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September 1, 2003


Inspired by George, I've been writing a lot about preserving the past in Atlanta lately, and the connections between memory and place present an important dilemma for urban planners who wish to revitalize a community without destroying its character. This challenge is addressed in the brief independent documentary, Cabbagetown, made in the early 1990s.

Cabbagetown (childhood home of musicians Kelly Hogan and Benjamin Smoke) was a small Atlanta mill community near Oakland Cemetary and Reynoldstown, where Jacob Elsas, a German immigrant, started the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in the 1880s, and the mill continued to operate until 1970, largely based on the labor of people from the Southern Appalachins. The mill operated paternalistically, claiming to provide all of its workers' needs, and like many southern mills, aggressively fought against unionization. After the mill closed, the Cabbagetown community faced deep poverty, with many residents turning to crime. Cabbagetown presents the community at a point of crisis, with the narrator lamenting the potential gentrification that will destroy the community's history. Oddly, the documentary doesn't really provide us with much access to this history--no Cabbagetown residents were interviewed, and the people and houses are shown with a strange clinical distance, often in photographs.

Since the movie was made, Cabbagetown has seen renovations of many of the community's houses and the older residents are being pushed out (Home Depot founder Arthur Blank's foundation has been a significant contributor to renovation efforts). And, in a strange turn of events, a significant portion of the old mill was destroyed by fire while construction workers were transforming it into loft apartments. I'm not sure that I have anything particualrly new to say about renovation here, but the desire articulated by the film to preserve the past as the filmmakers understand it seems like a false hope to me; there's also the additional complication of social class, in that Cabbagetown was predominantly working class, which this particular documentary seemed to treat with an odd degree of nostalgia. I guess I'm not quite sure how to read something that seems to want to preserve something so heavily marked by poverty and exploitation, but I recognize the desire to preserve these narratives. I just wish the documentary had preserved some of those voices rather than speaking for them.

Some other interesting information about Cabbagetown: a collaborative project from Georgia State University, and a much different reflection on Cabbagetown's artistic cred.

Posted by chuck at September 1, 2003 12:42 AM

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Nice post, Chuck. The only thing I would add, from my time in ATL, is that Cabbagetown was (is?) the hip, bohemian artist part of town for a while. Cheap housing, pointed history, proximity to downtown, etc.

Never spent much/any time there myself.

Posted by: George at September 1, 2003 10:25 AM

Ah, silly G: I just realized that the last link in your post actually fills that info in pretty nicely. Sorry. :-/

Posted by: George at September 1, 2003 12:59 PM

Don't worry about it--but I think Cabbagetown may be seeing the kind of gentrification that pushes "starving artists" out of the community. With the building of lofts in the old mill (and renovation of older homes), that artistic community seems to be moving further south to East Atlanta.

Posted by: chuck at September 1, 2003 3:25 PM

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