deterioration: Blair Village and Plunkettown. Blair Village, a 1,100 unit publicly-subsidized housing complex, is approximately 68 percent vacant. Most of the units are deteriorated, and are being boarded up as they are vacated."

The plan also recommends that residents in the area be relocated due to excessive noise levels from the airport, and that the property (shaded in blue above) be used for industrial purposes. Blair Village was demolished by 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 city-making efforts were happening at the same time in Poole Creek: slum clearance and airport acquisitions. Or are they one and the same? Which came first, the slums or the airport? Blair Village survivors are generally uncertain about what happened to the place. They debate on Facebook­—did the airport buy it or the City? Just like in Mountain View, the displaced see its erasure with resignation, as a kind of cleansing, just part of the passage of time.



(Plunkett Town in 1970 by Chuck Vollertsen, AJC. Gilbert Gardens in 1978, photo by Ray West, AJC.)

The black communities near the airport were part of a diaspora too, but most resettled in Atlanta where there were new public housing projects and homes vacated by white flight. At some point in the late ‘60s, the white congregation of Valley View Baptist stood watching the Leila Valley Apartments under construction across the street and decided to place a For Sale sign on their door.

When whites fled to Clayton County and the outer suburbs, they turned their backs on the City of Atlanta and its integrated swimming pools, streetcars, and housing projects. There were no housing projects in Clayton County. For a short period, the county line acted as a color line, an invisible boundary as devastating as the noise contours.

Despite the excessive noise from the airport, it took decades for the airport to buy out Gilbert Gardens, a $7 million transaction in 2004 between the Atlanta Housing Authority and another powerful city agency: the Department of Aviation. The timing suggests that Gilbert Gardens was shut down not due to noise impacts, but as part of the Atlanta Housing Authority’s new agenda to eradicate its traditional, large-scale housing projects.

I write this post for a city that is "post-projects," post-Poole Creek, and moving quickly to forget these places. I write to fill in the gaping holes in Atlanta's psycho-geography.

Illustrated Maps, Illuminated Places


I've been thinking about illustrated maps and how they are still wonderful and necessary, despite the omnipresence of Google, Bing, and Apple Maps. First of all, they are so much fun to "read," especially as they age.

While the maps in my iphone are up-to-the-minute and authoritative, they can't capture the personality of a place and time, or give me a clue about what's special about a neighborhood. That kind of big data is not generated or captured, but interpreted and expressed by an illustrator. 


How does someone illustrate the experience of a place? It's a painstaking process to inventory the landscape, puzzle out the connections, and then hand render it with style. I think of an illustrator creating these carefully detailed tableaus of the Atlanta airport area and it seems so tedious, it has to be a labor of love. Like those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, drawing a map is a solitary, meditative discipline meant to preserve something sacred. The reader gets a taste of that too–a sense that this place is beloved.


When someone asks me why I live in East Point, or refers to the airport area as a "no man's land," I want to show them the illustrated maps at Boyd Tire Pros. This is an old school tire shop on the northern edge of the airport that's been there since 1967. The wood-paneled halls of their office and "customer waiting lounge" look like they haven't changed much since the '70s, and they include a fine collection of gold-framed promotional maps of the airport area. I imagine the chamber of commerce commissioned an illustrator to produce these pieces, with sponsorships from local businesses like Boyd Tire.


I know these aren't exactly illuminated manuscripts, but nothing better captures the spirit of a once-thriving southside like these maps. This one by Alex Black feels like an early sketch for the Plane Crazy piece I found last year. Badly faded and totally obsolete, these maps are remnants of a lost world.


Since my visit to Boyd Tire, I have noticed that art of illuminating places through handmade maps is very much alive. I picked up a recent promotional map of Hapeville at Beer Girl by local tattoo artist and Hapeville native, Dee Claborn. It's full of inside jokes and hidden spots that even I didn't know about, like the Airport View Restaurant, a lunch cafeteria overlooking the north cargo area off Loop Road.



Then the Bitter Southerner posted a gorgeous Atlanta map by artist YoYo Ferro. It depicts a quirky and personal experience of the city, including obscure sites like the Bankhead Bridge. I love that it doesn't attempt to be all things to all Atlantans, just one person's loving tribute to ATL, circa 2015.


Finally, for my birthday last week, I received a stylized Atlanta map by Archie's Press. It's actually quite helpful for understanding how Atlanta's neighborhoods are connected, but I was slightly annoyed that  certain hoods are emphasized over others (Buckhead vs. East Point, even though E.P. is much bigger geographically). Archie's methodology is unique and his resulting "Map of the Mind," is subjective. It's a reminder that the process of interpreting city data is the tricky part–the human part–of the practice of urban design, because it involves selection and judgement. But how else are we supposed to get at the unique psycho-geography of a place, especially unloveable places like Bankhead or Hartsfield-Jackson?

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The upshot of my little fixation on illustrated maps is that I am now regularly using Etsy in my research as an urban designer. This week I learned about Rustbelt pride and Great Lakes identity by searching the handmade works of artists in Toledo, Ohio. Their hand drawn and hand letterpressed prints are as valuable to my understanding of place as  time spent in wandering the spooky corridors of Google Street View. And they're a lot more fun and inspiring to look at.


Airport Planning in 1966

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Digging around in GSU's digital collections of planning documents, I found this 1966 report--a high level assessment of Atlanta's metro airports. I can't resist the stylish mid-century graphic design and clean typography, and the content and infographics are just as sharp today as they were 50 years ago.

Even more impressive, these plans contain the seeds of the airport we recognize today. It acknowledges the growing conflict with the surrounding neighborhoods and clearly recommends the residential buyouts that would transform the southside.

Below is a map that shows the rapid pace of residential growth around the airport. The areas in gray were established before 1955. Green areas were developed in the subsequent 10 years (jet operations commenced in 1960.) Faintly, in blue, you can see the lines representing the "generalized pattern of jet aircraft noise."


My first reaction to this map is, See? We were here first!

Hapeville, College Park, East Point, Mountain View, and Forest Park are mostly gray. All of my childhood homes are in the gray, built long before 1960, when things started to get real at the world's busiest airport. This is an important point, as surly outsiders are always acting like these neighborhoods owe the airport for their very existence, when in fact, they predate the airport as we know it.

But then I see these odd patches of green sprouting up along the runway edges, despite the noise. Certainly after 1960 developers and planners should have caught on that the airport and its noise impacts would only expand. "Zoning," the report states, "has been quite unable to cope with the problem." How was this allowed to happen?  


Many of those green patches are swallowed up in this diagram, a "Generalized Development Plan," which concludes the report. This is the first suggestion of replacing the original criss-cross runway pattern that was responsible for traffic delays with a parallel runway system. A 3rd parallel runway was predicted to accommodate the forecasted demand in 1980, but it was followed by a 4th runway in 1984, a 5th in 2006, and a 6th runway is currently in the making. 

This sketch also proposes the Central Passenger Terminal concept, which would eviscerate large parts of College Park. The plan suggests airport connections to the still unnamed MARTA line, and all three interstate highways. The proposed eastern interchange at I-75  was recently completed with the opening of the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal in 2012. All visionary moves that took nearly 50 years to realize.

Here's a quote that has always haunted me. In a 1980 interview celebrating the opening of the new Central Passenger Terminal, which modernized ATL, doubled its size, and delivered on the 1966 plans, Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, Jr. was asked if would have done anything differently. He said:

"Hindsight is always a great help in detecting problems. There are several things I would have done. One would be to work closely with the local jurisdictions on zoning, limiting development around the airport to industrial areas with no residential build-up. Also, we would have worked to resolve the potential difficulty with Clayton County a long time ago. Years ago, I would have attempted to annex into Atlanta the entire airport reservation… all of this would have been completed before the new terminal was built."

This is one of the only instances I have found where Mayor Jackson addresses the conflict between airport communities and the massive airport that now bears his name. It's weird to hear my home county named among the great leader's regrets. It's like hearing him say I wish you were never born. And what if the whole airport area had been annexed into Atlanta, like the original 284 acre airport tract, purchased in 1929?

It's also a subtle criticism of previous planners and leaders, like Mayors William Hartsfield and Ivan Allen, Jr., who directed significant investments into Atlanta's aviation assets, but failed to head off the "difficulty with Clayton County" and prevent "residential build-up" around the growing airport.

I have often wondered about airport plans leading up to the celebrations in 1980. When did planners realize how big this thing could be? And when did they start planning for the busiest airport in the world? The answer is: almost immediately after the first jets started traveling out of Atlanta. At least as early as 1966, with this report. 

Stadiums and Runways



It’s baseball season, which doesn’t mean a whole lot to me except a heightened awareness of gameday traffic on the southside. If the Braves are playing at home, I will time my trips and take surface streets to avoid the congestion, but catch the victory fireworks.

This is one of the last summers that I’ll have to pay attention to the Braves’ schedule, because next year when their lease is up at Turner Field, the Braves are moving out. Major league traffic jams are out and Atlanta will be left with an 84-acre hole in the middle of some its most historic neighborhoods.

I’ve spent the last month studying the Turner Field area and redevelopment plans and I can’t help but notice some profound similarities to the airport area. Here they are, as a listicle, in no particular order:

  • Just passing through. Both the Turner Field neighborhoods and the Atlanta Airport area communities accommodate an enormous influx of visitors who don’t notice or care about the local community. ATL travelers and Braves fans need to pass through as quickly as possible, find cheap parking, and get to their flight or seats on time. These millions have very little connection —visual, physical, emotional—to the neighborhoods, and no sense of obligation or love for us. It's like having a massive population of renters instead of homeowners.
  • Economic Development vs. Community Development. “It’s said the Braves generate a $100 million economic impact on metro Atlanta. But it doesn’t take an economist to conclude that little of the team’s monetary power is felt in the neighborhoods around the ballpark.” Rebecca Burns wrote beautifully about life during the other 284 days around Turner Field. Both neighborhoods are home to a Big Economic Generator with very little local economic or community impact. The locals tolerate the headaches—traffic, noise, trash, crime—but reap little of the benefits. Outsiders act like we should be grateful for the jobs provided by these economic monsters, but there is little overlap between the worlds inside the fence and outside. We watch the fireworks from the side of the road.
  • We were here first. I should know better than to read the comments, but I can’t help it. Anytime I read an article about the plight of the Turner Field communities or the airport area, there are always comments calling our communities a cesspool of lazy criminals and impoverished whiners. Some commenter will inevitably say, why don’t you move? I ask myself the same question and the answer is simple: we were here first. Look at the maps; before the runways and the stadium parking lots, there were neighborhoods.  Some of us love our homes, and are willing to fight for them.
  • David vs. Goliath. Both stories have a classic narrative conflict. Both give me the sense of feeling hopelessly small, and speaking truth to power. I feel convicted about what side I want to be on.

The big difference between these southside neighborhoods is that the Braves are moving out and the airport is digging in. The Turner Field Communities Benefits Coalition sees this as the chance of a lifetime. They are beginning to visualize a stadium-free future, while we’re facing a 6th Runway. I know how the story is supposed to end, but I'll be watching Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville for lessons on confronting Goliath in my neighborhood.

I wish ATL had an observation deck


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I wish there was a good place to watch airplanes land and take off at Hartsfield-Jackson. My kids would love it, but really, I would love it.

It would be noisy and smelly, sure, but also mesmerizing. At 4,700 acres, HJ-AIA delivers the kind of vast vista that Atlanta sorely lacks. We don’t have waterfront views, or any kind of vantage point for the city. What we do have is a massive airport. It's our city's biggest asset, and we should leverage it for cultural, not just economic opportunity.

Whenever I get a glimpse of Hartsfield-Jackson, I'm impressed by the scale of it, and I'm not even an aviation buff. I find it kind of soothing to watch the relentless pace and precision of all those well-choreographed takeoffs and landings, one every few seconds. It’s an enormous operation, the world's busiest, apparently, but it's hard to get a sense of the whole.

I’ve tried to watch planes from the upper floors of the Airport Hilton, restaurants on Virginia Avenue, spots along Main Street in College Park, and from the elevated MARTA train. I often see people pulled over on the side of Loop Road to watch and take photos. These people get the cops called on them.

All these ad hoc observation decks feel risky, like I’m trespassing. And none of them provide a very good view.

We need a public space for this. Not just for “post-security” passengers, the Delta Elite SkyClub members and such, but open to all and free of admission. 

This observation deck would be a great place to take my kids, to meet people on their way to or from the airport, to dine, stroll, shop and people-watch. Picture a boardwalk, or promenade. Something as sweeping and grand as the airport itself. Picture the BeltLine, and its re-orienting effect on businesses nearby. Or just picture Frankfurt's recently re-opened "Visitors Terrace." 




Yes, lots of major airports have still observation decks, particularly overseas. There's a free, public "Panorama Terrace" at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and a long, open air public deck at Tokyo's Narita Airport.

Here in the U.S., SFO is planning to build 2 new observation decks: one in a hotel development and one that's entirely open to the public. At DFW, there's a public observation "plaza," with a memorial. Raleigh-Durham has an observation “area” which seems like a good post-911 compromise. It’s more like a park with a playground and coin-operated telescopes to view the overall airport operations. It also features “air traffic communications broadcast via a loudspeaker for the curious public.” 

(There’s a nice list of worldwide observation decks here, plus a whole rabbit hole of plane-spotting resources.)

Why do these airports do it? Why invest in an amenity that does not directly move passengers, or benefit airlines? 

Airports used to have observation decks.

Here’s Toronto’s Malton Airport around 1960:


in the jet age, when aircraft were even noisier and nastier than they are now, people lined up to watch the action at airports. Anytime I talk to a pilot, they have an origin story about spending time at an observation deck as a child, watching the airplanes for hours. The curious public was not so weary of air travel; airports were not so hostile towards the general public out of security concerns.

So observation decks satisfied an early PR need of the aviation industry, and along the way, became really interesting communal spaces that inspired a generation of pilots, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers. But they also served as a friendly link between the community and the airports themselves. 

Currently, the Atlanta Airport doesn't have anything like this, and it has only recently begun thinking in terms of community connectivity. For decades, the surrounding cities have been hunkered down, trying to protect themselves from airport noise and expansion. What if they turned their faces (and storefronts and parks) back towards the runways? When’s the last time the southside celebrated the opening of a new park?

This should happen, and the airport should do it. As a symbolic gesture to the community. As an amenity worthy of a world class airport.

I wish ATL had an observation deck. But more than that, I wish ATL had an observation deck mentality. More open, civic, and fun.



Cartoon Airplanes


I bought this framed poster, a print of an illustration called Plane Crazy, at a flea market in Monteagle, Tennessee for $10. This was not the giant, roadside I-24 Flea Market that greets interstate travellers at the peak of Monteagle Mountain every weekend. It was the other flea market, the one happening simultaneously, further down Highway 41, where locals go to buy and sell melons and tomatoes, chickens and ducks, camo and boots (new and used), taxidermied deer heads and scabby-tailed puppies, and strange collections of VHS tapes, glass ashtrays, and framed art. It’s the thrift store for a town without a thrift store, a yard sale for a community without yards.

Since I was standing in a gravel lot on a mountaintop in Tennessee, it took me a minute to recognize the airport. The airlines are now mostly defunct: Eastern, Pan Am, Piedmont. But the orange terminals caught my eye. Then the details: the Hapeville Ford plant, I-75 and I-85, and a MARTA train the size of a caterpillar. I have never seen such a wacky, colorful, loving representation of the gargantuan airport in my backyard.

The old man selling this drawing took my cash and I told him it was the Atlanta Airport. He didn’t know anything about the poster or where it came from. A tiny signature at the bottom says Alex Black (Psalm 139) and a tiny bus on I-75 is labeled “Convention ‘88” with a donkey. Maybe this poster was commissioned for the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Or some celebration surrounding a milestone at the new Midfield Terminal, which opened in 1981.

Whatever the occasion, this poster is evidence of an interesting moment in the history of aviation, of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and of the southside of Atlanta. It is a celebration of the Atlanta Airport. With all those big-nosed, cartoon airplanes, all its Where’s Waldo activity, in its goofy and specific attention to detail, it makes the airport look fun, or even beloved. 


I wrote this post on an airplane. 

The next day, Mug spotted another Alex Black creation hanging on the wall at Delta Community Credit Union. This one looks like a playful, Delta-commisioned tribute to its fleet and employees created, maybe, around the 1996 Centennial Olympic games.

This one feels like an ad, where the first was more like a tool for placemaking. If I commissioned an illustration of the airport now, what would be celebrated?  

The Last House on South West Street


This part is so predictable, it’s almost boring. Like death. I dread writing it and, in fact, have been putting it off for months.


Last fall, a friend sent me some photos from Mountain View. They showed a freshly cleared demolition site: a yellow backhoe parked beside a bulldozer, a plane of combed red dirt, and a tidy stack of broken concrete slab.


I knew right away it was the lot at the corner of South West Street and Old Dixie Highway. I could tell by the angle of a jet aiming up and over the blank backside of a low warehouse. I’ve spent a lot of time with that one ivy-eaten oak tree, its top branches honeyed by the sunset. It was the site of the last remaining house on the last remaining corner of the street where I used to live.


The back of my neck felt hot as I flipped through the photos. It felt like a particularly large bill had finally arrived in the mail. You stand there in the street for a little too long, vaguely wishing you could mend the torn envelope, close the mailbox, return to sender. It was a dirty shock, but it could hardly be called a surprise.


They tore down Dell Air.


I have been observing the steady erasure of this block over the last decade. I’ve been to this spot many times, always in search of some clue about what happened to my house. What began in the early ‘80s with residential buyouts continues today with the clearing of commercial properties. It’s a slow process, imperceptible to the average passerby. The demolition seems to happen in slow motion, or in the night. I never actually witness the backhoes in action. I just cruise through and another Mountain View artifact is missing, fresh asphalt in its place.


Aside from that clawed up, unsettled feeling, it’s no surprise because the plans are out there; they’re public record. Mountain View has been at the top of Clayton County’s list of redevelopment projects for over a decade. While it may look like a good place to dump tires, in the eyes of a planner, Mountain View has a lot going for it. Clayton County’s Economic Development Director called it “the last great green, developable area inside the perimeter.”


It’s a delicate pitch. Mountain View is not a blank slate. There are still a few businesses, homes, and stragglers that need to be cleared. The only “green” swaths fall between the rows of warehouses, when summer kudzu unfolds across the ruins of the old neighborhoods.


Still, the location, wedged between the interstates and the airport, is ideal for logistics firms, freight-forwarders, and government agencies like the FAA. This proximity to the airport once made it an undesirable place to live. Now that’s the chief selling point. Clayton County is betting its economic future on these haunted acres.

A conceptual land use plan from 2003. 


(Portrait by John Kelso) 


The last house on South West Street wasn’t really a house anymore. It was the headquarters and sole location of Dell Air, a heating and air conditioning shop founded by Dell Thompson.


“My dad bought this house when I was 6 months old,” he told me. “In 1942. Back then, it had an outhouse.”


The house sits on a busy stretch of Old Dixie Highway facing the railroad tracks. As the only building left on the block, South West Street is essentially the driveway for Dell Air. The neighborhood of his childhood home sounds rural: chickens and goats, garden plots, a general store, and outhouses.


Thompson lived there until 1960, the year he graduated from Forest Park High School. That’s when his family moved out of Mountain View. Dell married, had kids, and came back in 1973 to set up his own business in the old house. He knew the location was ideal; he had learned the trade right down the street at his first job with Estes Heating & Air.


It should be no surprise that I had a family connection to Dell Thompson. His wife was my mother-in-law’s best friend and his son grew up with my husband. Now retired and living in Alabama, he met me at the office during one of his visits to Atlanta for medical appointments. I told him my parents lived on South West Street, it was my first childhood home too.


Thompson reminded me of that stoic uncle who’s a fixture at every cookout and holiday, maintaining his quiet post. A tall man in his 60s, I imagine he was a redhead before his mustache turned white. I recognized the heavy hands and shoulders of a long career in blue collar labor. Thompson’s measured, quiet demeanor could be a form of shyness. Or maybe it was the natural reticence of any interviewee. He kept his hands in his pockets and directed his words not really to me, but to the spaces off to the side. It was hard to get him to talk, so I asked for a tour.


The house had survived many conversions and additions over the years. The bricked-in porch was converted to the company vault. A 2-storey addition off the back of the house  more than doubled its square footage and gave the place a decidedly commercial entrance off Old Dixie Highway. This architectural hodge podge was cemented, literally, by a wraparound parking lot that connected the office to a long storage warehouse.


Even so, the heart of Dell Air was a lovely old bungalow. For me, it was an obvious model for my lost house down the block.


Inside, the domestic touches gave me flutters. The arched doorways and heavy glass knobs. The glossy tile indicating an otherwise hidden fireplace. Look past the traffic jam of filing cabinets and a service map rudely stapled to the wall, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine living there.


Except for the airplane noise. Due to the constant roar, business was conducted down the hall, in the unfortunately wood-paneled, but better-insulated addition to the office. The whole time we were talking, we were also lip reading. It’s a skill, he joked, that was part of growing up in Mountain View.


I asked if he remembered when the jet noise started to become a problem.


“In the ’40s, I guess,” he said. “But before that it was the trains.”


The Nancy Hank line, which ran mail for the U.S. Postal Service, was a regular presence in the neighborhood. It came through every morning at 9am, made the trip to Macon, Savannah and passed through again by 6pm. There were 3 crossings in Mountain View, each one a dangerous intersection.


“The trains were always billowing black smoke,” he said. “In the ‘50s, they tried to make the trains slow down.”


He shook his head. Another lost cause. Before the trouble with the airport, he told me, it was the trains. This was never a great place to live.


We stepped outside and I snapped some photos. He casually mentioned that the house was going to be torn down soon. He already had a deal with the County to sell the property, it was just a matter of timing.


I kept digging for some trace of sentimentality. Wasn’t there anything about the place he would miss? Not really, he said, amused that I would suggest it.


Thompson was pragmatic, but he did show me one thing. We searched for spot where the back stoop used to be where his initials and his brothers’ were etched in the concrete. He kicked aside the clumped weeds to find it: D.T. E.T. 1955.


Small fingers in wet cement. He made his own tiny memorial as a child. 


Road Realignment Phasing Plan, GDOT 2010.

I found a Georgia DOT map that shows how Mountain View will be transformed into the hub of a vast transportation network, connecting the new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal (“Atlanta’s Front Door to the World”) on the west with I-285 to the east. At the center of these plans is the new Southern Crescent Multi-modal Transportation Center, a proposed commuter rail line that would connect Atlanta to Macon.


Even when you know the plans are out there, it’s jarring when it happens. A decade is a long time to wait, for rumors to drift, for people to protest, then dream, to be converted, then forget what the planners pitched. Planners can study and propose ideas, but they have no authority to build. It could take decades for market conditions to align. In 10 years, a baby becomes a fifth grader. In ten more, that kid is gone, his childhood home fixed in memory. Meanwhile, the eraser is a lumbering thing.


According to the map, Mountain View’s main streets, Old Dixie and Conley Road, will be relocated. A constellation of red dots mark structures for demolition, including Dell Air. Many of the buildings pictured in the base map are already gone. There will be nothing left of the original Mountain View community, except the name.


The red dots are precise and final--a glaring period that puts an end to all my words. 



Trick or Trunk-or-Treat


When did "Trunk-or-Treating" start to catch on? Here on the south side, I first noticed these events about 5 years ago. I drove by one last weekend on a trip through McDonough. Located in a church parking lot after Sunday services, it looked like a typical fall carnival, except that the cars and trucks were parked in the middle of the festivities instead of on the outer fringes. 


It got me thinking about this suburban phenomenon, what it is and what it means. "Trunk-or-Treat" events are promoted as "a safe, fun halloween alternative for families" where kids can "walk a well-lit parking lot and pick up treats from car trunks." People go all out decorating their car trunks and truck beds with fall themes. It's kind of like tailgating, but for kids.


So what exactly is "safe" about this "alternative" to old fashioned door-to-door trick-or-treating? Most trunk-or-treats are private events with a few ground rules: no demons or gore; no sex offenders or razors-loaded apples. And unlike sending your kids off to roam the public streets, there are no bad neighborhoods, no surprises. Just wholesome people who look like you. 


(Here in the Bible Belt, folks have always struggled with Halloween traditions. "What are you doing for Halloween?" is asked among parents with the same strategic gravitas as one might ask, "What are you going to do about the schools?")


While Trunk-or-Treat events may have started as religious secession, they are now popping up in school parking lots, town squares, and even hospitals and car dealerships. I think this new tradition has been embraced not because it offers an alternative to heathen Halloween activities, but for more obvious reasons: walkability. 


I grew up trick-or-treating in many different neighborhoods, not always my own. I guess we targeted a street based on a formula of density, convenience, and affluence to calculate its ability to provide the most free candy in the least amount of time. One year we ditched the streets altogether and went trick-or-treating at Southlake Mall.


In communities like McDonough--recently rural and rapidly transformed by suburban sprawl--traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating is nearly impossible. With houses spread out on 2 acre parcels, no sidewalks, and no street lighting, it would not only be impractical, it would be dangerous to haul your kids around begging for candy. In sprawl conditions, I agree that trunk-or-treating is "safer," but is not really an "alternative." This simulation has replaced the original Halloween ritual. 


I guess we better get used to taking our kids to parking lots to collect candy from car trunks. Just another way the shape of the built environment modifies our culture. 



Not a Flight Attendant


"Hello. You have reached Hannah's phone and I am not a flight attendant." 

For a long time, this was the voicemail greeting on my mobile phone. Friends and family thought it was an odd joke, referring to my fascination with the Atlanta airport. But it wasn't a joke; it was a friendly warning to all the flight attendants who leave me long, detailed voicemails about switching flights. The screenshots above are two recent examples of the coded messages that mistakenly land in my phone on a regular, perhaps monthly basis. 

I have been receiving these calls, voicemails, and now text messages, for as long as I have had this phone number. Now that I think about it, it's been 10 years.

I don't know why they call me. My best guess is that my phone number is one digit away from that of a veteran flight attendant named Collette. As I listen to their mysterious jargon, it feels like I accidentally tuned into this frequency just by living so close to the airport.

Wrong numbers are kind of funny. Repeated wrong numbers are annoying. But these calls have been going on for a decade now. They have become a tiny part of my life. My own peripheral peek into the aviation industry. I might even miss them if they stopped.

Planespotting in College Park



I can't argue with the hateful comments in response to my iReport on CNN.com, especially this one:

"Truthfully your kids would probably rather just go watch the planes at the airport than see your old houses."

It's true! My little guy is fascinated and freaked out by the up-close force of airplanes. We found the perfect spot to watch them land. Just beyond the south end of Main Street in College Park, the runway guide lights begin. It feels like the airplanes are close enough snap the treetops. Look west, and you can see the jets grow larger as they descend, focusing from a warbly light in the distance to an enormous, juddering shell of steel, blacking out the sky.

My toddler leaps into my arms as the noise washes over us. Then, seeing that we have survived, he cheers, "Bye airplane!" and studies the horizon for the next arrival.