It started with a road, and a neighborhood.
I’ve been interested in historic preservation for most of my adult life. It’s a passion, really, arising out of my experience growing up in an area that was in the process of trashing its natural beauty and where “historic preservation? What’s that?” seemed to be a prevailing attitude. (The Soreno, one of St. Pete’s historic hotels, was blown up (after the City Council gave its blessing for the demolition) at the end of Lethal Weapon 4.) Even historic neighborhoods which were saved were often a truncated version of larger areas. (Roser Park — which haunts my dreams, literally — comes to mind.)
People are tied to the land. That’s why you see “takings” cases such as Kelo v. City of New London which involve people fighting to keep the homes they grew up in. It’s not just because municipalities often lowball residents when buying out their houses. It’s because “home” can mean something more than where you put your head.
Neighborhoods carry on our history and our heritage. Gentrification hurts because people are pushed out, but also because the emotional history of a neighborhood — what makes a place home — can be destroyed.
To get back to the neighborhood in question.
Sweet Auburn was a prosperous African-American neighborhood in Atlanta during the Jim Crow era. While Donald Trump likes to think of all African-Americans as living in inner-city hells,* that’s not true now and it wasn’t true of Sweet Auburn. Successful African-American businesses lined its commercial streets, and in 1956 Fortune magazine called it the richest Negro street in the world.”
That’s not to mention its importance in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King was born in Sweet Auburn, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both he and his father were pastors, was in the district.
By the 1980s, the area had fallen into disrepair. This is where the road comes in.
The state of Georgia, in its infinite wisdom, decided to run a highway right through Sweet Auburn, bisecting it. Mind you, at this point the neighborhood had already been designated a National Historic Landmark. And the government ran a damn highway through it. They didn’t invest in it. They didn’t try to rescue it from disrepair. They — and I include not only the state of Georgia but the city of Atlanta — seemed to shrug and say “oh, well.”
Bisecting a neighborhood hurts. It breaks up what would otherwise have been a coherent whole, not to mention the structures that were destroyed for that ribbon of commuter concrete. It destroys “home.” Sweet Auburn survived, and has experienced something of a revival, but in 1992 was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”
All of this took place in a city that at that time was trying to figure out how to save the Margaret Mitchell house, a building that was falling apart, which Mitchell herself called “a dump” while she lived there. Now, of course, it has been renovated into tourist attraction. (Sweet Auburn aside, that turns my stomach. I really hate Gone With the Wind, which I credit with helping maintain the “noble Southerner versus the rapacious Yankee” idea, not to mention the “servile slaves good, freed blacks bad” fiction. It’s not as bad a Birth of a Nation, but it certainly does nothing to help race relations in this country. I think of that damn movie every time I see an idiot waving a Confederate battle flag and going on about “heritage.”)
I am not African-American, but that doesn’t matter. Like all Americans, I have stake in saving Sweet Auburn the same as I have a stake in saving Native-American historic sites, the same as I have in saving Miami’s Art Deco South Beach, the same as I have in saving California’s missions. Our historic places are who we all are as a nation. If we are to understand each other, we have to understand where we come from. Besides, who am I to say that Sweet Auburn is less worthy of saving than my beloved Roser Park?
And so, to law school. I tried to get into Duke’s joint J.D./History Ph.D. program, but tanked my GREs. (I got into the law school, but not the history program.) So I went to Stanford.
Stanford didn’t have anything that really mapped to historic preservation. Instead, I became interested in the next best thing: environmental law. I developed my nascent interest in land use, an area which overlaps historic preservation. I learned about environmental justice. (I also learned water law, which I think every Californian should know. It might save municipalities a lot of trouble when they try to enforce water restrictions.) I’m not sure Stanford was the best fit for my interests, and if I had gone somewhere else I might still be practicing, but then again, maybe not. (The family and personal issues that were the primary reasons for me staying home would have still been present.) I nonetheless got a lot out of going there, and have nothing but deep and abiding affection for both for the place and the people. (Furthermore, being in Silicon Valley made it possible for the Rocket Scientist to find his work. Lawyers are thick upon the ground, but he is an expert in a small and highly technical field, which he would not be doing if we had landed somewhere else.)
This area which has its own preservation woes. Houses on hillsides by major architects are dismantled by captains of industry so they can build their own palatial wonders (see Ellison, Larry, and Morgan, Julia). There are victories: a small house (“Immigrant House”) which had been removed to make way for an apartment complex downtown was moved and installed in a newly opened park near me, along with the last windmill to have operated in the city. While buildings and other artifacts really should be seen in their original context, this is certainly the next best thing.
In the end, what happened to Sweet Auburn steered me on a course I might have not taken otherwise, and I’m glad of it.
*After he made that comment, my friend Jane posted a picture on Facebook of her brick Tudor hellhole, complete with manicured lawn. Would that I could live in such desolation.