Doing Local History, DPLA Style

By DPLA, May 19, 2014.

Picture of author Sarah MeltonHow might we leverage a national platform to help research neighborhood histories? As a community rep here in Atlanta, I’m interested in how we can use the Digital Public Library of America to facilitate research, engage our local communities, and make the history of the city more accessible. I recently decided to explore the DPLA’s resources to learn more about Atlanta. These includes over 50,000 items that geolocate to Atlanta, most of them from the Digital Library of Georgia service hub, but also from HathiTrust, the National Records and Archives Administration, and others.

The history of Atlanta, like many urban centers, is marked by cycles of vibrancy and neglect, abandonment and regeneration. Atlanta is the story of a once thriving downtown, including one of the US’s most famous black business districts, that suffered decades of “white flight”—the process of white homeowners leaving the city out of fear of black families moving into previously all-white neighborhoods. In the past few years, however, the inner metropolitan area has seen new waves of immigration, development, and gentrification, often wrapped up in the tenets of New Urbanism—mixed-use zoning, walkability, and city revitalization projects.

Shell Street Guide and Metropolitan Map Atlanta, Shell Oil Company, 1956 via David Rumsey Map Collection.

Shell Street Guide and Metropolitan Map Atlanta, Shell Oil Company, 1956, via David Rumsey.

But a few months ago, the Atlanta Braves announced that they plan to leave the city of Atlanta for the suburb of Cobb County, long an outpost of the area’s massive waves of suburbanization. The move has rekindled debates over long-term planning and the future of downtown Atlanta. At an Atlanta Studies Meetup, a quarterly meeting for those of us interested in projects and scholarship about the city, several presentations took on the Atlanta Braves upcoming move from Turner Field. I became interested in the history of Summerhill, the neighborhood near the stadium.

A DPLA search for “Summerhill” alone yields over one hundred hits, running the gamut from archival news clips, photos, and articles. Just south of Atlanta’s downtown, Summerhill was near some of the city’s most prosperous enclaves before the area’s wealthy moved into the northern parts of the city. For much of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, though, Summerhill was a multiethnic, working-class neighborhood, an enclave of Jewish and formerly enslaved families. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the area saw both displacement and redevelopment, part of the larger shifts in Atlanta’s demographics and housing patterns. Throughout the 1960s, for example, the construction of Interstate 20 and the diversion of Interstates 75/85 through the neighborhood dispersed residents and destroyed blocks of the neighborhood. When the Braves came to Atlanta in 1965, the construction of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium pushed out even more residents and businesses.

Other DPLA highlights include one of Summerhill’s most iconic images, Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. standing on top of a police car while a protester speaks to a crowd. In 1966, Mayor Allen had come to placate the mostly African American residents of Summerhill, who had been protesting police brutality and inadequacies in housing and city services. (Mayor Allen blamed the unrest on “agitators” from the civil rights organization SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.)

The 1960s and 1970s saw the advent of the Model Cities program, one of President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Summerhill was one of the neighborhoods targeted by the program, which aimed to reduce “blight” and urban poverty. The program brought some new jobs to the area but ultimately ended in 1974 with a net loss of housing, despite promises of “redevelopment.”

Of course, it is difficult to study the history of Atlanta without noting the role of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. When Atlanta was awarded the Olympics in 1990, Summerhill again saw protests over urban planning initiatives. (One Summerhill resident, Ethel M. Matthews, complained that previous projects had “scarred the area.”) The Olympics also brought the neighborhood development; the track and field venue was retrofitted as a baseball stadium and became Turner Field.

Part of the DPLA’s great promise lies in its ability to provide these kinds of granular, local results through a national platform. What can the DPLA help you learn about your city?

Further Resources:

Rebecca Burns, “From Streetcar Suburb to Stadium Site: A Timeline of Turner Field and Environs,” Atlanta Magazine, July 2013.

Summerhill, Atlanta,” Wikipedia.

Header image: Maksim Sundukov, Atlanta skyline, May 2013

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