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Coming Together and Falling Apart: Defining, Representing, Contesting Place through Public Art in Atlanta, GA

Authors: Jessica Martinez*,
Topics: Urban Geography, Ethnicity and Race, Cultural Geography
Keywords: greenways, placemaking, public art, gentrification
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Atlanta Beltline, a circular greenway system of interconnected parks and trails that adaptably reuses abandoned rail lines surrounding the city, is a driver of gentrification in Atlanta, GA. This project characterizes contemporary initiatives designed to transform underutilized and deteriorating industrial spaces, representing a fetishization of decay that obscures the history of disinvestment and black containment in cities based on the devaluation of place and Black bodies while demonstrating the shifting views of racialized aesthetics of nature that remain normalized through invocations of reconstructed geographies of emptiness and potential. This article emerges from my master’s thesis research during the summer of 2018, focusing on the changing dynamics of place occurring in historically Black neighborhoods in Atlanta’s East and Westside. Atlanta has a contentious history related to the ambiguous differentiation of graffiti from public art, leading to the former’s condemnation and the latter’s (regulated) legitimation in public spaces. Recent changes in perceptions and attitudes of what constitutes as public art and its role in a city’s “place branding” agenda include a shift from a disturbance in order, “matter out of place” to belonging in (designated) space. Defining, representing, and articulating place are contentious processes that rely on power, memory, embodied experiences, and broader accepted narratives. This paper discusses how white newcomers claim space and represent “the local” through symbolism on neighborhood murals and public art on the Beltline’s trails, and importantly, how Black Atlantans oppose and articulate alternative meanings of place identity and belonging.

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