Traces of the Past: What Came Before the Parks

Main hospital building at Brook Run Park/former Georgia Retardation Center, March 2007 (demolished later that year). (Photo: Amber Rhea)
Main hospital building at Brook Run Park/former Georgia Retardation Center, March 2007 (demolished later that year). (Photo: Amber Rhea)

Atlanta is awash in greenspace initiatives. From projects like the BeltLine and the Buckhead Collection, which seek to create new parks and trails and link them with existing ones, to revitalization efforts at existing sites throughout the city, “green” has been the buzzword for several years now and continues to gain momentum. The complicated creation of greenspace in Atlanta isn’t always a glamorous process, though, and the traces of the past that remain buried in some of our city’s parks deserve to have their stories told.

Many people who have been in Atlanta for a while know the story of how Freedom Park came to be–either through witnessing it firsthand or hearing about it from others.  The full story is long, drawn-out, and has been well documented elsewhere, but the gist of it is, in the 1960s much of Inman Park and surrounding neighborhoods were preemptively destroyed as part of a plan to build two freeways through the area. The north-south portion would have linked today’s GA-400 with I-675, and the east-west portion would have continued the Stone Mountain Freeway, which today begins near North DeKalb Mall, through Decatur, Druid Hills, and other intown neighborhoods into Downtown, where it would connect with I-75/85 at what is today the Freedom Parkway interchange.

“Stairs to nowhere” in Freedom Park. (Photo: Amber Rhea)
“Stairs to nowhere” in Freedom Park. (Photo: Amber Rhea)

The successful battle waged by neighbors against the construction of this freeway, and a subsequent battle in the 1980s against the so-called Presidential Parkway proposed in conjunction with the Carter Center, are the stuff of preservation and environmental policy lore. The reality remained, though, well into the 1990s, that the damage had been done decades earlier, as land that once comprised established residential and commercial areas sat vacant.

Freedom Park was opened in 2000, adding 207 acres of greenspace to the city but bearing the legacy of physical and psychological connections severed and historically significant resources lost. While the current park is no doubt a more aesthetically and environmentally pleasing alternative to a freeway through this part of the city, and the Carter Center, not a cloverleaf interchange, is a preferable choice to dot the apex of historic Copenhill, strolling through Freedom Park brings with it a sense of sadness as one notices the intermittent “stairs to nowhere,” crumbling pieces of stone retaining walls, and other remnants that are the only monuments to homes that once stood where joggers and bikers now hurry past.

Just outside the Perimeter in Dunwoody, Brook Run Park encompasses over 100 acres and features a playground, skate park, dog park, community garden, and plenty of open space–complete with infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks,  lampposts, and walking paths. In stark juxtaposition to the shiny new facilities, however, several abandoned and crumbling midcentury buildings stand, seemingly drawing little attention from those who enjoy the park’s amenities. The largest structures have been demolished, but many smaller ones remain. Their demolition will surely come eventually, but in the meantime they are a reminder of a past of which many visitors are unaware–that the park was formerly the campus of the Georgia Retardation Center, which opened in 1968.

Map from 1972 showing proposed route of I-485 and the extended Stone Mountain Freeway. (Photo: courtesy David Henderson and the Atlanta Time Machine)
Map from 1972 showing proposed route
of I-485 and the extended Stone Mountain
Freeway. (Photo: courtesy David Henderson and the Atlanta Time Machine)

This embarrassingly named facility (renamed at some point during its operation simply as Brook Run) was open for 30 years as a residential institution for people with severe mental disabilities. During that time, there were over 150 suspicious deaths at the center. A search of newspaper archives paints a disjointed picture of life at the Georgia Retardation Center, with reports of mistreatment and abuse alongside praise for dedicated staff and doctors. Surely there is truth to be found at both ends of the spectrum, but the extent of some of that truth may never be known, given the marginalized nature of the population the facility served.

Brook Run closed in the 1990s, at a time when many similar facilities across the nation were also closing their doors, amid a drying up of funds that began during the Reagan administration, as well as increased advocacy for community-based care versus institutionalization for the disabled. DeKalb County purchased the property in 1997 and began a slow process of redevelopment that continues today. Starkly absent is any mention of the park’s history, in both promotional material about Brook Run available from the City of Dunwoody and at the site itself.

Smaller examples dot the Atlanta greenspace landscape as well. The site of the former Georgia Avenue School in Mechanicsville, destroyed by fire in 1986 but vacant for years before, is now Ralph David Abernathy Plaza. Phoenix II Park in Summerhill was once the location of a coal and wood yard and adjacent housing for its lower-income, largely African American workers.  Many of the PATH Foundation trails follow the routes of former streetcar lines–arguably a fine use for an abandoned transit corridor, but does it eliminate any future possibility of restoring the original use? Meanwhile, large swaths of greenspace that have been with us all along remain unutilized.

4h9DJ2Nz0plgMDMv8r3zNG-isuNhWuWKlLAg4-MPCbMThese are not simple issues of good or bad, right or wrong, or the interests of historic preservation trumping the needs of an urban landscape to adapt to a changing population. Indeed, all these aspects can and should coexist in relative harmony. Would it be “better” if the original structures were still standing where Freedom Park now lies? Undoubtedly. But what of the vacant land after demolition already happened? Is a park “better” than a freeway? Undoubtedly, too. Should Brook Run still be open in its original capacity? Maybe not. Should its structures be maintained and adaptively used instead of demolished? Maybe so.

In the cases mentioned here, as in countless others, there is no interpretive signage or other commemoration at the sites. When the less pleasant aspects of our collective history are allowed to slip through the cracks out of discomfort on the part of those who hold power and privilege, we have to wonder if, after a few more decades have passed, the important stories these places embody will be forgotten forever. Surely this would be a disservice to those who gave their lives to these places, in any sense of the word.

Amber Rhea is a student in the Master of Heritage Preservation program at Georgia State University, hoping to parlay her lifelong love of old buildings into a career. She is interested in things most people find mundane or annoying, like urban infrastructure and traffic flow. In a previous life, she was a web developer, blogger, podcaster, and conference organizer. She was responsible for PodCamp Atlanta in 2007 and Sex 2.0 in 2008, and co-hosted the award-winning podcast “Mostly ITP” from 2006-2009. Amber grew up in Augusta and used to bad-mouth Atlanta, then ate her words after landing here in 2004 and realizing there was nowhere else she wanted to be.

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Comment(1)

  • Laura Ross
    March 13, 2014 at

    I too love old buildings, and Atlanta does not. This makes me sad.

    When I first moved to Georgia, I lived in Athens, which seems kinder to and prouder of its Victorian and Antebellum past. Atlanta just blows it away.

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