Make a fence
Poetry from the Built/Unbuilt Issue.
Poetry from the Built/Unbuilt Issue.
The mysterious Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve in Atlanta is no longer a lake, nor a nature preserve, but a private two hundred–acre wilderness next to a landfill. This former public lake has a long and complicated history, including a suburban fishing club, a tragic debutante, botched plans for an inner-city campground, dumped bodies, and a landfill thwarted by organized Black neighbors. How did this once prized destination end up preserved in a state of arrested development? In 2019, as the landfills are capped and this corner of Atlanta begins to gentrify, the city considers whether to preserve Lake Charlotte again. In this personal essay, the author creeps through the fence to see what's left of the lake, the dam, and the Paleolithic quarry sites. Can Atlanta overcome a development pattern that paired neighborhoods for "Negro expansion" with industrial contamination? Fenced off for forty years, can nature—and the community—repair itself?
John Lusk Hathaway's photographic project One Foot in Eden takes as its subject the Cherokee National Forest and its visitors, who use this place extensively for day tripping and recreation. Largely a rural, undeveloped place, the waterways that appear time and again in Hathaway's explorations are part of a system of reservoirs built by the Tennessee Valley Authority for flood control and hydroelectricity generation a century ago. Built and unbuilt environments in One Foot in Eden speak to bigger questions about our existence as organic beings in a world increasingly given over to the high-modern ideology that drives mammoth undertakings like the TVA. Hathaway's images are suggestive of a deep-seated human need to connect with the world around us, evoking ideas like E. O. Wilson's biophilia.
How does one respond to the history of a place that has eagerly consumed its violent pasts at the expense of Black life? This question became particularly relevant in April 2018 when the city of Sugar Land, Texas, unearthed the remains of ninety-five former convict laborers on the grounds of a former sugar plantation turned prison farm. "Eating Dirt, Searching Archives" speculatively plays with a history of Sugar Land that does not rely on the city's industrial legacies. Instead, this essay turns to dirt as the archive of Texas's invisible Black geographies. Dirt is theorized as a means of preserving Black Texas life and memory alongside the difficulty of Sugar Land's violent pasts.
Giving fresh attention to Carrie Mae Weems's photography, this photo essay focuses on the artist's critical engagement with architecture through a series of black and white images in the "Louisiana Project." We argue that by contrasting the built environment of Greek Revival houses with industrial and impoverished neighborhood spaces in and around New Orleans, Weems leverages a subtle and searing critique of entrenched systems of racism and racial oppression. The photographs, centered on a mysterious witness figure dressed in period clothing and portrayed by Weems herself, point out long-lasting effects of racial hierarchy expressed in architectural and preservationist practices. Weems's critical subjectivity evokes the colonized body trapped in a mythos that created and still, in the twenty-first century, sustains systemic racism in economic and social modalities, particularly in the southeastern United States. Our article interprets Weems's photography, here, as an indictment of and a protest against continuing patterns of racism.
This article examines the role that Atlanta's Grant Park (1883) played in promoting the idea of social continuity between the Old and New Souths in the final decades of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s, Atlanta's leaders successfully leveraged their city's quick recovery from the Civil War to present it as an exemplar of New South success that would lead the region into an era of prosperity. As they did, they simultaneously sought to reassure white citizens that the march into the future did not require them to abandon their cultural attachment to the romanticized Old South. Consequently, they simulated the purported environmental and social conditions of the antebellum period within the grounds of Grant Park in order to reassure white Atlantans that central tenets of antebellum society would be maintained amid the push for modernization. The result was a space that privileged a conception of southern identity premised on white supremacy and patriarchal control above all others and codified social difference within the landscape.
This photo essay presents the moments and changes that the artist and her family have experienced during the modification of their very first home in the United States. It is based on the artist's exploration of cultural identity and understanding of what home means to a person. Having arrived to the United States as a child and adjusted to a new culture and community, the artist reflects on her immigrant parents finally being on the path to achieving the American Dream, the contrast of living in two different cultures, and discovering her identity and place.
This article considers the aesthetic and durational implications of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina (a largely hidden node in the American nuclear project, where 40 percent of the Cold War's plutonium was produced). As we come to understand the Anthropocene as a process-state at the edge of geo-history—or, in other words, an always "being-towards-death"—this article asks how a slippery (and often deceitful, in a white settler imaginary) relationship with time in the American South affects how we can imagine 20,000 years of living with a nuclear hangover. This sight- and site-based investigation looks at historical markers, nuclear semiotics, public sculpture, spatial and racial histories, and atomic ecologies to wonder how we are able, or unable, to perceive the radioactive leftovers of empire.
This article explores the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH) Florida Group display that opened in 1918 and provides insight into evolving US conceptions of Florida as a reptilian state on the eve of modernity. Scholars of the AMNH's historic animal dioramas—what one calls the museum's "windows on nature"—point to their importance within the institution's educational agenda. At a time when film and wildlife photography were fledgling technologies, these three-dimensional exhibits offered a form of "virtual reality," aided by the museum's claims to the authentic reproduction of nature. The Florida Reptile Group, however, has been overlooked by historians, despite being a major display for several decades; moreover, the diorama coincided with a period of rapid development in South Florida, a site of real estate, tourism, and population booms, including the reclamation of waterlogged environs that inspired the exhibit. Visitor perceptions of the display are unfortunately absent from the historical record, but we can glimpse the diorama for ourselves: photographs survive in the archive, allowing us to contemplate its physical representation but also interpretation of Florida. Building upon older ideas of the region as a primeval wetland, but crucially one being "conquered" by the inroads of drainage and development, the diorama highlights the fraught significance of reptiles and amphibians to how Florida has been popularly imagined, often in deeply ambivalent ways.
This introductory essay frames the theme of the Built/Unbuilt Issue of Southern Cultures by bringing attention to the incomplete and unrealized aspects of seemingly ordinary landscapes of the New South. Confronting the unusual form of Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, the essay defamiliarizes this popular site through an exploration of its broader social, economic, and artistic aims. Built in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, state-owned Dorton and the fairgrounds were one of the pioneering manifestations of a new regional development paradigm that sought to battle social and economic fragmentation and the rise of fascism in industrial societies. The essay traces the ambivalent reception of these technologies of development that resulted in their incomplete implementation and misuse, as in the case of cars and racialized suburban sprawl. Indicative of many of the projects examined in the issue, these incomplete sites have now become ordinary parts of the American South.
Front Porch essay for the Built/Unbuilt issue.
Poetry by Jessica Jacobs, who is also featured in the upcoming "Built/Unbuilt" issue (vol. 27, no. 2: Summer 2021).