A Tale of Place-Taking

Sign at the corner of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway and Woodlawn Avenue, Atlanta, 2020. [Aimee Okotie-Oyekan]

Spatio-temporal patterns of environmental violence and exclusion rooted in Western conceptualizations of Nature as untouched wilderness — which had to be forcibly “de-peopled” — have given rise to vastly divergent environmental identities. Environmental identity can be understood as the sum of an individual’s physical and imagined relationships to their built and natural surroundings, as those relations are defined and redefined by collective experiences both in and beyond any single person’s control. It follows, then, that environmental identities in the United States are deeply racialized; those characterized by recreational freedom and privilege contrast starkly with those subverted by experiences of surveillance, police violence, poverty, crime, pollution, and sub-standard public amenities.1Derek Martin established the idea of a “racialized outdoor leisure identity” in his 2004 article “Apartheid in the Great Outdoors: American Advertising and the Reproduction of a Racialized Outdoor Leisure Identity,” Journal of Leisure Research 36(4): 513–535. Analyzing outdoor recreational magazine advertisements, Martin described the “social construction of participants in wildland recreation” along racial lines. I expand from a focus on recreation to include all possible interactions one may have with the external environment. The idea of agency and power influencing environmental identity is borrowed from Arun Agrawal’s  concept of “environmentality” in “Environmentality: Community, Intimate Government, and the Making of Environmental Subjects in Kumaon, India,” Current Anthropology, 46(2), 2005: 161–190. Agrawal presents a framework for understanding the roles of power and agency in shaping environmental governance and human-environmental interactions. In sum, the formation of one’s personal environmental identity has just as much to do with the physical configuration of the environment as it does with the social and political context in which that physical environment is situated.

Environmental identity can be understood as the sum of an individual’s physical and imagined relationships to their surroundings.

All this is evident in Grove Park, a majority African-American community in northwest Atlanta, Georgia, that has borne the brunt of racialized violence since the turn of the 20th century.2Though racialized violence associated with Bellwood Quarry has impacted the area since the late 1800s, Grove Park itself was established as a white community in the 1920s, and did not see demographic shifts to a majority Black residential population until White flight in the 1970s. Not coincidentally, the neighborhood sits adjacent to what might look like a geological incongruence: a 400-foot-deep granite crevasse named Bellwood Quarry, a site manufactured by the co-exploitation of prison labor and natural topography. A turning point for this part of the city came in 1999, when an innovative urban planning thesis by a student at Georgia Tech inspired one of the most interesting adaptive-reuse projects in the Southeast: The Atlanta Beltline.3Dan Immergluck and Tharunya Balan, “Sustainable for whom? Green urban development, environmental gentrification, and the Atlanta Beltline,” Urban Geography. 39(4), 2018: 546–562. Today, an array of public and private cross-sector interests are converging to repurpose Bellwood Quarry and the surrounding area into Westside Park, a 280-acre multi-use greenspace that’s been called the crown jewel of the Beltline corridor.

How does the interplay between an impending climate crisis, Atlanta’s racialized urban development history, and constructed conceptions of place shape environmental identities in this complex risk-scape of violence, vulnerability, and displacement? How can the lessons of history guide future planning towards equitable decision-making? To answer these questions, we must begin at the neighborhood scale, then widen our angle to encompass state-sanctioned discrimination in Atlanta from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries, and then conclude with the deep-rooted trans-geographical patterns that continue to shape our conceptualizations of place. This analysis, I hope, will allow us as scholars and activists to better understand the forces contributing to vulnerability and to nurture the reimagined socio-ecologies that support equity and environmental justice.

It follows that environmental identities are deeply racialized.

The City of Atlanta purchased Bellwood Quarry in 2006 to serve as a reservoir that will relieve climate pressure on the notoriously water-stressed region.4Atlanta Business Chronicle, “Bellwood Quarry Sold to City,” (June 30, 2006). S. Germany et. al., “The Water Crisis: Water, Growth, and Development,” City Planning: Growth Management Law. 1–33 (2008). The reservoir is currently being filled. In 2009, Pond and Company and Carol R. Johnson Associates developed the Westside Park master plan for Atlanta Beltline Inc. Now, as implementation proceeds, it has become clear that despite the park’s promised social, economic, and ecological benefits, the success of the Beltline is empirically connected to rising home values.5Ibid. In fact, values for homes within a half-mile of the Beltline have risen between 17.9 and 26.6 percent more than elsewhere in Atlanta. This well-intentioned greenspace thus raises housing concerns for the area’s poorest residents; COVID-19 is only exacerbating existing vulnerabilities.

Bellwood Quarry, looking northwest from the observation deck, 2014. [Lincolnh © via Wikimedia Commons under License CC Attribution 3.0]

At first glance, one could attribute local vulnerability in Grove Park to the dense development and real-estate speculation along the Beltline’s northwest edge. The sites of Westside Park and Proctor Creek Greenway — amenities likely to attract Atlanta’s wealthier populations — partially overlap the boundaries of Grove Park. Quarry Yards, a transit-oriented mixed-use project developed by Urban Creek Partners and Prestwick Development, proposes a massive $400-million-dollar, 27-acre first phase, and could eventually feature as much as 575,000 square feet of Class A office space, along with 850 residential units, a 300-room hotel, and 75,000 square feet of retail and restaurants.6Michael Kahn, “Near Westside Reservoir, Bankhead Station, $400M mixed-use development proposed,” Curbed Atlanta (March 1,  2018). A component of this initial phase scheduled to be completed next year will include a 177-unit affordable-and-workforce housing community — Parkside at Quarry Yards — a promising indication of housing equity.7Sean Richard Keenan, “Latest affordable housing venture promises 177 units near Bellwood Quarry,” Curbed Atlanta (September 28, 2018). All these offerings will be within a one-mile radius of Grove Park.

Community members suspect that ‘the plan was to have no plan’ — that city leaders have intentionally overlooked the social implications of development.

Despite such pressures and innovations, fifteen years of preparation for Westside Park has yielded no comprehensive equitable development, housing, transportation, or cultural preservation plans for Grove Park itself, or for other nearby neighborhoods. In the words of Justin Bleeker, director of Grove Park Renewal, community members suspect that “the plan was to have no plan” — that park planners and city leaders have intentionally overlooked the social implications of development.8Justin Bleeker, 2020, Interview with author. Furthermore, due to time conflicts and childcare commitments, some in the community have been unable to participate in neighborhood meetings.9Raven Hinson, interview with the author, 2020; Taylor Pruitt, interview with the author, 2020. In February of this year, after completion of the park’s first phase and given mounting pressure from the neighborhood, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms put a 180-day moratorium on development and directed city planners to produce the long overdue equity plans that would address patterns of disinvestment.10City of Atlanta, Executive Order 2020-03. These plans are now in progress, and Atlanta council member Dustin Hillis has introduced legislation to extend the moratorium an additional 90 days.11Dustin Hillis, interview with the author, 2020. Departments and entities involved in the development of the Equitable Development Framework include City of Atlanta Departments of Public Works, Transportation, Planning, Watershed Management, and Parks and Recreation.

Located just west of midtown, Grove Park is dotted with clues to the city’s industrial past: derelict rail infrastructure, flat-roofed factories, shipping warehouses. Beginning in the late 19th century, African-American prisoners, many of whom were emancipated slaves, worked in Bellwood Quarry’s convict labor camp, extracting the granite used to build Atlanta’s evolving infrastructure.12Tony J. Rodriguez, Jr., Healing the Scars, Kennesaw State University, Bachelor of Architecture Theses – 5th Year (2017): 27; Atlanta Rail Corridor, “Convict Labor at Bellwood Quarry.” Decades later, during the urban renewal era, the social dimensions of development continued to be ignored as “blighted” urban enclaves were cleared and Black communities such as Sweet Auburn and Buttermilk Bottom were systematically destroyed; in this city as elsewhere in the U.S., decades of redlining, racial steering, and restrictive covenants stunted growth and economic mobility for Black families.13Gloria Woods, “Creating Resilient Black Neighborhoods in Urban Environments Through Effective Community Planning,” (2018); Jonathan Raymond, “What is redlining, and how did it happen in Atlanta?,” 11 Alive News (February 20, 2020). Starting in the 1970s, suburbanization further sapped Grove Park’s vitality — a decline that continued through the turn of the millennium and was further exacerbated by the spread of crack cocaine and the continuing demolition of public housing projects.14Grove Park Neighborhood Association “Grove Park History” (2020); T. Freeman, interview with the author, 2020. The impact of these histories is all too evident in present-day Grove Park, which was designated in a mid-1930s redlining map as “definitely declining,” and is now home to a majority-Black renter population vulnerable to gentrification.15University of Richmond Virginia, “Mapping Inequality.”

Repurposing Bellwood Quarry in the name of conservation can be understood as furthering the erasure of African-American communities in Atlanta.

We could, of course, go deeper into the roots of American conservationism and note that the current vulnerabilities of marginalized communities are due to forces that go well beyond the boundaries of Grove Park. Given its debts to colonial expansionism, Western conservation reflects a kind of “nature-making” which seeks to acquire land and resources by disrupting Indigenous systems of natural resource management, displacing autochthonous communities and denying them access to cultural and economic resources. This pattern of place-taking is evident in the creation of the U.S. National Park system in the late 19th and early 20th century, when conservation interests seeking to designate wilderness areas enacted policies that went hand-in-hand with the dispossession of Indigenous lands.16See David Pellow, What is Critical Environmental Justice? (Medford: Polity Press, 2018); Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2012). These larger-scale historical precedents of place-taking are, ultimately, related to the municipal power structures that drive greenspace enclosure and displacement at the scale of the urban park. Repurposing Bellwood Quarry in the name of conservation could, in this way, be understood as furthering the erasure of African-American communities in Atlanta while rendering the vulnerable residents of Grove Park more exposed than ever to climate-change stressors. The establishment of Westside Park is an environmental justice issue.

Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry represents a future shaped by climate instability and a past ravaged by environmental violence. Thus we are called on to create new processes of development and place-making that will honor and strengthen local agency and allow vulnerable communities to forge new environmental identities. We are further called on to envisage Grove Park’s unwavering resilience as an essential starting point that will allow the community to build upon its assets — including its charismatic small-businesses and the ecological richness of the area — and to shape equitable and culturally appropriate development strategies. Grove Park has weathered a century of environmental violence and it is now calling for a reckoning. As the park nears completion, city leaders and park decision-makers should be keen to answer this call.

Notes

  1. Derek Martin established the idea of a “racialized outdoor leisure identity” in his 2004 article “Apartheid in the Great Outdoors: American Advertising and the Reproduction of a Racialized Outdoor Leisure Identity,” Journal of Leisure Research 36(4): 513–535. Analyzing outdoor recreational magazine advertisements, Martin shows the “social construction of participants in wildland recreation” along racial lines. I expand from a focus on recreation to include all possible interactions one may have with the external environment. The idea of agency and power influencing environmental identity is borrowed from Arun Agrawal’s  concept of “environmentality” (2005) in “Environmentality: Community, Intimate Government, and the Making of Environmental Subjects in Kumaon, India,” Current Anthropology, 46(2): 161–190. Agrawal presents a framework for understanding the roles of power and agency in shaping environmental governance and human-environmental interactions. In sum, the formation of one’s personal environmental identity has just as much to do with the physical configuration of the environment as it does the social and political context in which that physical environment is situated.
  2. Though racialized violence associated with Bellwood Quarry has affected the area since the late 1800s, Grove Park itself was established as a White community in 1920s, and did not see demographic shifts to a majority Black residential population until White flight in the 1970s.
  3. Dan Immergluck and Tharunya Balan, (2018), “Sustainable for whom? Green urban development, environmental gentrification, and the Atlanta Beltline,” Urban Geography. 39(4): 546–562. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2017.1360041
  4. Atlanta Business Chronicle, “Bellwood Quarry Sold to City,” (June 30, 2006); S. Germany et. al., “The Water Crisis: Water, Growth, and Development” City Planning: Growth Management Law. 1–33 (2008). The reservoir is currently being filled.
  5. Ibid. The study demonstrated that values for homes within a half-mile of the Beltline rose between 17.9 and 26.6 percent more than elsewhere in Atlanta.
  6. Michael Kahn, “Near Westside Reservoir, Bankhead Station, $400M mixed-use development proposed,” Curbed Atlanta (March 1,  2018).
  7. Sean Richard Keenan, “Latest affordable housing venture promises 177 units near Bellwood Quarry,” Curbed Atlanta (September 28, 2018).
  8. Justin Bleeker, interview with the author, 2020.
  9. Raven Hinson, interview with the author, 2020; Taylor Pruitt, interview with the author, 2020.
  10. City of Atlanta Executive Order 2020-03.
  11. Dustin Hillis, interview with the author, 2020. Departments and entities involved in the development of the Equitable Development Framework include City of Atlanta Departments of Public Works, Transportation, Planning, Watershed Management, and Parks and Recreation.
  12. Tony J. Rodriguez, Jr., Healing the Scars, Bachelor of Architecture Theses – 5th Year (2017): 27; Atlanta Rail Corridor, “Convict Labor at Bellwood Quarry.”
  13. Gloria Woods, “Creating Resilient Black Neighborhoods in Urban Environments Through Effective Community Planning,” (2018); Jonathan Raymond, “What is redlining, and how did it happen in Atlanta?,” 11 Alive News (February 20, 2020).
  14. Grove Park Neighborhood Association, “Grove Park History” (2020); T. Freeman, interview with the author, 2020.
  15. University of Richmond Virginia, “Mapping Inequality.”
  16. See David Pellow, What is Critical Environmental Justice? (Medford: Polity Press, 2018); Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

About the Author

Aimee Okotie-Oyekan

Aimee Okotie-Oyekan is completing concurrent Master’s degrees in Environmental Studies and Community and Regional Planning at the University of Oregon; she obtained a B.S. in Biology from the University of Georgia in 2017. Her master’s thesis approaches issues of racism and other social inequalities as intertwined with environmental injustices. She aims to shape applied work in real communities, contributing holistic and systems-thinking approaches.