The notice of Charlotte’s funeral in 1956 surprised me. She was only thirty-seven years old, without a husband or heirs. It said nothing about how she died, and my imagination filled the blank space with a tragic scandal. Her named vanished from the newspapers, but by 1960, Lake Charlotte appeared on Atlanta maps, a watery tribute that outlasted the lake itself.16
As a girl, did Charlotte love this place? I wondered about this as I balanced on a log to cross the creek. I could hear Ryan’s and Stacy’s voices moving up the hill towards the landfill. My T-shirt clung to my back as I hiked up the shady hillside, past holly bushes and boulders scarred with mossy divots. Thousands of years before Muscogee-speaking people settled here, between 1500 and 600 BCE, people sat on this hillside carving bowls out of the dark green stone. Geologists called it Soapstone Ridge, and archaeologists in the late 1970s made a heroic effort to document the ancient quarry sites and recover priceless stone artifacts before they vanished under landfills and truck lots.17
At the top of the hill, the sound of whirring machinery broke the spell. Ryan and Stacy were taking photos of the landfill’s blank backside, a grassy expanse pocked with shiny, expensive-looking machinery. No doubt, a surveillance camera somewhere was watching us. I held my breath until I was hidden by the trees again. I spotted at least three strange devices before I googled the name for them—piezometer, an instrument that measures the pressure of groundwater. It reminded me that the Waste Management’s greenspace served a purpose, filtering and buffering contaminants from Live Oak. We joked, uneasily, about the chemical odor of the landfill, and what might be in the water.
The afternoon shadows grew long, but we refused to leave until we reached the lake, or what was left of it. We tromped down the hill toward the creek bed. The sky opened up in the clearing where the lake used to be. The plush, sun-dappled floodplain was dotted with lowland sycamores, patches of cattails shifted in the breeze. The shadows of turkey vultures and hawks crossed the swaying lake bottom like fish used to do.
What we found was probably more like what was here before the Ingram family. It was what the Muscogee-speaking people might have seen, and the clans before them—a clearing with a thin creek snaking through it. With the landfill now closed, there was a good chance the park’s time had come. What would it mean for the residents in the shadow of those landfills, with gentrification closing in?
When I got home later that night, still high from forest bathing, grainy ringlets plastered to my neck and perfumed with Deet, I found my husband reading in a corner armchair, the kids already in bed. I practically twirled in the door, wanting to tell him about this mysterious place. I tried to pull him away from his reading, suggesting that he come upstairs and check me for ticks. The forest can do that to you—remind you of your animal flesh, your short lifespan—even in the middle of Atlanta.
Within a couple years, Black Atlantans who were promised a park in the ’70s and fought the landfill in the ’90s will finally be able to walk past the chainlink fence, owners of a place that was off limits for generations. Their grandchildren’s inheritance is not just the land, but the chance to “lose themselves” in a carefully managed wilderness in a way that their parents never could. Soon, too, White families like mine that have never ventured to this corner of Atlanta will discover those woods on afternoon picnics, marveling at the beech trees and soapstone boulders.
Enshrined as a nature preserve, what will we name the place? Should we erase Charlotte Sage, ill-fated princess of Mount Manor Lake? Or honor Ted Mastroianni, Aaron Jackson Jr., or Herman Lischkoff—all of the figures whose fates entwined with the place and made it so difficult to bulldoze? Whatever we call it, I hope it will honor the countless Southside neighbors who organized to prevent Lake Charlotte from becoming a dumping ground. This is their victory and their park.
This article first appeared in the Built/Unbuilt Issue (vol. 27, no. 3: Fall 2021).
Hannah S. Palmer is author of the award-winning memoir Flight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport. A native of Atlanta’s Southside, her writing about place is informed by her work as urban designer. Since 2017, she has led a campaign to restore the urban headwaters of Georgia’s Flint River.