10 November 2017

Civil Reality

[ Civil – of or occurring between citizens of the same country, polite without being friendly ]

I love history. I love history seen through the lens of the place, the people, the memories, the interpretations. Understanding the history of a place makes the experience all the more enriching. It is something I make a point of when I spend time in a new part of the world – whether it be a country, regional or city experience.

I’ll be honest here – I never had any desire to visit Georgia, and especially Atlanta. My knowledge of it was limited, my exposure to the culture there was about being headquarters of CNN, Coca Cola, home of the Atlanta Braves (MLB), Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and Atlanta Falcons (NFL). Yes, it also hosted the 1996 Olympic Games – whatever the significance of that may be. I guess because of these things, it was defined as somewhat the iconic city of the south, the home of Martin Luther King Jr, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement and one of the few cities that existed in the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Battle of Atlanta in 1865 saw General Sherman raze the city to the ground as the Union sought to finally bring the Civil War to an end by over running Atlanta and the Confederates capital of Richmond, Virginia. Did I know all of these things? No. Like my experience of New Orleans earlier in 2017, the exploration and discovery of the context of a city enriches one’s understanding of what your senses are taking in. It doesn’t mean you fall in love with a place, but in a time of hatred, discriminatory interpretations of history and political volatility, we mustn’t lose the context of what we are experiencing.

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The surface appreciation of a city can often be determined by comparing and contrasting with others you have visited or lived in. The public transport isn’t as good as…the coffee isn’t of the quality of…the buildings are ugly, not like the scale of….and so on and so on. Meeting people is a big part of that and I found myself interacting with locals giving snapshots of life in Atlanta. Valerie who came to Atlanta from South Carolina to begin a new job with her husband and two young children, only to have the company fold within 3 months. Here was a lady with a science degree who is driving with Uber trying to support her family with her husband, not giving up on the city just yet. Or Christine, a law abiding Uber driver who took pleasure in pointing out the bad drivers of Atlanta and refused to take a call from Calvin, a man who she explained was virtually stalking her. ‘Do you like Atlanta?’ I asked. ‘Well I’ve been here for 17 years so I guess I do!’ She replied. Or Margaret, the guide who sat a group of us down in the Margaret Miller sitting room where she wrote ‘Gone With The Wind’ and told the story of Miller’s life, offering up a background to the novel and later the film with a passion that would make Mammy happy! Or Robyn, leading our bike tour through the suburbs and giving insights that most tourists wouldn’t get.

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There’s an inner city suburb called Five Points because that’s where the railways all converged into Atlanta. There’s another area called Cabbagetown because the local population used to grow cabbages in their front gardens. The old Sears & Roebuck distribution centre had goods arriving by rail from across the US and beyond, employed hundreds of people who then distributed across the US the goods to their numerous department stores and now stands as a renewal project incorporating apartments, offices, food outlets and boutique shopping. The old cotton mill, once a mainstay of the textiles industry shipping cotton to the UK, an industry dependent on the slave plantations, even during the Civil War driving the Confederate hope that England and France would come to their assistance to break the marine blockade, knowing that they were desperate for the cotton shipments. This mill now stands as a echo of the past, now housing expensive condominiums that would be far outside the reach of many of the population. Atlanta now attracts the millennials into technology, media and distribution companies. The city, like New York City’s Highline, is beginning the transformation of the railway lines and adjacent areas to develop a green belt circling the city, enabling pedestrians and cyclists and more environmental experience.

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But casting a shadow over Atlanta are two realities – the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. They are entwined yet so very separate. In many ways they define the soul of Atlanta – a bastion of the southern Confederacy and an inspiring leader of change with the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson – all names we know but engaging with their stories is powerful. And so much of what they faced finds its roots back to the Civil War. A time which pitted the progressive industrial north against the traditional rural south. A perceived challenge to the liberty of the farmers of the south by Union Government directives driving the end of slavery. A Republican led fight for emancipation with Abraham Lincoln at the forefront, against a largely Democrat south wanting to maintain the status quo and protect their financial interests. It seems incongruous now that the political reality in the US is defined by a populous electorate who call the Republican President their man versus a more progressive, liberal Democrats. At the LearningSCAPES conference I attended, David Houle, a futurist and political journalist, stated that we are seeing the demise of the two party system in the US. One would suggest our own country has been undergoing a similar volatility. And so we have a thriving African American population growing into a political force in the south, initially on the back of the Republicans through emancipation – not because they could vote, but because they slowly found their voice within society, culminating in the struggles of the sixties with the rise of the Civil Rights movement. But the hatred still exists, the racism is still there, and the historical revisionism about the Civil War continues to this day.

Written by Philip Idle

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Photography - Philip Idle