Atlanta; Or, The Death Drive of Modern Cities
20 Jun 2014
I just finished The Bitter Southerner’s excellent blog post, “The Many Battles of Atlanta”. As I’ve spent most of my life in and around Atlanta (two years in elementary school at Fort McPherson in East Point; 3 years of high school at Woodward Academy in College Park; 5 years at Georgia Tech), the piece resonated with me. Not only have I lived in Atlanta generally, the places I spent significant parts of my life—East Point, College Park, Midtown (where my parents live, in a neighborhood abutting the Peachtree Creek fortifications who’s “Battle Of” inaugurates the larger Battle of Atlanta), and Georgia Tech—describe a geometry overlapping the one traced in Fletcher Moore’s article, about hiking the course of Gen. William J. Hardee’s maneuver on July 22, 1864 to outflank the Federal troops rapidly closing in on the city. In recreating this circuit, Moore finds an urban landscape marred by racial division and economic blight that hasn’t changed much since when I was in high school, cutting through those same neighborhoods to beat traffic on 75/85.
Moore is recreating this march as part of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta.1 His thesis in doing this hike is to establish that Atlanta is still a city fighting a series of battles: against invading state senators “declaring their eagerness to leave town before they even arrive” and against a landscape marred by racial, class, and sexual-orientation divisions that run deep and criss-cross the geography of the city. Moore’s march is good at revealing the abrupt transitions that make up metro Atlanta: from affluence in Grant Park (although, I remember when Grant Park was still really rough), to “something close to third-world poverty” in the areas surrounding Turner Field, to post-industrial decay, to vast stretches of wilderness. His trip reveals the character of a vast and mismanaged urban megalopolis.2
After sharing sidewalk with a resident along “a stretch of road bordered on one side by nothing short of a bona fide forest,” the other person disappears “behind the curtain of grass” to cross to “a few shabby houses huddled together like cowering animals.” Observing this, Moore writes that
There’s a reason a guy has to hike across a field full of burrs and ticks to get where he’s going: His government has failed him. The city of Atlanta has a responsibility to provide infrastructure — roads, bridges, sidewalks, electrical, and water service — to its citizens. But unfortunately, in this the nation’s seventh emptiest city, the money is not sufficient to serve a population occupying as much territory as we do, even if it is spent well, which is often not the case.
Unlike Detroit, with its post-industrial ruin porn and its abandoned neighborhoods, Atlanta is a city whose poorest neighborhoods have actual, huge forests in the middle of them. Again and again, in my wanderings of the city, nothing was more sudden (or more shocking) than being in a poor neighborhood or a post-industrial zone and then suddenly being in a forest. I remember once taking a wrong turn in the warehouse district along Huff Rd. and ending up in a David Gordon Green film (to this day, I swear there was even someone fishing off a railroad bridge, but that can’t be right).
It further struck me in Moore’s piece that he describes the parts of Atlanta he is hiking through using tropes similar to accounts of Detroit: decaying, abandoned, returning to a pre-urban state of grassland and forest, reminding us of the failures of our own modernity and the limits of democratic and civic good will. At the same time, though, we don’t talk about Atlanta with the same rhetoric we use to talk about Detroit. Detroit is the city that failed. Atlanta is the city too busy to hate (a slogan, by the way, created to distract the nation from the still-unsolved string of child murders that occurred in Atlanta from 1979-81).
What I mean is that, despite the evidence of Moore’s documentation and evidence I’ve experienced for much of my teenage and early adulthood, Atlanta isn’t discussed as a failing city, despite its many failures. Atlanta, as Moore writes, is a city constantly erasing its history. It
sits atop a thick loam of history, but sometimes you can’t tell without a bit of digging. Historical markers are a blur glimpsed from the windows of cars. The terrain has been razed and raised until it bears no relation to the hills and valleys over which armies fought.
As Moore reminds us, “the symbol of Atlanta is the Phoenix, rising from its own ashes,” which is weird given that we’re remembering the 150th anniversary of the burning of the city and the 75th anniversary of it’s filmic burning, right?
In the Phoenix legend, as anyone who knows their Harry Potter will no-doubt remember, the Phoenix doesn’t just rise from the ashes once, it is a continual cycle of death and rebirth, ashes to life to ashes again and again.3 In this way, the Phoenix as the emblem for Atlanta, 150 years after the first burning to the ground, is prophetic: I wonder what the city is so busy doing to not hate?
The city was burned in the Civil War and then it was occupied by the Federal army under a banner of “reconstruction,” although this was probably an early example of what Paul Virilio calls “endo-colonization,” the military occupation and colonization of a country’s own spaces, empire building at home. As a for instance, and something I realized reading Moore’s article, Fort McPherson where I lived in the early 1990s was named on February 20, 1866 in honor of James McPherson, who was killed during the Battle of Atlanta. The house in which I live was constructed, along with the other first permanent buildings at the Fort, in 1888 during reconstruction. The US Army’s base in Atlanta still bears the name of a Northern general killed during the battle, as if still jeering at the Confederacy’s failures.
As William Faulkner famously declared, in The South, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” With permanent landmarks standing as reminders of defeat in the Civil War and the subsequent military occupation, how could it be past? I wonder, then, if Atlanta’s continual erasure of its history continues from the logic of colonization deployed following the war: as part of the process of reincorporating the South into the nation, the specificity of the Civil War was as taboo as an idol in Hawai’i on the fire of a Christian missionary.
I wonder if the city has ever stopped burning. I wonder if Atlanta’s busyness is a result of some kind of death drive, to reenact the destruction of the city on a continual basis. The past never being past in Atlanta can refer to the idiots waving their rebel flags (which are more talismans of a racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement than anything to do with the Civil War),4 but it can equally refer to a kind of Freudian mania for destruction, a legacy of the Battle of Atlanta that still haunts and, as Moore points out, makes up the ground upon which the city continues to rise and fall in a manic death drive.
Of related interest is Emory’s excellent digital app, The Battle of Atlanta: A Tour of History & Remembrance. ↩
Living in Atlanta and now Phoenix, I’m struck by how many Sun Belt cities have more in common with places like Mexico City than they do with places like Chicago or Detroit. This leads to an even hazier idea of a kind of Caribbean Basin that darkly reflects the Mediterranean Basin. ↩
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again.” ↩
Except for Mississippi (who added it as a middle finger to Reconstruction), the Battle Flag of Republic wasn’t added to state flags in the South until the 1950s. ↩