A find from the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library at Emory. This is from a market analysis study conducted by a consulting firm on behalf of a prospective developer of a downtown retail complex in 1954:
It is perfectly clear that the completed expressway will vastly improve the competitive position of Atlanta’s downtown retail district. It will bring the heavy population of the north and south areas much closer to the central stores and shops. By putting the huge retail magnet of the downtown as close to these populations as the expressway itself, figuratively speaking, it will serve further to decrease the possibility of successful, large-scale regional competition (which would no longer have a locational advantage except with respect to the relatively low-density immediate suburbs). The possibility of building up a large suburban market by pulling customers from a broad area is considerably lessened when the lines of attraction are cut by an expressway that can get the customers downtown to the major stores in a matter of only a few minutes.
Obviously we know that this particular gambit worked out to be, as the kids say, an epic fail. But it raises a set of questions that aren’t so obviously answered. For one, the narrative of white flight and capital exodus from central cities was not a linear process, and within regional real estate markets, there were just as many folks betting on downtown for much of the postwar era. In Atlanta, part of that bet came from the certainty that business leaders like C of C (and later Mayor) Ivan Allen, Jr. had that federal highway and urban renewal policies were a tool at their disposal to make their property more valuable by manipulating and remaking property around it. But I wonder increasingly how much of that certainty was fed by these kinds of market reports. Armed with a set of market reports that said “bail out and buy tracts in the suburbs,” would downtown real estate holders have done differently? Many, including the Rich’s Department Store company began to hedge their bets by acquiring land along the proposed Perimeter Highway route (I-285), but for most of the 1950s professed publicly and planned around the premise that their downtown store was the company’s heart, soul, and meal ticket.
Had these interests bailed, instead of seeking to leverage urban renewal to protect and enhance their property, would central Atlanta be better off today? It’s hard to argue that the investment of millions of development dollars downtown in the era of white flight was a bad thing, but it’s important to recognize two things: the cyclical and repetitive nature of these projects, and the process through which redevelopment priorities were set. Atlanta’s downtown and adjacent areas bear the imprints of successive waves of “improvements” all promising what this report did, without delivering the anticipated returns, and while preventing the development of housing that could alleviate the overcrowding of many of the city’s most impoverished black neighborhoods. Irene Holliman raises important questions in an article in the Journal of Urban History that links the 1966 Summerhill Riot in the area near Fulton County Stadium to the disruptive effects of giant urban renewal projects conceived and executed without regard for the needs of the local public, whose increasingly militant opposition to conditions of poverty and overcrowding was turned against their communities’ very survival by urban renewal authorities who enthusiastically accepted that slum neighborhoods were intolerable, but balked at replacing the housing they destroyed in the name of renewal.
Holliman writes that while the riots shook the city’s complacent image as “too busy to hate,” they
should have come as no surprise to Mayor Allen, city aldermen, or any of the local urban renewal committees. The Council on Human Relations of Greater Atlanta… did not blame SNCC for the riot. In a news release, the council members talked about the city’s failure to delivers services, stating, “SNCC members are not responsible for [creating] parking spaces for 4,000 cars [for stadium goers] in the middle of an area which has no parks for children to play in” (Holliman, Irene V. 2009. “From Crackertown to Model City? Urban Renewal and Community Building in Atlanta, 1963—1966.” Journal of Urban History 35 (3) (March 1): 380. doi:10.1177/0096144208330402.).
Strangely enough, residents of Summerhill weren’t happy about having this
dropped next to their neighborhood. From the point of view of downtown, however, the recently-cleared parcel at the confluence of two interstate expressways was a perfect location to put a stadium to attract a ballclub that would flatter the vanity of local elites who had been clamoring for their city to join the proverbial big leagues for some time. If the interstates and the ocean of parking lots was the price to pay for drawing suburbanites and their wallets back into central Atlanta, even if only for 81 games each summer, the costs of the project were sufficiently remote that they seemed negligible.
The anthropologist James Scott would indict these projects as “Seeing Like a State“–substituting the 30,000-foot view of central authority (be it public or corporate, or, as in Atlanta, a regime linking the two) for the locally-situated knowledge of residents. Urban renewal that involved these residents at the core of the planning process would have alienated the city’s business and banking establishment, but might have been able to use a more modest stream of funds to meet basic human needs. Had the city’s establishment not clung to the hope of making central Atlanta profitable, it might have had a better chance of becoming habitable.