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.

The perfect portrait for this story



John Kelso's photos of Mountain View got picked up by The Oxford American photo blog, Eyes on the South! Also included is the audio that Mug recorded in our garage studio one evening last summer after we put the baby to bed. It was stuffy and hot, but we didn't want the noise from the AC buzzing in the background. We had to keep pausing the recording because my neighbor's dog was barking and, of course, the airplanes are much more noticeable out back.

John's photos capture a fleeting moment in Mountain View's continuing transformation. The spot where he made the picture above overlooks the former site of the Ford Assembly Plant, which, from 1947 to 2006, was a major employer for southside communities like Mountain View. Shortly after our visit, Henry Ford Avenue was renamed Porsche Avenue, and by November, Porsche broke ground on their new world headquarters here. It's too late for Mountain View, but Hapeville is poised for a comeback.

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.

Atlanta City Hall Annex (1989)


I visited 55 Trinity Avenue this week, also known as Atlanta City Hall. I thought maybe I had been to City Hall before, but I somehow fudged that assumption, even to myself. The place is unmistakable, and this was definitely my first trip.

The City Hall complex fills the entire block between Mitchell, Central, Washington and Trinity at the southern edge of downtown Atlanta. “City Hall Tower” on Mitchell Street has that churchy, marble-carved, gilded look of pre-war government buildings. It rises 11 stories right between the the gold-domed state capitol, which I toured as a giddy elementary schooler, and the Fulton County Courthouse, where I report for jury duty every 18 months or so. You can’t miss it, yet I have missed it all these years. 

I paid the parking meter, climbed the stairs, emptied my pockets for the security scanner, and rode a claustrophobic little elevator up to the 3rd floor before I realized that this was not the right City Hall. I later learned that this 1930 neo-gothic landmark –  the 4th of Atlanta's many city halls –  was replaced by a new annex in March of 1989. The office I needed was on the other side of the block.

Opting for the ornate marble staircase this time, I pushed through the heavy oak doors and walked back outside. This is the dumb argument I had in my head as I made my way around the block: I can’t believe you’ve never been to City Hall. You’ve lived in Atlanta almost your whole life. You write about it, talk about it, call yourself a native. Wait, I thought, let’s be honest. I’ve never actually lived inside the city limits. I’ve lived in Forest Park, Decatur, and East Point. Why would I ever need to visit Atlanta City Hall? Technically, I’m not an Atlantan!

As I rounded Washington Street, past a half dozen local news vans parked and chugging on generators, I caught my first glimpse of 55 Trinity. After my ten minute detour in the wrong building, a place that resembled the "fabulous" Fox Theatre, I could hardly believe this was right. Atlanta’s new and improved City Hall hovered before me, a space-age stone bunker, flanked by walls of green mirrored glass. The flagpoles out front suggested that this might be a government building, but it was the stream of visitors – moving briskly in suits and uniforms, dangling credentials and briefcases – that confirmed that I had indeed found the city seat. That, and the sign out front. The brass letters said ATLANTA CITY HALL in the same terribly dated typeface that dominated banners and signage and t-shirts during the Olympics.

Oh wow, I laughed. I’ve never seen this before in my life.

Inside, my sense of wonder and unease bloomed into a near panic attack. I sent my bag down another conveyor belt and stepped through a metal detector into a bright, soaring atrium. It was an overcast afternoon, and white daylight flooded the hollow, glass-topped heart of the multi-story atrium. Dozens of conversations drifted through the hall, drowned out by the busy splashing of a central fountain. The heads of city officials bobbed along the glass rim of each floor. The effect supposed to be jaw-dropping and downright heavenly – there could’ve been a harpist on the mezzanine. But I was left flipping through a set of stale suburban references in my head: it’s a hotel, a shopping mall, it’s the bridge of the USS Enterprise. A cluster of middle-aged ladies in white suits posed for a photo in front of a conference room.

With the parking meter in mind, I completed my errand quickly. I couldn’t help but critique the brassy brass fixtures, the gaudy layers of green and rose marble. It looked like nothing had been updated in 20 years. All the décor choices that communicated stability, refinement, and luxury in the early ‘90s, now simply said one thing: 1996. We are stuck in 1996. The year I graduated from high school.

I left this time warp with a swirl of questions. Who designed this place? Was it a success in 1989? Are there plans to update it? Or should it be preserved, along with dozens of other downtown buildings, as an icon of Atlanta's pre-Olympic glory? The fact that there's virtually no information about this building on the internet, and no images, leads me to believe that we are not yet to the point of "celebrating" late '80s and early '90s architecture in this city. 

2 minutes in Mountain View


Krog Street promo mural via Slideluck Atlanta


I'm excited that Johnathon Kelso's Mountain View photo series will be featured in Slideshow Potluck, an international slideshow salon presented as part of Atlanta Celebrates Photography. John fell in love with Mountain View after reading my essay "Walking Tours of Lost Cities," and started his own airport-area expeditions. We collaborated to produce the multimedia slideshow that debuts October 28 at Ambient+ Studio.

Here's our exhibition proposal:

"Mountain View, GA" is a photo series that attempts to document the rapidly disappearing remains of what was once a thriving community near the Atlanta airport. From 1956 until it was dissolved by an act of the state legislature in 1978, the small town of Mountain View--so named for its clear view of Stone Mountain--was home to 3000 people. Though it was negatively impacted by jet noise from "the world's busiest airport," residents remember it as a quiet "Mayberry," where neighbors knew each other, kids played ball in the streets until dusk, and no one felt the need to lock their doors.
Plagued by allegations of corruption in the city government, Mountain View was ultimately doomed by the opening of the airport's new "Midfield" terminal in 1980. By then, The City of Atlanta's Department of Aviation completed is massive acquisition of Mountain View properties and relocation of the residents. The houses  were moved, sold, and demolished and an entire community was displaced.
Today, the city is scarcely remembered or discussed. The area is now part of unincorporated Clayton County, occupied by warehouses and airport-related industrial facilities. But the remains of Mountain View's neighborhoods, churches and storefronts are still visible beyond the blocked-off streets and kudzu-covered wreckage. Johnathon Kelso revisited Mountain View to chronicle what's left and what has grown in the ruins, from airplane-spotters and small congregations, to a roaming population of squatters and feral cats. These glimpses begin to trace the story of a lost and unmourned landscape.



Suburban Hackers


Some hopeful observations from the 17 mile drive south to Jonesboro on a bright, dry Saturday afternoon in early October:

Soccer game in progress on the Old Towne Morrow Commons,
Southlake Pkwy, Morrow

Nestled between the concrete expanse of I-75 and the Sears parking lot, Olde Towne Morrow is a failed "entertainment district" that looks like a mirage or a movie set. I love that the public green spaces here are thriving despite the shuttered buildings in this ill-conceived faux village. Future developers should consider the site's potential as a futball facility.

Frightmore "Haunted Attraction" in an old Linens N' Things, Mt. Zion Blvd, Morrow

A seasonal pop-up shop on steroids, this is possibly the most hilarious example of big box reuse I've ever seen. Here you'll find "the kingdom of the Dead, a void where monstrosities lurk, a place of tortured souls," which the billboards advertise as "next to the Old Navy." 

138 Fresh Market in an old Waffle House, Hwy 138, Stockbridge

Waffle Houses are everywhere. You'll find one on almost every interstate exit in Georgia, sometimes with double locations straddling both sides of the exit. As much as I love the "Golden Squares," such excess has always seemed like a local oddity, with bad implications for our health. Recently, I've seen vacant Waffle Houses reused as a lingerie/video store and a "We Buy Gold" shop, but this transformation to a farmer's market is particularly sweet. How beautiful that you can now buy muscadines and tomatoes in this former house of cheap, buttered hashbrowns.

Impromptu car show in a QuikTrip parking lot, Hudson Bridge Road, Stockbridge

This looked like a casual "cruise-in" of late model customs with 24" rims.

Haunted houses, soccer fields, farmers markets, and car shows? Plus the original suburban hackers-- I spotted a group of skaters "repurposing" the curbs, culverts, walls and rails of a vacant strip mall. Looks like the adaptive, creative, and playful reuse of suburban surplus is well underway on the southside.  

Whenever I see spontaneous gatherings and activity popping up on the margins of commercial blight, I can't help but think developers have the formula backwards... that parks and public spaces should be the economic generators instead of malls and highways.

Talking to Strangers


(photo by John Kelso)

It's hard to talk to strangers. First of all, they're busy people. Or, in this case, not busy, just waiting for customers on the side of Old Dixie Highway. The humidity makes it feel like it's a hundred degrees out here and there's no escaping the brassy, late August sunset, slapping your forehead and making it shine. They just want to know if you pulled over to get your car detailed or what. Then they want to know if these photos are going to "get them in trouble."

If you have a big camera, having a baby with you really helps. A baby is still sacred; a "little one." If we were the undercover police, code enforcement, or scammers of some sort, we probably would've left the 16-month old somewhere else, somewhere air-conditioned. With his overalls and rowdy blonde hair, the baby is undeniable proof that we must be okay folks.

"I wish my kids was still that age," says the lady, after we introduce ourselves. Why do people always say that? How do they forget about the sleeplessness, the repetition of mopping up, packing snacks and rushing out the door, the paralyzing anxiety and humiliating love that constitutes life with a toddler?

"How old are your kids?" is what we say.

19 and 21. Both in college. One's in Charlotte, an aspiring chef. The other is just starting at Georgia Tech, for nursing or cosmetology, that part isn't clear. 

It's hard to talk because of the airplanes. They are taking off half a mile from here, slicing overhead every 20 seconds or so. They cover the distance with audible muscle, climbing and blackening against the cloudscape. It looks cooler up there. The big jets roar and block out everything; the smaller ones buzz in the background. The baby clutches my neck and hides. He is the only one having an appropriate reaction to the noise. 

I'd like to hear what Jeff is saying about this spot. He's middle aged, unsmiling. All I notice about him is that the white of his undershirt attracts stinkbugs and makes his shoulders look blacker, which he swats rhythmically as he speaks. He remembers Mountain View and without us even asking, remembers Plunkytown. His parents' parents lived over there until '71 or '72, when they tore it all down. I want to ask more but the planes keep coming and it's too loud to talk.

Once they appraise us as neither customers, nor troublemakers, but merely a bore, we proceed to make a few photographs. After several days of rain, some dirty blue sky is finally visible behind layers of scudding clouds. It's not the landfill we see out to the east, it's Stone Mountain. 

"Look, an airplane." I say to the baby and point, following it from west to east. I say it over and over, so he'll learn the word.

Concrete Graves

For Memorial Day, the AJC ran a handy piece on the Gilbert Memorial Cemetery, otherwise known as the Cleveland Avenue Exit Ramp Graveyard. It helped connect the dots about a site I have once visited and often pondered. 

Before it was an interstate memorial, it was a plundered cemetery for the residents of nearby Plunkett Town. (The owners of the Old South Motel & Liquor Store "got tired of cutting grass around the tombstones.") 

And before that, it was a pre-Civil War burial ground set aside by a plantation owner for slaves. Which means it was the final resting place of an unknowable number of people. (I once heard that in any hundred year-old cemetery, the headstones you see above ground represent only a fraction of the graves below.) 

Beyond the shock of turning up slave graves by the freeway, I was struck by the article's closing quote. As one interviewee reflected on the roadside headstones, "He was disappointed to learn they were made of material similar to what composed I-75." 

He thought granite would've been more appropriate, but I wonder. What material composes I-75? Asphalt concrete? That would outlast any grave. Particularly DOT-sanctioned concrete. The stubble of the aggregate, the color of smog... I can think of nothing that feels more permanent.

In Hot Pursuit


If you watched an old, low budget, action flick on YouTube that featured a house-moving scene within a zany police car chase...
and the movie was based on true events and shot on location in 1975 in Clayton County, Georgia...
and the house was a noble old bungalow with dark shingles, sold and relocated for $7000 cash...
would you feel a little sad about seeing it carried off and wrecked?
I imagine it was somebody's childhood home from Mountain View or College Park. 
Polk County Pot Plane, AKA In Hot Pursuit, is worth watching if only as a weird artifact of Clayton County's late '70s real estate free-for-all – a brief time when house-moving sightings were common and the houses themselves seemed almost disposable. (And the hairstyles and lousy acting are entertaining, too.)


Evidence of Plunkett Town

I'm having trouble pinpointing the location of Plunkett Town, Georgia.

I first heard about this area from a loquacious old man I met at Clifton Men's Sanctuary. Homer was his name, and he was homeless. We started chatting about growing up near the airport and he told me stories about the black neighborhood north of Mountain View. He called it Plunkytown, and for a long time, I could find almost no information about the place.

Eventually, I interviewed some white people who mentioned Plunkett Town, the neighborhood literally on the other side of the tracks, and the open field that lay between the two communities. Children, both black and white, ventured into the field to hunt rabbits, play baseball, and set off fireworks. 

Knowing the official spelling of the place, I was able to dig up these 2 mentions in the archives of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One article states that Plunkett Town was "located south of Hapeville city limits." Not sure if I have permission to do this, but I wanted share them here as evidence of Plunkett Town's existence. 

"Black Crackers Play Hapeville '9' Today" from The Atlanta Constitution, 1938

"Grand Jury to Begin Lottery Racket Probe" from The Atlanta Constitution, 1944