The Culture of Property: Race, Class, and Housing Landscapes in Atlanta, 1880-1950

By Leeann Lands | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Housing the City, 1865 to 1910

In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops plundered and burned Atlanta as they marched to the sea. Citizens returned to find bent rails, solitary chimneys, and scattered cannonballs in what had once been a thriving trading center at the nexus of the Western and Atlantic, Georgia, Atlanta and West Point, and Macon and Western railroads. Thousands of Atlanta homes had been destroyed that summer, leaving only a few hundred to shelter returning residents and refugees. Visitors painted a dismal scene. In 1865, journalist J. T. Trowbridge wrote that hundreds lived in “wretched hovels” covered with “ragged fragments of tin roofing from the burnt government and railroad buildings.” Others had constructed makeshift homes of “irregular blackened patches, and partly of old boards, with roofs of huge, warped, slouching shreds of tin.”1 But quickly rebuilt roads and rail lines and the subsequent business revival lured job seekers and entrepreneurs. In 1866, Whitelaw Reid reported that Atlanta’s streets were “blockaded with drays and wagons” as workers and artisans, merchants and city boosters, fashioned a new city.2 The flurry of home and business building combined with lack of regulation and the spirit of short-term gain to produce a muddled and haphazard town. Journalist Sidney Andrews, touring the region in 1865, commented that, with the exception of Boston, Atlanta was “the most irregularly laid out city [he] ever saw.”3 Newly designated streets were “narrow, crooked, and badly constructed,” and they began “nowhere and end[ed] nowhere.”4

Amid the jumble, builders and factory owners built worker housing among the factories, distributors, and service providers that flanked the rail lines trisecting the city. Operating decades before whites proposed residential segregation ordinances and prior to the widespread selling of planned neighborhoods and subdivisions, hundreds of builders and investors scattered homes throughout the city. As a result, the homes of Atlanta’s workers, nascent middle class, and business elite were intermixed with one another and distributed among warehouses, fashionable hotels, factories, and smaller businesses. The South’s social rules dictated black-white interaction, precluding any perception of need for residential segregation by law. Some neighborhoods housed a range of blue-collar and white-collar workers; some were mixed by race; some

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