Hartsfield-Jackson Airport represents precisely the opposite of intimacy. With its sprawling parking lots, bustling terminals and invasive (though sadly necessary) security checkpoints, it’s hard to consider the world’s busiest airport to be personal in any respect. This truth makes the mission of Hannah Palmer’s memoir, Flight Path (Hub City Press, 216 pp), quite ambitious.
Palmer’s debut centers on the history of Atlanta’s airport through the lens of her own relationship to the land the airport annexed. She grew up in Forest Park where 17 years of her life were divided between three homes in the Mountain View neighborhood. Adulthood took her to Brooklyn and back, and she resettled with her husband in Atlanta’s Southside. As a creative writing MFA student and a soon-to-be mother pregnant with her first child in 2008, she spent three years uncovering how the homes of her youth were destroyed to make way for Hartsfield-Jackson’s eventual takeover in her Mountain View community. Her research forced her to look outside of her own former doorsteps and investigate what happened to the Plunkettown, Poole Creek and Blair Village neighborhoods when they too made way for Hartsfield’s expansion. In the process, she reveals the profound implications place has on a person and what poor urban development can do to communities.
Although the premise of the memoir — how a woman’s three homes were impacted by the building of the airport — might seem dry at first glance, Palmer’s vulnerability and lyrical style make the book anything but stuffy. And through this powerful narrative, Palmer conveys the all-important point: people are inextricably influenced by the places they live, and places are defined by the people who live there. Though we often take this reality for granted, it should be a cornerstone of both city planning and storytelling, which is a timely lesson for Atlantans.
In the twentieth century, the growing airport wasn’t the only transportation infrastructure that set specific communities up to fail. The lack of Marta expansion into the suburbs and the paving of highways like the Downtown Connector through the black business district in the ’70s are just two more examples of decisions that made wealth and resources largely inaccessible to the city’s African-American residents. Palmer’s story is no less vital today as city officials and investors (including Palmer herself) anticipate the impact of projects like the Beltline on gentrification in established neighborhoods.
In presenting the human element of this complex conversation about development, Palmer succeeds immensely. It’s sentimental and nostalgic but also critical and thoughtful. She deftly balances considerations of her own history with the broader impact of the biggest airport in the world built on top of Atlanta’s Southside neighborhoods.
ArtsATL spoke with Hannah Palmer about her investigation into the places that molded her as a person, the most consequential structure in our city and what each piece of the puzzle tells about the other.
ArtsATL: How did you manage to make what might seem like a dry topic (the history of the airport and the surrounding communities) and make it incredibly poignant and personal?
Hannah Palmer: In conversations with people about where I’m from, I was doing this unconsciously or without trying too hard. I was saying things like, “Oh yeah, the house where I lost my virginity was bulldozed, and that’s just one of those Atlanta things that happens. The places that matter to you end up getting, ya know, redeveloped or replaced with something that’s kind of disappointing.” So I would tell stories like this just in everyday conversations, and notice a reaction when I was willing to be vulnerable and personal and confessional. I wanted the same effect in my writing.
ArtsATL: After doing a project like Flight Path, how does that inform your role in your current community of East Point?
Palmer: We’ve been in our home for 12 years and made it our own. We love it here. Over those 12 years I have gone from being just a kind of a tourist in local politics to being much more informed and engaged as a citizen, and more opinionated about what needs to happen here. That comes along with my urban design training.
ArtsATL: How did the story expand outside of your personal memoir to tackle complex issues like race and white flight?
Palmer: Well, the book is sort of premised on this exercise of investigating my three lost houses, and if I just follow that trail, it leads to a lot of conversations with white people. My neighbors, my parents, my parents’ friends, their neighbors, people we went to church with. And the first draft of the manuscript, it was all white people talking to white people. And it just revealed to me the depth of the segregation in my own family history and in my own life, it was a strictly white conversation. So I felt the weakness of the manuscript and a real lack of breadth in my first draft. I know that black communities were right next to white communities and they experienced the same displacement that Mountain View did.
ArtsATL: Were you outraged at how under-covered the impact of the airport’s expansion was once you began looking closely?
Palmer: In general, I found myself startled at the scale of the project and that nobody really talked much about it or explained it or understood it.
ArtsATL: What did you learn about the ways that your homes informed who you are as a person? Were there any revelations that really surprised you?
Palmer: After I finished writing the book, I would go back and read it and learn about myself. My husband and his parents are from Forest Park too. My parents went to Forest Park High School. In some ways, the story is our love story, it’s the story of us falling in love, getting married and trying to make a home together. If I had fallen in love with and married some guy from San Francisco, I wouldn’t have written this book! We both ended up on the Southside again, and now we’re trying to raise kids here and trying to understand this attachment to a place. We found a home in each other.
ArtsATL: To me, the problems of gentrification are something you can talk about until you’re blue in the face and still not have a conclusion that works well for everyone. So as someone who was researching this, who is from Forest Park, who now lives in East Point and works on urban planning, how does Atlanta grow and prosper without becoming a place that’s exclusive?
Palmer: It’s a question that all city planners and urban designers think about every single day, and I don’t know the answer . . . I don’t know how to generate that balance and make it last long-term. I feel like cities are either facing the problem of not enough investment or the problems of too much investment. I can’t answer your question — it’s something that I think about a lot, and certainly that’s the goal — to improve neighborhoods, but to make it possible for the people who live there to stay and enjoy those improvements. Whether that’s a new park or dropping in a billion dollar airport in the backyard, the people who live there should be able to enjoy in the benefits.
ArtsATL: What do you hope that adding a personal narrative to describe the impact of the airport might do for urban planning efforts in the city in the future?
Palmer: I hope that this book isn’t just for urban planning professionals or city design professionals; I hope that it’s for a much wider readership of people, and I hope for people who care about the city. So, just broadening that conversation, I hope that it inspires other artists to reflect on the city through their medium — visual, documentary, written, musical. I feel like the arts offer a really powerful role in creating a sense of place, reflecting on the past and creating a vision for the future, and I also want the people who work in positions of power, whether they’re developers or designers or policy people, I want them to read it and understand the human implications of these design decisions, particularly the ripple effect that goes on for generations.
ArtsATL: Tell me about your current work in urban design.
Palmer: I wrote this manuscript before I ever understood the term “urban design.” A friend of mine read the manuscript and told me I was a young Jane Jacobs and should come work for his architecture firm, so I wound up landing a job working on urban projects as a writer, researcher, storyteller and marketer. I’ve worked on urban design projects all over the world, because so much of that work is creating a vision, telling a story, understanding a place. So the tools of being a writer have served me well in that field.
ArtsATL: Do you hope that people begin to care more about the places that inform who they are?
Palmer: Yes, I do. I don’t think everybody needs to go back to their hometown and get involved and make that their place, but wherever you go, you’re part of a community, and I do hope for more active citizen engagement in making better places, whether you’re going to be there for two years or 20 years.
Hannah Palmer will discuss her book as well as issues of Atlanta history, urban expansion, and what is lost in the wreckage of development at Charis Books + More this Thursday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m.