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Rearview Mirror Feature: The Atlanta Freeway Revolts

A patchwork of sources exist on an ironic twist for a city often painted as wedded to the freeway.

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The Ponce de Leon Sears & Roebuck division headquarters looms behind Ponce de Leon Park.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I have no idea how long this will wind up being, but it’s important to look at the highway revolt in the context of midcentury Atlanta, the growing rift between the metro and the rest of the state, and how that’s shaped the physical and intersectional development of the city, its cultural conscience and preservation mindset, and where Georgia Tech fits into all of that.

To say Georgia Tech, a school that was founded outside Atlanta city limits, exists independent of Atlanta is a patent falsehood. Even though there were times when the school was actually outside the city, as well as times when it acted as though it was, the histories of Atlanta and Tech are intrinsically and inseparably linked. This is not to say that Atlanta would not have become a metropolis without Tech - it almost certainly would have, at least to an extent - or that Tech would not have become a fine school without the city - still pretty likely - but the symbiotic relationship between the two cannot be ignored. Sure, there’s plenty of corny hashtags and whatnot coming out of the current football administration, but it comes from a place of truth. I could go on on this, in what would certainly make another fascinating article, but what does all of this have to do with some highways across town?

In April of 1949, the first shovel hit the dirt, opening construction on a 1.3 mile stretch of expressway stretching from 16th Street to Merritts Avenue roughly down Williams Street, terminating at each end in what are now large interchanges, the deviation of 75 and 85 in the north and the Centennial Olympic Park interchange in south. The first Atlanta highway dug a trench down the eastern periphery of Georgia Tech’s campus.

This first stretch of highway went in with little opposition. Midtown as we know it, simply put, didn’t exist. This, of course, makes sense, given that the Turner campus was a country club at the time and most of the rest of the area was single family low density housing. The highway inched north and south, with the northeastern 1.6 miles highway - now the separate Buford-Spring Connector - directly headed out of town and the route headed south routed around downtown, taking out chunks of neighborhoods in the process. This and the simple reality of whose neighborhoods, in particular, were being destroyed, were a reflection of the current state of the city.

We’ve talked enough about the tightrope midcentury Tech walked in respect to race in this column, between the 1956 Sugar Bowl and the integration of the Institute at the dawn of the sixties for you all to be familiar with the situation, so we’ll spare those details, but, well, to say the power dynamic was skewed in the direction of those building the highway would be an understatement. That’s why a chunk of Sweet Auburn and the Old Fourth Ward are now under the Downtown Connector, as the highway engineers dutifully followed the Lochner Plan for the city’s expressways. They would be followed a few years later by what is now Interstate 20 marching its way from east to west across the city. Summerhill and Mechanicsville fared the worst, with the gargantuan interchange between the two highways leveling a significant chunk of land near the capital. And thus, the two main arteries of travel through the city, and later the region and the country, were complete across the length and breadth of the city of Atlanta.

It’s interesting to compare these highways with the legacy of railroads in the city of Atlanta. The Gulch is similarly famous as a gash on the landscape, tearing through downtown’s southern reaches, doesn’t have quite the same socioeconomic scar as the highways. See, the railways were always here. Terminus was founded at the southern end of the Western and Atlantic, which was intended to tie the rest of the state to the midwest. Before there was a town to cut through, the Zero Mile Post was sitting in the middle of the woods, a couple of miles short of the Chattahoochee. In the intervening years, Atlanta grew as a transportation and distribution hub as first the Georgia Railroad to Augusta, the Macon and Western Railroad, then the namesake W&A from Chattanooga, and, years later, the Atlanta and LaGrange Rail Road up from the southwest all made their way to the iron triangle that served as Atlanta’s beating heart. Whereas the railroads built a woodsy frontier output known variously as Terminus, Thrasherville, Marthasville, or Atlantica-Pacifica into the city of Atlanta of today as the arteries of commerce, wealth, and growth, the highways were an afterthought. The Gulch exists because of the success of the very railroads it contains. The highways exist because some fellows decided to put them there, existing contents be [Duran Duran]ed.

That same design logic is why the Atlanta Freeway Revolts even happened in the first place.

The aforementioned Lochner plan looks awfully familiar to the highway system we see today. The branches of the main north-south stem, today’s 75 and 85, are perhaps the most instantly-recognizable streets upon a quick glance at the map of Atlanta. Freedom Parkway is there, too, but that’s where things get curious, especially considering the modern edition of that road isn’t really a major part of Atlanta’s road system all things considered. The western leg, following what is now Ivan Allen Blvd. from the original end of the highway out along Joseph Boone Blvd. to the current interchange between interstates 285 and 20 west of the city, isnt really all that important here. That road essentially got built at I-20 a little bit to the south. It’s the eastern leg, from what is now Freedom Parkway off towards Stone Mountain, that would become an issue. But, when the time came for the federal government to have their say, their plan looked a little different.

Original federal plan for Atlanta highways.
Yellow Book, via

Barring the weirdness that is the western side of 285 and the southern route of 85 heading due west onto Fulton Parkway instead of south towards Newnan, the 1955 is essentially what was built. Of course, it helped that the Atlanta Expressway existed from the Marietta Highway near Cumberland and the Buford Highway near Lindberg down to Hapeville, as well as the 285 ring being built in what was sparsely developed land at the time, but, indeed, it did get built.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has an interesting document called the “Historical Context of Georgia Interstates” that references a subsequent revision to the Lochner plan taking into account the Yellow Book.

1959 Lochner revision.
Georgia Department of Transportation

As is clear, there’s a lot more roads proposed on this map. Nearly every one got into the planning stage. This was a time when the suburbs were expanding and people were expected to prioritize commuting, and out-of-towners simply expected to move through the city as quickly as possible. It was, without exaggeration, the match that lit the powder keg. What had changed in Atlanta in the intervening decade? The planners, rather than plowing through the school dependent on money from state legislature and neighborhoods and people they considered a blight on the urban landscape, they had decided to upset people with two very different, critical assets: volume and money.

Some of the chips fell quickly. The first stage of the Lakewood Expressway was built in short succession, and it was envisioned to push further west, alternately to either 20 or the never-upgraded Palmetto Highway. The Stone Mountain Freeway took three years to stretch from near the perimeter to its current terminus near its namesake. The northern leg of Georgia 400 grew quickly from the top leg of 285, but would only be completed down to 85 in 1993, slicing through woods, neighborhoods, and underneath a skyscraper and would prove controversial in its own right. The rest, though, were thrown into a decade of fighting, limbo, and bitter feelings.

However, the immediate impact of the above map was, well, not much. It wasn’t super public, so, in the waning days of the 1950s, the DOT went along with the preliminary highway plan. While Atlanta may have been the city “too busy to hate” in the Civil Rights Movement, well, other issues cropped up to obstruct the hazy future of the highways. That intermediate loop took many forms in those days. With Northside Drive construction a giant question mark on Tech’s new western flank, the school was planning to be pinned in on the west by a highway, as well. Though the railroad tracks past the campus also serve as a natural growth barrier, the 1965 Master Plan shows not only the Northside/Tech Parkway flyover ramps, but a complete four-leaf clover interchange between Northside and Tenth. I tried to link the image, but Tech replaced the full image with a tiny thumbnail, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Anyways, the plan on the westside curiously died a quick death, despite not having the same advantages of the new highways on the east. While Sweet Auburn was a low income minority neighborhood easily plowed under for the Atlanta Expressway, Bankhead and English Avenue were saved. The Marietta Boulevard, Northside Drive, and North Avenue/Halowell Parkway improvements were that. And the neighborhood kept on as normal. The interesting thing about a second highway, though, even one less than two miles from the connector, is that Tech at the time probably wouldn’t have even minded. It couldn’t give two shakes about historic preservation, seeing as any building not immediately useful to Tech was plowed under and they were seriously considering knocking down Grant Field and Tech Tower for newer replacements on West Campus, and, more importantly, it was something of an elitist ivory tower at the time, too. Thus, a second concrete moat would keep Tech to itself and away from the prying eyes and needs of the city.

In 1964, GDOT announced their plans to build I-485 and the Stone Mountain Freeway, the former of which would parallel the original highway north-south through Morningside and Virginia Highland to Copenhill, and the latter which would snake out of the city east, slowly meandering north to Stone Mountain. Along the way, it would plow through chunks of several neighborhoods, eliminate most of the Olmstead linear park along Ponce de Leon, and wipe out parts of Druid Hills and Fernbank. But the planners had awoken a loud sleeping giant in the in-town neighborhoods.

At the time, Atlanta didn’t really have a large-scale community organization. That was about to change. The first to organize was the Morningside Lenox Park Association in 1964, and they didn’t really argue for a removal of the highway, they simply wanted to put the highway somewhere else that wasn’t there neighborhood. Their suggestion, a highway down what is now the Beltline, then up Piedmont to the 85/400 interchange, not only would have replaced one of Atlanta’s best modern assets with an expressway, but probably would have Fat Matt’s out, too, and, well, that’s just untenable. Understandably not wanting a highway plowing through their neighborhood, the rival Morningside Monroe Civic Association was formed. Now we got a war between activists brewing. Cool.

While this fight proved futile for the original group, the MPLA, as the state decided to stick with the original route, bulldozing through the intown neighborhoods, it did buy them a crucial resource that the well-endowed and loud organizations couldn’t buy or write their way into: time. See, Atlanta wasn’t the only city who didn’t see a need for extra highways marauding haphazardly across town, and the burgeoning environmentalist movement, combined with Supreme Court rulings, the most notable of which, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, prevented Tenessee from sending Interstate 40 straight through the city’s crown jewel park. The case was a watershed in allowing for judicial review over administrative action, providing both empowerment for grassroots movements as well as increased oversight for citizens over unelected bureaucrats. Tying up the I-485 project with lawsuits bought more time, while the Virginia Highland Civic Association fought the projects along with folks from Inman Park and Copenhill.

It would be the latter who were not so lucky. Though the highways were dead in the water by the mid-1970s thanks to organizational action and litigation, vocal opposition from Atlanta politicians like Maynard Jackson, and reticence from the federal Department of Transportation to support the demolition, displacement, and negative impacts of the highways, in late 1960s, as the secondary routes sprung off of the perimeter, the Georgia DOT was busy acquiring the land for their east-west route. When the highways died, much to the chagrin of their loud supporters in the statehouse and bureaucracy, mostly from downstate and the suburbs, the land sat vacant, growing wild with weeds where a whole neighborhood and chunks of other had bit the dust for a highway and interchange that were never built.

The north-south route was officially dead, signaling a win for the northern neighborhood associations, as of 1975 when GDOT pulled it from their list of projects. Despite this, the construction of 675 proceeded from 75 to 285 south of the city, despite that road being intended to meet the portions of 420/the Lakewood Freeway - another casualty of the neighborhood organizations - the were never built to the east, run concurrent to 20, and then up through to 400. The road today is something of a white elephant, useful for routing through transit from Macon and beyond around to 20 and 85 and not a ton else. That aforementioned southern section of 400, eventually completed as a toll road, usefully twinned with MARTA, but a flashpoint for neighborhood activism nonetheless, would prove controversial up through the present day, with various concerns about the tolls - would they or would they not continue past the agreed-upon length? - widening the road, and poor access to area surface roads and even interstates, particularly northbound 85.

Meanwhile, the east-west route from Downtown to the long-completed outer leg of the Stone Mountain Freeway languished. It was dead, and the houses and neighborhoods they subsumed were not coming back, but what would take their place remained a hot topic. Long after public sentiment had shifted away from highways, Jimmy Carter held on to support for the road when the complete freeway system was still a dream, albeit a fading one. Though his sentiment in the late 1970s and 1980s as the land sat empty are unknown, his tenuous support cropped up once again past his presidency, when he hitched the fate of his Presidential Library to the fate of the road. Carter received the Copenhill site, a prominent local hill where the large interchange had been planned, on the condition that he back a 2.9 mile “Presidential Parkway” from the Connector to Druid Hills. Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Older Neighborhoods, kind of an all-star team of the neighborhood groups, was organized to fight the road. In the end, only the physical stakeholders supported the Presidential Parkway, and the coalition of Atlanta politicians and the Lt. Governor had locked them into a stalemate. The coming of the 1996 Olympics forced the hands of both sides, driving them to work together on a compromise. The long-gone homes, stores, and institutions weren’t coming back, so a scaled down, meandering road surrounded by parkland was deemed acceptable, and the road didn’t take up the full length of the property, with a stub of the road going directly north to Ponce de Leon and another east to Moreland and the disused land beyond was left to become a park. To this day, neighborhood associations yield considerably more power in Atlanta than other comparable American cities.

Like most things, at the heart of all of these feuds was politics. The lenses of race, socioeconomic status, and intrastate divisions were different permutations for how half a century of wrangling over the highway system. Some, ultimately, weren’t terribly lucky or saw their concerns ignored. Others were able to use their resources for a common good. And still more were able to reach compromises that may have left their neighborhood roads severed by a highway and its noise walls, or still allowed parts of an untenable highway to be built, but played roles in the economic growth, best exemplified by booming Buckhead, or the cultural growth, as exemplified by Freedom Park and the Carter Center, of their city.

Ultimately, the long-term effects of the highway revolts were significant. The controversies, fighting, failures and successes of MARTA would play out in similar ways. The rise of the neighborhood preservation movement paralleled the birth of historical preservation of the city, as the desire to replace and repave the entire city faded, especially after the watershed Fox Theater campaign in 1974 and 1975.

Where does that leave us today? Well, for one, Tech is a different place. The ivory tower of seclusion is gone, for one. The west side, not pinned in by a highway, oozes up to the booming Marietta and Howell Mill corridors. Tech Square is a beachhead on the far side of the Atlanta Expressway trench home to a whole college and several other buildings and functions that only continues to grow, despite the highway and rapidly diminishing open land in the area. A Georgia Tech grad, noting the railroad tracks that were once proposed to be the home of 485 as it slashed through the east side were sitting unused, proposed a radical idea that reignited not just one neighborhood, but whole swaths of the city. The Atlanta Beltline tied not only those in-town neighborhoods caught in the crosshairs many years ago together, but Freedom Park and the Carter Center, too, and other and it continues to spread to the south and west. The dichotomy between midcentury raze-and-rebuild car-centric construction and the modern adaptable reuse mindset is best exemplified by the Beltline’s most prominent landmark, Ponce City Market, which once stood across from Atlanta’s historic baseball stadium, Ponce de Leon Park, colloquially known as Poncey. Though the ballpark was rather fittingly, considering the narrative, abandoned for a shiny new haunt on what used to be a large swath of Summerhill lost to the march of progress and cars, and a bland strip mall wedged into its place, the majestic brick warehouse lives on as a beacon of a more urbane Atlanta, hipsters, and trendy expensive lunches.

This shouldn’t be taken as a dig at the concept. What Atlanta strives to be today may not be universally supported, but it is noble in its attempts to better itself as a city and as a built environment. Whereas the people of the Atlanta Freeway Revolts succeeded, so many less connected, less endowed, less fortunate, or simply too early to ever be remotely likely to see success did not. What the city is left with is, like so many other things, a patchwork quilt of triumph and failure, of past and present, and of mixed emotions. It makes for an interesting city, if not a perfect one. That’s the kind of thing you fall in love with, though, the details, the small things that wind up mattering a whole lot. That’s what makes Atlanta home.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column. The people over at Emory’s Atlanta Studies are way better at this whole urban development, history, and social geography, than me, but here’s an ME’s honest attempt at one of the monumental storylines of Atlanta history.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of the other events of the 1960s before we look at the Twilight of Edwin Harrison.