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Atlanta
Rodney Cook Sr. Park

Atlanta
© Picture Allianz/David Goldman

A new park development in one of Atlanta’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods has residents and city officials hoping for a renaissance of the area. It also raises the question of what parks do for cities and communities – as public spaces and historical places.  

Only a few blocks separate Vine City, a neighborhood on Atlanta’s Westside from Downtown, the city’s central business district, where CNN and Coca-Cola have their respective headquarters. The recently opened Mercedes-Benz-Stadium, the new 1.6 billion dollar home of the Atlanta Falcons, can be seen towering over the neighborhood. And yet, in Vine City, the signs of decades of neglect and decay and struggles with poverty, drugs, and high crime rates are visible almost everywhere. Many buildings in the area look dilapidated. The neighborhood has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis; many houses are still abandoned and boarded up.

A new public park development is supposed to change that. In May 2017, the groundbreaking of what is to become Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a 16-acre public park featuring a retention pond and bronze statues of civil rights leaders, was celebrated by Vine City residents and stakeholders of the park development. The road there was bumpy, however, and construction was halted by ground pollution and controversies over the park’s name. Those long debates and setbacks raised a lot of questions about whom public space is constructed for, and what it can do for, and to, a community.  
 

In May 2017, the groundbreaking of what is to become Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a 16-acre public park featuring a retention pond and bronze statues of civil rights leaders, was celebrated by Vine City residents and stakeholders of the park development.


Vine City used to be a thriving black middle-class neighborhood with a vibrant cultural and political life. In the middle of the 20th century, it was an important center for the African American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. moved his family to the area in 1967; his widow Coretta continued to live in the neighborhood until 2004. The famous soul food restaurant Paschal’s opened its doors in 1947 and soon became a meeting place for the likes of King, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Ralph Abernathy and Stokely Carmichael. The decline of the neighborhood began in the 1970s. White flight to the suburbs, disinvestment in the inner city and the development of the interstate system, which often cut through the middle of black neighborhoods left its mark on Atlanta’s in-town communities, as similar phenomena did in so many other American cities. In 2002, heavy rain severely damaged a large part of Vine City, exacerbated by an antiquated sewer system. Most residents were unable to rebuild their homes, so the city bought the plots, which then sat idle for over a decade – until 2011 when Rodney Cook Jr. proposed to rebuild Historic Mims Park on the empty lot.

The original Mims Park was located not far from where Rodney Cook Sr. Park will be constructed. Named after Atlanta mayor Livingston Mims and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, it provided early-20th-century Vine City residents with green space until it was razed in the 1950s to make room for an elementary school. Rodney Cook Jr., a descendant of Mims, says it was his late father, Rodney Cook Sr., who gave him the mission to rebuild the historic park and make it a monument to Atlanta’s civil rights history. Originally, the park was supposed to be named after Mims, just like the historic park had been. Additionally, a bronze statue of Livingston Mims, alongside those of famous leaders of the civil rights movement, was included in the park’s original plan. This decision, however, drew significant protest. Since Livingston Mims fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, many have seen the plan to honor him with a park in a black neighborhood as tone-deaf, especially at a time when activists across the South are trying to take down Confederate statues.

Rodney Cook Jr. then decided to name the park after his father, Rodney Cook Sr., who was a Republican Congressman in the 1960s, and an ally of the civil rights movement. The park will now feature statues of Dorothy Bolden, W.E.B. Du Bois, Grace Towns Hamilton, Hosea Williams, and Rodney Cook Sr.

Towering above it all will be a “peace column” with an observation deck and a statue by Tomochichi, the Native American who gifted the land that was to become the city of Savannah to Georgia’s founder James Oglethorpe.

All in all, the park’s design displays a narrative of racial harmony and understanding, to the extent that it might romanticize the history of race relations in the United States.

All in all, the park’s design displays a narrative of racial harmony and understanding, to the extent that it might romanticize the history of race relations in the United States. Rodney Cook Jr. strongly believes in the power of monuments that tell people “something good about their culture,” as he puts it in a 2015 promotional video produced by the Millennium Gate Museum. As founder of the National Monument Foundation and architect of Atlanta’s Millennium Gate, a classical triumphal arch, he knows about the symbolic value of public gestures, and the current plan for the park’s name and status seems to be a compromise many residents of the neighborhood can live with.

JR Murphy, a local resident, beekeeper and community gardener, seems more interested in the new public green space than anything else. He keeps the beehives and the vegetable patches of his Joy and Reflect Gardens just across the street from the park’s construction site. He says residents of Vine City have been advocating for the park since 2011, and that it will be a definite boon for the neighborhood. The plans for the park include space for an urban community garden, which can provide fresh produce and additional income to the residents of Vine City. JR Murphy also hopes to teach local kids about gardening, and that the experience of digging through the dirt, planting seedlings and watching things grow will help the community bond.

It is easy to forget the very tangible benefits public green space can bring to inner-city neighborhoods over debates of parks as historically charged places. They provide a place where neighbors and visitors can relax and exercise, and where the community can come together. Having access to green space improves physical and mental health, even for those who do not use the park to run or meditate, thanks to improved air quality and the reduction of urban heat islands. In the case of Vine City, the new park will also solve the problem of flooding that has plagued the area for so long. The plans include a retention pond that will collect stormwater runoff, a feature that has been used in another park in an in-town neighborhood. Historic Old Fourth Ward Park opened in 2011 and has completely transformed the neighborhood it is located in – with devastating consequences for its long-term residents.

A recent report by the grassroots advocacy group Housing Justice League on gentrification in inner-city Atlanta calls the Old Fourth Ward a “cautionary tale” for what revitalization efforts can do a neighborhood. Since the opening of the new park and its connection to the Beltline, Atlanta’s most ambitious urban development project, the Old Fourth Ward has seen dramatic changes in terms of racial and social makeup. When completed, the Beltline will sport a network of 22 miles of trails, light rail public transit, and parks built on an abandoned railway corridor circling Atlanta’s inner city. It is supposed to solve a lot of the problems that ail the sprawling city: lack of walkability, some of the nation’s worst traffic, and disconnected neighborhoods and communities. Combined with new parks and public green space, the Beltline is hailed to make the city of Atlanta more livable – the question is just who will benefit from these new amenities.

As a historically black neighborhood, the Old Fourth Ward boasts places rich in history, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home and the church where he became a pastor.

As a historically black neighborhood, the Old Fourth Ward boasts places rich in history, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home and the church where he became a pastor. The newly opened Historic Old Fourth Ward Park, the Beltline and a number of new restaurants and shops have significantly improved the neighborhood’s amenities and brought an influx of young and affluent residents. Ponce City Market, a mixed-use development featuring a food hall, boutiques, and residential units, opened in 2014 and, in its promotional material, portrays the neighborhood as a playground for young, white urbanites who don’t have to check price tags.

Debates about gentrification often lack the voices of those that are leaving a neighborhood as new residents are moving in. We often don’t know if they are glad to take the money that developers offer them for their homes, so they can finally move to a safer, quieter area. The Housing Justice League report finds, however, that most of the people they have interviewed don’t want to leave their homes and the networks they have built. Many of the residents who were priced out of their in-town neighborhoods due to new development connected with the Beltline did not move to the suburbs, but only a few miles away – to stay close to their friends, families, and communities. Especially in places that breathe history, such as Vine City or the Old Fourth Ward, people are often deeply invested in their neighborhoods, despite the problems they may face. In addition, moving to the suburbs isn’t a solution for many low-income residents, since jobs are scarce and the racial politics of 20th-century suburbanization have prevented public transport connections to the inner city.
 

Treating the Old Fourth Ward as a cautionary tale might help put political measures in place that can help prevent the displacement of Vine City’s original residents, once Rodney Cook Sr. Park is opened.


Treating the Old Fourth Ward as a cautionary tale might help put political measures in place that can help prevent the displacement of Vine City’s original residents, once Rodney Cook Sr. Park is opened. Some of those programs already exist, such as down payment assistance and tax credits that can help longtime residents buy the homes they live in or renovate existing property. Since most families rent in low-income neighborhoods, rent control laws would be helpful – unfortunately, they are illegal in the state of Georgia. Devising and implementing measures to prevent gentrification and displacement of course also takes political will, which has been lacking in a city that has focused on dazzling new developments and innovative infrastructure projects.

Asked about the danger of gentrification and displacement once the park is done and the prime-location neighborhood becomes attractive to investors and developers, park proponent JR Murphy shrugs and says, “What will happen will happen.” Surely, resisting new developments that can improve livability, health and public safety in a community is not a viable alternative. Deprived neighborhoods deserve investments in green space and improved transit. If these are the only measures that are taken, however, residents are in danger of not being able to keep up with rising costs. They also need funding for public schools, health centers, affordable housing and job creation. Otherwise, the bronze statues of Atlanta’s civil rights leaders may soon be the only reminders of Vine City’s lively African American history.

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