This week I am reading about space, community, and power in post-Reconstruction Atlanta. One of the cases I explore in my book, Deviants in Divergent Spaces: The Radical Politics of Atlanta's Public Housing, is the case of University Homes, the first federally-financed public housing development for African-Americans in the United States. Prior to this federal intervention into the local housing market, black families lived in substandard housing in low-lying, underdeveloped areas throughout five of the city's wards. The war did not end well for Atlanta, and the city's motto Resurgens (Latin for Rising Again), speaks to this embattled history of a Phoenix-like city emerging from the smoldering ashes left in General Sherman's wake. There were housing shortages for black and white residents, yet whites did not (and still, do not) face the spatial limitations blacks encountered in the city. Codified restrictions in housing deeds legally prohibited blacks from leasing, purchasing, or dwelling in homes all-white neighborhoods, even to those who saved or earned enough money to purchase housing at fair market value.
Blacks were corralled into the most flood-prone and disease-ridden areas of Atlanta, in housing that whites constructed solely to exploit the restricted housing market for black residents. These homes were sold at higher than average rents without the minimum necessities of glass-paned windows, and doors and ceilings that do not require one to stoop (1). Thus, whites were able to spatially inscribe the (social, economic, political) racial power dynamics of post-Reconstruction Atlanta into the city's built environment. The public sector was also an active shaper of this spatial domination and difference in the city. As the city developed, black areas were ignored and/or considered as only spaces for the city's externalities such as landfills and other waste depositories. These development decisions translate into lower property values for housing in these majority-black neighborhoods. Here again, large black communities with codified political disparities (2), were also situated in spatially marginalized areas compared to white communities. This spatial domination manifests into economic exploitation. Blacks were excluded from entering the fair housing market as a result of restrictive covenants, and their property values are lowered through the city's spatially marginalizing development practices. The property values of white homeowners are thereby artificially inflated, as the premium of white property values is achieved by the spatial domination of white political powers over black communities.
Spatial domination of poor black communities and other vulnerable groups by now black and white political powers continues into the 21st century. The demolition of the public housing - a space that once symbolized the federal government's intervention into local actors spatial domination of black communities - is not just the demolition of affordable shelter, but also the demolition of political opportunity through the developments' spatial positioning. The interests of poor black residents who dominated the public housing population were visible both in the built environment of the city and also the city's political environment. These densely populated, spatially concentrated developments of poor black residents were a large and loyal voting bloc (polling stations were often located in public housing developments) whose influence and visibility was weakened following their dispersal under the demolition and voucherizing of Atlanta's public housing policy. The dismantling of public housing in Atlanta was executed under the direction of a black public housing director, a black mayor, and a majority-black city council. The maintenance and privileging of public facilities, such as public housing, public schools, and public libraries, over privately-owned and managed facilities, is a necessary intervention to challenge the spatial-political domination of the city's most marginalized groups.
(1) Dorsey, Allison. 2004. To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906. Athens: The University of Georgia Press
(2) The State of Georgia - a Democratic state at the time - had restricted participation in Democratic Primaries to white voters only, in an attempt to limit the political strength of the emancipated, Black Republicans in the state, thereby limiting black political power. This restriction continued until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled on the King v Chambers case in 1946 that challenged the constitutionality of an all-white primary.