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, 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.

City Hall Revisited: Who are the buildings in your neighborhood?


City Hall Wannabes, by Richie Gunn

from left to right: Atlanta City Hall (1930), One Atlantic Center (1987), Two Atlantic Center (2001), Some Condo Tower on Spring Street, The Four Seasons Hotel/GLG Grand (1992).


Now that I’ve discovered City Hall, I see it everywhere. It’s easy to spot the tower as I cruise north on I-75/85 or west on Memorial Drive. Its green top stands deferentially next to the gleaming Capitol dome, rising above the downtown federal buildings that form a cliff overlooking the river of traffic below.

I also see it in Midtown. That pointy green roof and gothic flourishes appear to be the inspiration for a whole crop of late ‘80s skyscrapers. One and Two Atlantic Center (a.k.a. the IBM Building and Mini-me) and the Four Seasons Hotel have the same stately ambitions. Today I spotted two high-rise condos on Spring Street wearing the watered-down ideas of City Hall.

I might not have noticed this resemblance without playing ask-an-architect. My office is swarming with them. I cornered one by the microwave one day in the middle of nuking his lunch.

“At what point is a building considered ‘historic’?” I asked.

“It’s typically the 50 year mark,” he said. As he stirred his potatoes with a plastic fork, he grew thoughtful. “But just because it’s old, it doesn’t mean it’s historic.”

From our kitchen window, we looked down on the shiny High Musuem of Art and an assortment of skyscrapers arranged down Peachtree Street. “And just because we’re sentimental about a building, it doesn’t mean it’s good.”

As he darted off with his steaming plate of leftovers, I felt even more puzzled about Atlanta’s bad eighties buildings – the landscape of my childhood. Who gets to decide their value?

My ad hoc research on Atlanta City Hall presented another curiosity: Why is it so hard to get any information about the buildings that surround us?

Between Google and Wikipedia, IMDB, Yelp, and Amazon, I have become accustomed, or spoiled, to think that I am 3 clicks away from an infinite stream instant, free data and opinions about practically any subject that springs to mind. But buildings are an exception. In order to identify the architect of record for a major downtown structure like City Hall, it’s hard to believe I must either a) buy an AIA Guide to Atlanta or b) buy access to the AJC archives.

I finally chose the latter, coughed up the $5.95 for a day pass and found a couple articles from 1989 that addressed my questions:

1. Who designed this place? The team included members of Atlanta firms Muldawer & Moultrie, Jova/Daniels/Busby and Harris & Partners. (Knowing their names opens the floodgate of online trivia. Jova/Daniels/Busby was responsible for the Carter Center, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and Colony Square, Atlanta's first "mixed-use" development.)

2. Was it a success in 1989? Some teenagers interviewed at the opening festivities gave it an enthusiastic appraisal. But the nicest thing critic Cathy Fox could say was the annex “skillfully communicates an ideal of city government in the plan.” In other words, it looked good on paper. She went on to compare it to the original, 1930 tower next door:

The “Neo-Neo-Gothic of the new is less graceful than Mr. Preacher's detailing, and applying it to a building of these proportions doesn't quite work. One is reminded of seeing hand-me-downs from a tall, elder sibling on a chubby little sister.”

Likewise, Preacher's detailing, which was so elegant at the 11-story scale, looks cartoonish when applied to 50 story skyscrapers and repeated across Midtown.

3. As for my last question – Should it be preserved? – I guess it’s too early to say. Reading Maria Saporta’s recent editorial “As historic buildings disappear, Atlanta losing its sense of place,” I thought more about that “historic” designation and the anonymity of Atlanta’s places.

To those of us who are not planners or developers, critics or reporters, who don’t own an AIA guidebook or have a registered architect nearby to pester, our environment is a mystery. I’m not talking about the signature parks or skyscrapers – the places you can google, but ordinary roads and strip malls, the intersections and bridges, the grocery stores, fast food joints, gated subdivisions and apartment complexes… they were all designed by somebody. A first step towards understanding, valuing and eventually preserving these places may be simply claiming responsibility for them. A free, online platform for sharing information about buildings (like this) would be a first step towards better knowing our own city.