Ted Turner is getting a downtown street renamed for him and it has led to a familiar Atlanta discussion: Are we The City Too Busy To Remember Our History?
If it seems the city continually changes street names, it’s because it has. We are a city built on commerce and looking forward to the next big deal. Lingering on the past — unless it’s General Sherman’s idea of urban renewal — has never been a part of the local DNA.
There have been many reasons to send public works crews out to change street signs. In recent years, Atlanta has changed names to honor a man who removed people from downtown streets and put them into buildings (developer John Portman), to erase a thoroughfare’s raunchy image (Stewart Avenue, which was replaced by Metropolitan Parkway) and to re-engineer history (any number of old Rebels removed to honor civil rights icons.)
As to the latter, it gave Atlanta’s black leadership a well deserved bit of payback for a century of having no say in who got honored.
“The point was that street names were sacrosanct and black people were not worthy,” said Bob Holmes, a former state rep and political science professor. “As more blacks got elected, they started asking ‘Why do we have these vestiges of segregation and racism in our streets?’ And it was ‘Why can’t our history be reflected in the streets?’”
Fair enough, but there’s a whole line of thought that says history is history, warts and all. You know the old saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to forever change street signs.”
The Confederacy was a real part of the past, like it or not. So were our mostly forgotten settlers, like Hardy Ivy, who in 1833 had the foresight to build a log cabin near where Atlanta visionary John Portman would one day erect a grand edifice.
In 1984, Portman figured it would be a whole lot easier to lease office space on a street with “Peachtree” in the name rather than on a street called Ivy. Thus was Peachtree Center Avenue born.
Fittingly, the street was known as College Hill before they named it for the nearly forgotten Ivy, according to the late Celestine Sibley, this newspaper’s columnist from another era.
In her story about such changes, Celestine found a like-minded citizen who decried the city’s amnesia: “I love this city,” he said, sighing, “but she is one fickle old broad. She forgets — how she forgets! She turns on the men who built her, replaces her old heroes with new ones and changes the names of her streets like I change my socks.”
The fleeting nature of Atlanta’s street names caused The Atlanta Preservation Center in 2011 to place downtown’s street grid on its list of Most Endangered Historic Places.
The Preservation Center’s move came when Atlanta’s elite rallied to change the name of Harris Street to John Portman Boulevard. (We do like to throw around the term “boulevard.”)
To help move the renaming effort along, some anonymous historian distributed a handout that called John L. Harris, a former state legislator and Confederate officer, a racist and cold-blooded killer, a man whose troops murdered wounded black Union troops.
Andrew Young, the former mayor and civil rights hero, approached the City Council during the 2011 effort and helped win the day for the name change by comparing Harris to a Holocaust perpetrator.
Before speaking, Young, who has his own downtown street, admitted he “didn’t look this up” for accuracy, but went on anyways. “Perhaps one of the most ruthless killers and advocates of racism, secession from the Union and the brutal destruction of people of African descent was the man some people are defending — Mr. John L. Harris,” he told the Council. “Once you know that, I don’t know how you can’t get rid of that.”
The Council agreed and jettisoned the racist Harris for the visionary Portman. Problem was, Young’s take on history was not true. A real historian came in later to say Harris had nothing to do with the massacres.
But don’t criticize Andy Young or other Atlanta leaders for trifling with history. They are simply doing as Atlantans have done forever. In researching the city’s penchant for renaming streets, I came across a 1903 Atlanta Constitution story with the headline, “Startling State of Affairs,” a story about someone who wanted to change a street name. Startling, indeed!
At the time, some residents wanted to change a section of Smith Street (named for “honored pioneer citizen, Mr. Windsor Smith”) to Whitehall Place because “a portion of its way is settled by Negroes,” the story stated.
However, some lawyers and real estate men rose up to fight “the frequent and often capricious changing of the names of streets.”
A former pol and real estate fellow named Forrest Adair (for whom an in-town neighborhood is still named) told the City Council that 225 street names had already been changed in Atlanta, an amazing fact because its hard to believe that in 1903 Atlanta even had 225 streets.
Interestingly, a list of names published at the time shows that street signs must have been written in chalk. Harris Street, of recent infamy, was previously named Howard Street and Spring Street was once Pear Street — two long-forgotten roads.
Which all leads to the inevitable time when some pedestrian looks up at a street sign at the intersection of Ted Turner Drive and John Portman Boulevard and says, “Who are those guys?”
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