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The Natural Georgia Series: Atlanta's Urban Wildlife

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Atlanta's Evolution: From Railroad Roots To Sprawling Metropolis

by Timothy J. Crimmins

The Atlanta metropolis, according to the census takers, is a sprawling region where over 3.5 million people live. Most of its residents know only a small part of its fabric, based primarily on where they live and work. Atlantans' ordinary experience of their city comes through a daily commute to work or shop. It begins when they leave a suburban cul-de-sac, travel by automobile on surface streets and expressways, and arrive at an office complex or mall. Atlantans think of their city more in terms of their neighborhoods and malls, Cascade and Greenbrier Mall or East Cobb and Cumberland/Galleria.

The chance for a metropolitan overview beyond their circumscribed districts comes when Atlantans fly into Hartsfield Airport on a clear day and see the ribbons of expressways emanating out from the cluster of skyscrapers at the city's core. What impresses most who have had this view is how forested the metropolitan region is. So just what is the shape of the city that has developed in the wooded, rolling hills of northern Georgia?

For the enquiring sort, the Atlanta region can be seen as a complex organism with an evolutionary past shaped over the last century and a half with discernible settlement patterns. Just as forests evolve in a complex interaction of flora and fauna with climate and soil, cities develop through the interaction of human intervention on a local geography.

A turn-of-the-century English biologist, Sir Patrick Geddes, pioneered the effort to describe the discernible patterns of human settlement. He attempted to explain to his befuddled contemporaries what appeared to be the chaotic landscape of late-Victorian England by pointing out the interrelationships between towns and their surrounding countryside. In 1911 Geddes organized a Cities Exhibition in London that used a large painting of an English valley to illustrate how rivers, rails, and roads linked upland fields, market towns, and industrial ports. He showed how to join rural sheep farmers with wool merchants, mill workers, shippers, carpenters, and bakers who were living in nearby towns and cities. Geddes also explained the interrelated whole in the landscape of outlying fields, pastures, and woods of rural areas and the neatly compact residential suburbs, the sprawling real and factory districts and the vibrant commercial centers of distant cities.

Because of the work of Geddes and other urbanologists since, we can speak of the ecology of a metropolitan region and look for interrelationships among its parts. For Geddes, wool producing hills in England were linked by rail to the woolen mills in nearby cities. Both rail and mills spawned terrace housing for workers and suburban homes for merchants and producers. In many ways, cotton growing in the late nineteenth century had the same effect on the Atlanta region where cotton cultivation fueled the economies of a network of small market towns like Marietta, Conyers, and LaGrange that were linked by rail to the major distribution center in Atlanta.

The railroad that produced the patterns similar to the Victorian towns and cities described by Geddes laid the foundation for the Atlanta urban region. But it is only the first of a series of transportation systems whose imprints have shaped the modern metropolis. Successive generations of man-made advances have left their mark on the city in ways that have not only endured, but that also help to explain the particular shape of Atlanta today.

A City On A Ridge

The way to unearth these patterns that are particular to Atlanta is to dig down through the layers of the past to see the earliest imprints and then to trace subsequent developments. Each generation has left its mark on the city—railroads, trolleys, expressways, downtown department stores and skyscrapers, suburban malls and office parks.

One hundred and sixty years ago the Atlanta region was but a forest set atop a mini-continental divide. Running from Decatur and beyond to the east through downtown Atlanta toward East Point in the southwest is a ridgeline approximately 1,000 feet above sea level. The rain that falls north and west of this ridge eventually flows into the Chattahoochee River and ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, while rain falling to the south and east drains into the Yellow River that flows to the Atlantic.

Native Americans, who predated European and African arrivals of the early nineteenth century, hunted game in the woods and grew crops in the river bottoms of the region. They wore footpaths along the thousand-foot ridge in the heart of the modern metropolis. By the mid-1830s, European and African settlers had established wagon roads over the Indian trails. But there was little possibility for a city to emerge at this location because of the lack of water transportation.

Until the early nineteenth century, cities needed navigable waterways with access to agricultural markets to grow and prosper. Savannah located as close as was possible to the mouth of the Savannah River with access by ship to the East Coast, Europe, and Africa and interior access by barge and river boat to the farming areas of Georgia and South Carolina. Upriver, Augusta grew as a collecting location for cotton and, because of available water power, for textile mills.

The thousand-foot ridge of what is now Atlanta offered no such possibilities. It was 6 miles from the Chattahoochee, which itself was not navigable beyond Columbus. The growth of railroad networks in the nineteenth century helped to change the course of almost 6,000 years of urban settlement. At first the new transportation technology was seen as a mere supplement to water transportation, feeding already established ports and river cities. Accordingly, merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, helped to finance a railroad to Augusta in the hopes of siphoning off some of the cotton, which otherwise would have traveled down river to Savannah for transhipment to New England or Europe.

In time, Savannah merchants pushed for a railroad to Macon and looked longingly to emerging agricultural areas in Tennessee and even farther west to the Mississippi River. All they needed was a railroad running through the mountainous terrain of northwest Georgia. These development-minded entrepreneurs prevailed upon the Georgia General Assembly to commit state dollars to the construction of such a artery, named the Western and Atlantic Railroad. It was just a matter of time before privately constructed railroads connecting through Augusta to Charleston and through Macon to Savannah would link up with the Western and Atlantic.

The thousand-foot ridge now had a new possibility beyond its utility as an Indian trail and wagon road. In 1836, the State of Georgia committed to locating the end of its railroad to Tennessee somewhere on the east side of the Chattahoochee River and commissioned civil engineer Stephen Long to survey the route. Sometime in September of 1837, Long drove a surveyor's stake along Marietta Street (near what is now the World Congress Center) on the western extremity of the thousand-foot ridge, marking the point where the Georgia line would arrive from the east and the Macon and Western would arrive from the south.

In the late 1830s, rail construction generated a small settlement called simply Terminus as the end of the line and the staging area for construction. Makeshift buildings supported the effort, and merchants arrived to sell goods and services. If something did come of this location, Stephen Long could certainly be credited with a critical role because he located the rail nexus. But, although Long can be acknowledged as the mind behind the rail approaches, he was hardly an urban visionary. After his construction project was completed, he left the fledgling town saying that it would be good enough for a blacksmith shop, a grocery store, a tavern, and nothing more.

Samuel Mitchell was the urban visionary. He owned 202 acres of land straddling the thousand-foot ridge, just southeast of where Stephen Long drove his surveyor's stake in 1837. Mitchell offered the State of Georgia several acres of his land for rail right-of-way, a station, and a public plaza in front of the terminal, if only the end of the line would be in the midst of his 202 acres. After the state obliged, Mitchell subdivided the remainder of his land into parallel streets and city lots, which he promptly offered for sale. Mitchell was the first in a long list of urban promoters who saw great potential in Atlanta.

By 1843 when a sufficient number of entrepreneurs had purchased lots in what was called Terminus, because it was literally the end of the line, locals sought to incorporate as a town. Seeking to curry favor with former Governor Wilson Lumpkin (1831–1835), citizens selected a new name in honor of his daughter, calling their town Marthasville. But this name was not thought sufficiently grand. Three years later, when J. Edgar Thompson, the future president of the Pennsylvania railroad, suggested calling the settlement Atlanta, citizens rallied in support of a change. This time, the name stuck.

By 1850 the newly incorporated city of Atlanta had boundaries reaching out to encompass the land within a 0.75-mile radius of the zero mile post of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, located today behind Underground Atlanta. There, a passenger station stood at the center of an emerging network of tracks, which emanated out through the city. At town center on the thousand-foot ridge, trees had been cleared, streets laid out, and two- and three-story wooden and brick buildings constructed. Not one building from this period remains. However, the imprint of Long's railroad and Mitchell's streets can still be seen today.

By the eve of the Civil War in 1860, Atlanta had a population of 10,000 people whose livelihood depended on an emerging railroad network. This network attracted the attention of General William T. Sherman, who in 1864 was assigned the task of stopping the flow of materials from the lower South to support the Confederate Army in Virginia. Sherman gathered his forces in Chattanooga and followed the Western and Atlantic route to Atlanta. He severed the rail nexus in Atlanta, thus destroying key Confederate supply lines and devastating much of the city near the railroad tracks.

Atlanta quickly recovered in the aftermath of the Civil War. Its rail links were re-established and its terminal and commercial buildings rebuilt. One great stroke of good fortune for the city came as a result of Reconstruction when General John Pope, who was overseeing the re-establishment of state government, ordered that the Constitutional Convention to draw up a new State Constitution be held in Atlanta rather than in the state capital, Milledgeville. Atlanta's civic leaders took advantage of the opportunity to offer the state rent-free meeting space for 10 years and a free site on which to build a new capitol. When the new constitution was ratified in 1868, Atlanta became the new state capital.

Atlanta would eventually shine as the capital city of Georgia, but first it had to provide the buildings necessary for the workings of government. The newly constructed Kimball Opera House on Marietta Street was reconfigured as a capitol, and a fine Victorian residence on Peachtree Street was selected to be the governor's mansion.

By the early 1870s the population of Atlanta had doubled its prewar size to 20,000. The city's new-found prominence as state capital led to the construction of two first-class hotels, and its crowded town center opened the possibility of the development of suburban areas of the city. Another mode of transportation was critical to this phase of the city's development: the horse-drawn trolley.

The Beginning Of The Suburbs

Other urban visionaries saw possibilities in this newly prominent city. Richard Peters owned 400 acres on the northern fringe of the city. To make it accessible to the emerging downtown, Peters joined George Washington Adair, a realtor who owned land in the West End residential area, to establish the Atlanta Street Railway Company, whose horse-drawn trolleys began carrying passengers along Peachtree, Marietta, Decatur, and Whitehall streets to the outlying areas of the city.

Peters and Adair helped establish two patterns that persist in the metropolitan region today. The first is the movement of wealth to the northern half of the city. The second is the forested character of the metropolis. Both patterns can be seen along Peachtree Street, where, in the 1880s, affluent white Atlantans bought urban lots from Peters and built fine Victorian homes.

By today's standards these large houses were incredibly close together, a necessity to enable as many people as possible to be within a short walk of the trolley stops. The three-story houses were set back from the street, and there were grass medians separating the sidewalk from the street. Owners planted trees and shrubs in their yards and trees along the medians. The trees shaded the houses and streets, helping to keep these neighborhoods cool during the hot summer months. The residential areas of Midtown, West End, and Grant Park are a legacy of this era.

The city's suburbs were also complemented by the addition of landscaped parks. Grant Park, built in the early 1880s, was the first such development. Some neighborhoods were designed in the style of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous nineteenth-century landscape architect, with picturesque parks interspersed among homes. Residents could have the feeling of living in the country with views of lakes, pastures, and wooded hills, and, at the same time, have such urban amenities as water and sewer connections, gas and electricity hookups, and trolleys for access to work, shopping, and entertainment downtown.

The best-preserved suburb of late nineteenth-century Atlanta is Inman Park, developed by entrepreneur Joel Hurt. Hurt established the city's first electric trolley, built the first skyscraper, and developed the first planned suburb, which used curvilinear streets and neighborhood parks in the style of Frederick Law Olmsted. The electric trolley barn, the nucleus of a city-wide street car transportation system shaping the growth of the city through World War I, remains today in Inman Park. It can be found on Edgewood Avenue, where oak trees planted over a century ago shade the yards of Victorian homes built at the same time.

In each of his endeavors, Hurt helped to create modern Atlanta, with its downtown skyline of office towers and suburban neighborhoods linked by the arteries of mass transportation. The specialized office building was pioneered in Chicago and New York in the late 1870s and 1880s. Hurt's Equitable Building, the city's first skyscraper, was completed in 1892. It was designed by the architectural firm of Burnham and Root which played an important role in the evolution of Chicago's architecture. The Equitable Building has not been as fortunate as the trolley barn. SunTrust Bank destroyed this landmark in 1972 to make way for the banking lobby of its headquarters building at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Woodruff Park. Its remnants, stone columns with Corinthian capitals, can be seen today in front of the SunTrust Building and on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, in east Cobb County along Columns Drive.

Commercial And Industrial Growth

By 1890 Atlanta had a population of approximately 90,000 people. It had grown north and south of the railroad tracks and terminal and had added substantial blocks of commercial buildings, which were expanding along nearby streets that once had been residential. The rail lines also attracted industrial activities that made use of regional agricultural products: cotton and wood. Textile mills, powered by steam from coal, began to appear in the 1880s, along with plants to build cotton gins and to press cotton seeds. Turpentine and furniture-making businesses also emerged to process abundant supplies of wood. However, the principal business of Atlanta was trade, and the warehouse was the most common nonresidential building type.

Atlanta promoters used expositions to draw attention to the investment possibilities in the city and the region. The International Cotton Exposition of 1881 built a model textile factory using the latest equipment to demonstrate that it was economical to build new cotton mills in the South where cotton was grown rather than ship it to the North where there were older factories. To bring the point home, the Exposition held a formal dinner on the evening of October 27, which attracted several governors from northern and southern states. Governors Colquitt from Georgia and Bigelow of Connecticut wore new suits, which had been harvested that very morning from a field of cotton grown on the fairgrounds. It has been ginned, spun, woven, dyed, cut, and tailored all in the same day.

City leaders held a second exposition in 1887 in the newly landscaped fair grounds of what is now Piedmont Park. This exposition, which included a visit by President Grover Cleveland, emphasized Atlanta's importance as a regional trade center. The city's role as state capital had been approved by a statewide referendum a decade earlier, and exposition visitors could view the construction of a new classically inspired capitol building just two blocks from the downtown railroad station.

The 1880s were also important years for African-Americans in the city. The freedmen's schools established by northern religious and philanthropic groups in the aftermath of the Civil War had grown into important educational institutions for the city and the region. Clark-Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College all built impressive, red-brick residential and classroom buildings on Atlanta's west side. Today these buildings form the core of the Atlanta University Landmark Historic District. The most prominent structure is Fountain Hall, built in 1882 with its seven-story central clock tower, on another thousand-foot ridge just west of the downtown.

African-Americans joined with white civic leaders to promote the Cotton States and International Exposition held at Piedmont Park in 1895. Race-leader Booker T. Washington delivered an address at the opening ceremony in which he pointed out the difficulties facing African-Americans in the South and advocated work within the racial arrangements of the region toward economic advancement. Washington's speech is known today as the Atlanta Compromise. It avoided a direct assault on legalized segregation and accepted social separation, arguing only that blacks and whites could move forward together economically.

One Atlantan who did so was Alonzo Herndon, who was on his way to becoming the city's first African-American millionaire. Herndon was the proprietor of several barber shops, whose white patrons came to have their hair cut and their faces shaved by black barbers. When he opened his new Herndon Barbershop at 66 Peachtree Street in 1902, he built a clientele of the city's white elite with an interior decorated with elaborate crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors, and fine fittings.

Almost 40 percent of Atlanta's citizens were African-American in the late nineteenth century, but, because of the system of legal segregation, they were unable to exercise their most basic civic responsibilities and were barred from all but the most menial jobs. Those who did prosper—as ministers, educators, and businessmen—did so within the segregated sphere of the city. W.E.B. DuBois, the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), came to what was then called Atlanta University in 1899, where he used his position on the faculty to chart the progress of African-Americans and to attack the color line that inhibited further advancement.

Despite adversity, black Atlantans were making economic progress. In 1894, E. R. Carter's book, The Black Side, documented the success of many African-Americans in Atlanta. The Negro Building at the Cotton State Exposition in 1895 heralded the progress of black southerners. And W.E.B. DuBois's 1903 study, The Souls of Black Folk, offered a paean to the high aspirations of African Americans.

The Twentieth Century

By 1900, Atlanta had grown into a biracial city of over 100,000 citizens. The backbone of its economy was transportation. The city had emerged at the center of a network of railroads crossing the southeastern United States. The goods that the merchants of Savannah and Charleston had thought would flow by rail to their ports for transhipment came instead to Atlanta for shipment by rail to other regions of the United States. Its rail connections were also the impetus for the city's growth as an office center. The expositions of 1881, 1887, and 1895 promoted Atlanta's transportation advantages. By 1895 the newly built Equitable Building demonstrated the city's potential as a location for regional offices of national firms needing to do business in the South.

The railroads that shaped Atlanta's economy and growth potential in the nineteenth century continued to influence urban development in the twentieth century, but the automobile and the airplane assumed greater and greater importance as the century progressed. The automotive transportation system eventually supplanted the electric trolley and bus for intraurban travel and, with the airplane, replaced the train for the movement of interurban passengers. As more and more people used cars to commute to work in the skyscrapers built in the late teens and twenties, the city began a series of street improvements to improve the flow of traffic.

The city's first transportation plan, the Beeler Report of 1926, called for a plan of street resurfacing and for constructing a series of bridges over the railroad tracks in the city center. When these improvements were carried out, commuting to work by car became far more attractive than using the trolley. It also permitted people to live at some distance from streetcar lines. Wooded subdivisions, called garden suburbs, sprang up around the city after World War I. The bungalow was the predominant house type for this period. A ring of these suburbs can be seen today from Virginia Highland on the north, Candler Park on the east, Capitol View on the south, and Washington Park on the west.

By 1930, when the Depression and World War II halted office construction for a quarter of a century, a skyline of office towers of almost 20 stories included the Candler Building (1906), the Hurt Building (1913), the Rhodes-Haverty Building (1929), and the William-Oliver Building (1930). Here, regional offices of national firms shared space with local banks, law firms, and accounting firms. Interspersed were hotels, department stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. The downtown was the principal place for white-collar employment and for shopping and entertainment. Rich's Department Store anchored blocks of clothing, shoe, and speciality stores southeast of Five Points, while Davidson's (now Macy's) did the same along Peachtree Street to the north.

While African-Americans could shop in the stores, they could not eat in the restaurants and found themselves in Jim Crow sections of movie theaters. The train stations had separate waiting rooms and rest rooms. Black professionals rented not in the Candler Building on Peachtree Street, but in black-owned buildings like the Odd Fellows Building and the Herndon Building on Auburn Avenue. Here also were the black-owned retail shops, many of which had relocated to Auburn Avenue after white mobs destroyed their stores in the race riot of 1906.

African-Americans were also denied political influence because elected officials were selected in the white-only democratic primary. Occasionally blacks could make a difference in bond referendums during general elections, when their votes were necessary to support public improvements. In 1922, black support for school bonds led to the construction of Booker T. Washington High School and the addition of several grammar schools. When Washington High opened in 1924, it was the first publicly supported black high school in the city, built 50 years after such schools had been built for white children.

On the eve of World War II, Atlanta had a population of 500,000, one-third of whom were black. The city had coped with the stresses of the Depression by cutting back on public services. Yet it also offered programs of federal assistance, including public housing. Following the rules of segregation, separate housing was built for blacks (University Homes) and whites (Techwood Homes). The war helped to bring back the economy, especially through defense spending and the construction of military bases. It also helped make the world safe for democracy and unleashed a set of forces that transformed the political, social, and economic fabric of Atlanta.

African-Americans who returned to Atlanta from the war found a city in transition. When the federal courts outlawed the white Democratic primary in 1946, blacks began to register to vote and to influence the outcomes of elections. With political power, they could demand equal treatment. With economic power, they could use boycotts to attack segregated public facilities. The assault on the color line took place against the backdrop of an incredible economic boom.

Atlanta's population took off in the postwar period. In 1940, the metropolis was the nation's 22nd largest; by 1990, it ranked 10th. The automobile and airplane were the keys to the reshaping of the city in the postwar period. In 1946, the Lochner Report laid out the first plan for an expressway system of high-speed, limited-access highways linking the distant suburbs with the downtown. The Atlanta Area Transportation Study of 1952 modified the Lochner Report and added a rapid rail system. MARTA and the current rim-and-spoke arrangement of the perimeter highway, I-75, I-85, I-20, and Georgia 400 are the results of the transportation system called for in the postwar plans.

The expressways have fundamentally reshaped the metropolitan region. While they were designed to bring people downtown, they actually facilitated the movement of downtown functions to the suburbs. The construction of Lenox Square in 1959 marked the beginning of the shift of retail and entertainment to outlying areas of the city. By the 1970s, office towers surrounded Lenox Square and its nearby neighbor, Phipps Plaza. Similar developments were taking place around Cumberland Mall, Perimeter Mall, and lesser commercial centers around the perimeter highway.

Today a majority of Atlantans both live and work outside I-285. Only 20 percent commute from outside the city to downtown. Downtown is no longer the central retailing and entertainment center. It is now the host of activities of government (city, county, state, and federal), education (Georgia State University), medicine (Grady Hospital), sports (Turner Field and the Georgia Dome), and conventions (World Congress Center and megahotels).

Modern Atlanta

Hartsfield International Airport has been critical to the success of the region's late-twentieth century prosperity. Rail passenger traffic almost completely disappeared in the postwar period. The city unceremoniously tore down its Terminal and Union stations, leaving only the Suburban Station in Brookwood to service travelers going to New Orleans or Washington. Hartsfield vied with Chicago's O'Hare as the nation's busiest airport in the 1980s. It helped to bring corporate offices of national firms to the city, to attract major conventions, and to establish Atlanta as a southeastern link with Europe and the rest of the world.

The 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta represent the Atlanta profile that late-twentieth century civic leaders want to present. Billy Payne joined with Mayor Andrew Young to secure the selection of Atlanta for the games. The team of white and black promoters showed how far the city had come from its segregated past. But this achievement was not without struggle.

Martin Luther King Jr., an Atlanta native son, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent leadership assaulting the color line. Through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he led demonstrations and voter registration drives throughout the South. He also participated in demonstrations in Atlanta, most notably one that led to his arrest in 1960 at Rich's Department Store. The election of Maynard Jackson as mayor in 1972 symbolized the political achievement of African-Americans.

Atlanta has come a long way in the past 160 years. From a compact settlement around a railroad intersection, it has grown into a sprawling metropolis spread out along expressways. Historic downtown is still the center of activity, but following the pattern of streetcar suburbs, the subdivisions built since World War II dot the countryside.


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