Illustrated Maps, Illuminated Places
My hands

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 1.06.19 PM

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?

 

Oldmap

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.

 

BV_bw

(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.

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 4.27.38 PM

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.

 

1978_GilbertGardesn

(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.

Comments

Emmett

Thanks for this. Have you been able to find the location of the cemetery?

hspalmer

Hi Emmett, I haven't tried to find the cemetery on foot. Franklin Garrett documented it as "on high ground in the center of the Village in Land Lot #33." When I compare Historic Aerials photos of the site with current satellite images, it doesn't look promising.

Ron Richardson

This is some good high grade research. I appreciate your work.

William L Griffin

I grew up in plunket town from 1961 to 1968

Dan Waller

My parents moved to Atlanta in 1955 when the airline Dad worked for merged with Delta. They were going to move into Blair Village, which they described as new and very nice, but were able to buy a new house a few blocks away. My Aunt and her family lived in Blair Village in the early '70s. I remember playing in the creek and riding bikes through the complex with my cousins. It was pretty run down by then. I think a lot of folks in the area worked at Conley Depot, later renamed Fort Gillem.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)