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Carter’s March

Atlanta is the quintessentially amnesiac American city. Confronted by unpleasant truths, its post-war (and there has only been one War down there) founding heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, would say, “I can’t think about now, I’ll think about it tomorrow”—which pretty much expresses the city’s attitude toward urban planning. Nothing illustrates this better than the history of its oldest and prettiest neighborhood, Inman Park.

While the rest of Atlanta has been razed, ’dozed, and paved with asphalt pools that fail to reflect the new imitation-Mansard roofs above them, Inman Park has been left relatively intact, an old Southern neighborhood of shady pecan trees and bench swings that hang on wraparound verandas. If there is any architecture in Atlanta—any, that is, that can stand erect without the benefit of steel reinforcing rods and poured concrete—it is here among the homes built in the city’s first suburb between 1880 and the 1920s. The original Candler mansion, a brick pile with Corinthian columns raised by the founders of the Coca-Cola dynasty, stands on a corner lot on Euclid Avenue here. Scores of even more imposing homes, many sporting sun porches and Tiffany stained glass in their hallway lunettes, are relics of pre-segregation luxury which the modern city has moated off with expressways and rail lines. Inman Park still has the musty air of old ladies in white lace gloves who serve divinity on silver trays; Driving Miss Daisy was filmed here, and for good reason.

Today it is reduced to little more than five square blocks populated by old money and white gays, bracketed on two sides by rundown black neighborhoods and the Metro tracks. To the east is Little Five Points, sometimes described as “Atlanta’s Greenwich Village”—I guess because it’s the only district with sidewalk murals and a headshop—while to the northeast rises the steep hill from which General Sherman watched the shelling of the city in 1864, now occupied by the Jimmy Carter Library and Presidential Center.

Inman Park’s long struggle to survive the soulless march of Atlanta is intimately tied to Jimmy Carter’s career. At the height of urban renewal fever back in the 1960s, Georgia’s road building powers were able to cut a swath wide enough for a four-lane highway (aimed at connecting downtown with the anticipated tourist trap surrounding the Confederacy’s Mt. Rushmore on Stone Mountain) right through the center of the neighborhood. That destroyed dozens of old homes, the likes of which will never be built again, for any amount of money. A strong grassroots opposition movement gathered strength, decrying urban renewal’s depredations, and in 1970 then-Governor Jimmy Carter joined with those groups and halted the proposed highway.

There was talk of turning the empty ribbon of land left behind into a park, but money never seemed to be available for that. As recently as 1991, you could walk over the slate patios and kudzu-covered foundations of old mansions all the way from the Downtown Connector expressway to Ponce De Leon Avenue, your whole path shaded by persimmons and immense, ancient oak trees. Maybe it wasn’t Frederick Law Olmstead’s idea of an urban park, but it was a long sight better than an off-ramp. What had been backyard garden perennials grew wild among the weeds.

In 1976 Carter became President, and in 1979 he sent Bo Gritz into Iran to save the American hostages, which left him an ex-president in search of a library site. Sherman’s lookout was still an empty lot, so in 1986 Carter spent $23 million in private money to build his memorial there, overlooking the town that was his springboard to Washington. All he wanted from the city, he said, was a nice little $13.3 million expressway through the center of Inman Park, allowing visitors to zip easily in their air-conditioned limos straight from the sprawling airport hub on the other side of downtown to the Carter Center.

It was dedicated last year, almost exactly a quarter century after the populist Jimmy Carter had stopped the first highway, and now what is left of Inman Park is bisected by a strip of concrete that oozes ozone and combustion noise into both remaining halves. The persimmons and the oaks and the wild gladiolas are gone. (The kudzu, of course, is still there, threatening the guardrails.) But because Atlanta is “Too Busy To Hate,” as the current slogan goes, they don’t officially call the expressway “Carter’s March,” as do most local wags—instead, it’s called Freedom Parkway.