Skip to main content

Review: Streetscape Palimpsest

A review of Streetscape Palimpsest, a project focusing on the history of an Atlanta street that is being buried under redevelopment, directed by Marni Davis

Published onJun 24, 2024
Review: Streetscape Palimpsest

Streetscape Palimpsest: A History of Georgia Avenue

Project Lead
Marni Davis, Georgia State University

Project Team
Richard Laupus, Photographer
Brennan Collins, Georgia State University
Joseph Hurley, Georgia Institute of Technology

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Mark Souther, Cleveland State University

Project Overview

Marni Davis

Streetscape Palimpsest: A History of Georgia Avenue reveals and amplifies the nearly-silenced layers and past voices of an Atlanta street that is currently undergoing massive redevelopment and gentrification. It accounts for the sweeping, impersonal forces that shaped (and continue to reshape) U.S. cities: racial segregation, immigrant acculturation, redlining, urban renewal, white flight, and the dubious reliance on sports facilities to stimulate local economies. This digital map and accompanying essay remind us that the people of Georgia Avenue’s past were not passive victims, but active participants who sought to contain neighborhood change, and influence its direction, in ways that worked for residents and their communities. By adopting a fine-grained, street-level perspective using geospatial technologies, we recognize how everyday individuals, in all their diversity and complexity, helped to shape the history of a city.

In the early 20th century, Georgia Avenue was a dense, bustling shopping district at the heart of Atlanta’s oldest residential area. Its businesses served the surrounding neighborhoods: Summerhill, established by African Americans during Reconstruction; the nearby majority-Black neighborhoods of Peoplestown and Mechanicsville; Grant Park, a streetcar suburb founded in the 1880s for the white elite and middle class; and a mixed-race section where Jewish, Greek, and Syrian immigrants established residential clusters.

As middle-class residents departed for the suburbs, local urban planners and city leaders came to regard the area as a “slum.” By the 1950s, Atlanta’s municipal leadership concluded that dozens of the neighborhood’s blocks should be demolished as part of the city’s urban renewal and highway construction efforts. Urban renewal devastated the surrounding neighborhoods, initiating social, economic, and environmental crises from which they still struggle to recover. And Georgia Avenue, bereft of its once-substantial local base of customers, began its slow, painful demise.

Georgia Avenue’s current redevelopment was the primary catalyst for creating the Streetscape Palimpsest website. To capture these changes, historian Marni Davis worked with local photographer/videographer Richard Laupus, interdisciplinary scholar Brennan Collins, and digital librarian Joseph Hurley to create an ArcGIS StoryMap that interweaves deeply researched historical narrative with maps and other audiovisual material, including videos of interviews with former and current residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. The platform’s geospatial technology allows users to zoom in on historic and contemporary maps for detail, and to pan out for context. Location pinpoints situate both demolished and surviving buildings in space and provide information about former occupants. These interactive functions root the reader on Georgia Avenue, reveal connections between the built environment’s past and present, and pose questions about the history and ethics of gentrification.

The website has received positive local press and public history coverage since its launch in 2019.1  This project and a 2021 public exhibition based upon it were funded by a $5,000 Community Investment Fund Grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It was created for a broad, diverse audience of laypersons and academic readers interested in Atlanta’s history and in the hyperlocal reverberations of 20th-century urban development. The creators of Streetscape Palimpsest also hope it will serve as a model for students in history and geography, and for community historians, who wish to develop a digital narrative mapping project of their own neighborhoods. 

Project Review

Mark Souther

Streetscape Palimpsest: A History of Georgia Avenue is a web-based exhibit that traces more than a century of change on and around a street on Atlanta’s south side. The project narrates and interprets a sweeping history. It is at once linear and interactive; granular and broadly contextualized; and reflective of scholarly expertise but also inclusive of community voices and accessibly written for a wider audience.

The project provides a richly textured account of how the multiethnic and multiracial populations of the Southside and Summerhill neighborhoods faced and sometimes fought a parade of development plans imposed from the outside. Redlined by real estate interests, the area suffered one challenge after another from the 1940s on, namely demolition and displacement of businesses and homes due to public housing, freeways, urban renewal, Model Cities, and two gigantic stadiums. The narrative’s signal contribution lies in its detailed account of community unrest and activism. Residents protested police violence and exploitative retailers in the 1960s and ’70s and a succession of redevelopment initiatives since the 1990s. Civic leaders welcomed the Olympics, revitalization of remaining storefronts, and market-rate housing while proving unable to address Summerhill’s perennial lack of quality affordable housing and its status as a food desert.  

Streetscape Palimpsest makes exemplary use of ArcGIS StoryMaps. It takes full advantage of the platform’s capacity for supporting a location-based historical exploration that is at once linear (like a book or article) and interactive, inviting readers to learn from curated maps and short oral history excerpts. The choice of this digital storytelling tool makes for a seamless and rewarding experience for desktop users, but on mobile phones its navigation is less intuitive and at times limited. For example, the benefit of a side-by-side presentation of text and map is lost on mobile screens, with the text superimposed over the map layer. Despite this limitation, the platform is, overall, still an effective vessel for a project such as this one. 

This project is part of a growing embrace of digital scholarship that is advancing the field of urban history while also overcoming the constraints posed by traditional academic publishing. The project’s spatial digital humanities approach to examining and exhibiting urban change is especially well-suited to advance public understandings of the relationship between race and class, real estate, and policy. Marni Davis and her team have produced a website that pairs well with others that include spatial explorations, notably 98 Acres in Albany (based at the University at Albany), Bunker Hill Refrain (based at the University of Southern California), and Mapping Inequality (based at the University of Richmond).

Far more than an academic essay that benefits from digital enhancement, Streetscape Palimpsest is community-engaged scholarship. Davis incorporates citizen voices that balance her scholarly perspectives through effective incorporation of curated oral history content. The project’s contributions to the public are reflected in funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Community Investment Fund, an accompanying 2021 public exhibition, and press coverage. The website is eminently useful for urban scholars, students, residents, activists, and policymakers. 

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?