Over the course of the next week, colleges and universities across Atlanta will restart classes for the fall semester. But teaching classes and offering degrees is only one – sometimes small – aspect of what universities do nowadays. While fielding sports teams is obviously one element of this larger project, universities are just as oriented towards the accumulation of property (both real and intellectual) and the development of real estate.
Of course universities need space for buildings to house classrooms, offices and dormitories, but the modern university’s appetite for real estate goes far beyond these bare necessities. In Atlanta and across the country, colleges and universities buy up nearby properties not just to meet their present day needs, but also to get rid of nuisances nearby and speculate on future growth. Universities aren’t just a passive supporter of the urban growth machine; they’re an active player in it. And just like any other landlord or real estate developer, they use many of the same tactics for concealing the full extent of their holdings, registering their properties under different corporate entities and with different mailing addresses. But having access to bulk parcel data allows us to cut through some of this opacity by cross-referencing ownership records to identify (in most cases) who actually owns or controls a given property.
In the City of Atlanta, the nine universities with a significant presence collectively own 800 parcels totaling nearly 1,500 acres, which are appraised at nearly $2.5 billion – all of which is untaxed because of the universities’ non-profit status. But many of these investments, from Georgia Tech jumping over the connector to construct Tech Square in the early 2000s to Georgia State’s downtown growth and more recent purchase of Turner Field and expansion into Summerhill, aren’t necessarily meant to serve the academic mission of the universities, but rather to promote certain kinds of economic development and, usually, gentrification.
By far the biggest university landowner within Atlanta is Emory University, much of which sat outside the city limits until its annexation by the city on January 1, 2018. Even if one were to aggregate all the public institutions in the city that are governed by the University System of Georgia in one group, and all the historically Black colleges and universities that make up the Atlanta University Center in another, their 527 and 247 acres, respectively, would still not come close to Emory’s 700+ acres within the city limits (along with a good deal more outside the city in DeKalb County). These properties are cumulatively valued at over $750 million, which, as we might remind you, is probably an underestimate because of how the tax assessors work around here.
University # of Parcels # of Acres Total Appraised Value of All Properties Emory 123 705 $753,316,795 Georgia Tech 361 363 $672,445,900 Morehouse 150 108 $106,716,100 Georgia State 78 99 $595,179,900 Clark Atlanta 61 85 $113,509,700 Atlanta Metro 5 65 $25,329,900 Spelman 5 47 $18,478,800 SCAD 13 15 $123,185,800 Morris Brown 4 8 $7,970,900 TOTAL 800 1495 $2,416,133,795
Meanwhile, despite having just the second-smallest footprint by acreage with 13 properties taking up roughly 15 acres of land, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta holdings are disproportionately higher valued. In fact, SCAD’s properties are more valuable than each of Atlanta’s HBCUs. Even Morehouse College’s 107 acres of land and Clark Atlanta University’s 84 acres are valued at just $106.7 million and $113.5 million, respectively, while SCAD’s much smaller footprint is appraised at over $123 million. We’re totally positive this has nothing to do with the historic devaluation of property in predominantly Black parts of the city, though.
Apart from the extent of their holdings and their valuation, each of the city’s universities also displays its own unique spatial pattern of property ownership. Even though we typically think of college campuses as being largely self-contained, most of Atlanta’s universities have a bit more scattered pattern of property ownership, across the city. For instance, Emory’s various healthcare facilities are located in Midtown several miles from its main campus, while Georgia Tech holds various properties scattered north of its main campus, and SCAD’s combination of buildings stretches from the northern edges of Midtown down to Ponce. Even Morehouse and Clark Atlanta own properties quite far from their main campuses. And then there’s Georgia State, who besides the recent expansion into Summerhill, has always been atypical in that the university is scattered throughout downtown, only rarely for more than a couple of consecutive blocks. If we were to look beyond the city limits this pattern would only be exacerbated for Georgia State thanks to its subsumption of Perimeter College several years ago.
But given these trends in universities acting as landlords and developers, the only thing seeming to stand in the way of their continued expansion is the egregiously high property values and sales prices we see everywhere else across the city and metro.
If you’re a Fulton County homeowner, it’s that time of year to have just recently received your latest property tax assessment. And chances are, that assessment has gone up, meaning you’ll be paying more in property taxes. But those increases in property taxes aren’t equal across the county.
Thanks to the fact that Fulton County has posted the previous 15 years of parcel data online (and the hard work of my excellent undergrad research assistant Laurel Sparks collating all that data), we can analyze the trends in how tax assessments have changed over that time period.
Looking only at the 300,000 or so single-family homes in Fulton County over the last six years, we can see that the median home has increased in value by 73% over that time period, which is pretty significant in and of itself. But the brightest colors on the map below indicate those properties that appreciated in value much more rapidly over that time, and they’re primarily concentrated in Atlanta’s historically Black neighborhoods to the south and west of downtown. Indeed, of the 50,000 or so homes that grew 4x faster than the median home from 2017 through 2022, just over 80% of these are in majority Black census tracts. It isn’t like all of these homes are only growing in value because they’re getting flipped; only about half of those 50,000 or so most rapidly appreciating homes have even changed hands over the course of the last several years.
The thing about these patterns of property value appreciation is that they are fairly new. Looking at the two previous five-year periods from 2007-2011 and 2012-2016, we can see two important differences. First, the median change for each of these periods was quite a bit lower across the country, at 43% from 2007-2011 and just 26% from 2012-2016. But second, during both of these time periods, the places with the most rapidly appreciating properties weren’t in Atlanta’s historically Black neighborhoods (with a couple of much more isolated exceptions), but instead in the predominantly white parts of Atlanta and northern Fulton County, places that are already replete with wealth and much more capable of shouldering rapid property tax increases. To add insult to injury, throughout the last decade, large commercial properties like Ponce City Market have been dramatically under-assessed – thereby paying much reduced tax bills once their property tax breaks expire – meaning that these more recent changes represent a dramatic shifting of the cost burden for Atlanta’s growth onto those who should least be asked to shoulder it.
Together, these maps show that while gentrification undoubtedly has the greatest potential to disrupt the lives of tenants without security of tenure, they aren’t the only group whose homes and neighborhoods are threatened by influxes of capital and rising housing costs. Atlanta’s low- and moderate-income homeowners, even those who have paid off their mortgages and own their homes outright, are also vulnerable to gentrification because of rapid changes in property tax assessments that outpace their incomes.
These increased property tax burdens can make for quite the dilemma. On the one hand, homeowners could try to avoid paying for awhile, but risk losing their home altogether, as our insanely over-compensated Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has a particular predilection for placing liens on tax delinquent homeowners and then selling those liens in bulk to private investors and speculators who can then charge massive interest and fees, and ultimately take control over the property. Or, if one is able to scrounge up the money to pay the growing tax bill year after year, you end up having less money to spend on other necessities, including home repairs (which may then lead to additional punitive measures from code enforcement). Once that dilemma is apparent, selling and getting out is often the only solution available, even if it means ‘willingly’ selling to a speculator who’s massively underpaying for the property. Either way, chances are that financially precarious residents are going to end up losing their largest stores of wealth for pennies on the dollar, and the speculators who take over will likely replace them with someone else willing to pay even more for the same property.
Of course, there are some local programs meant to help stem the tide of this kind of equity stripping and tax-driven gentrification, from the general use of homestead exemptions to clinics for appealing assessment increases (a de rigueur practice for more affluent white homeowners trying to shirk their property tax responsibilities) to the BeltLine’s program for helping homeowners in neighborhoods around the south and west sides of the trail to actually pay their increased property tax bills. But what we really need as a city is a set of policies like the property tax circuit breaker proposed by the Housing Justice League, or even a progressive property tax, which don’t rely on legacy homeowners having to take initiative themselves or rely on charity to be able to stay in place. Because a place is nothing without its people.
Last month, I happened upon a tweet from an Atlanta newcomer inquiring about the logic and utility of Atlanta’s street naming conventions. You know what I’m talking about: the ordinal directions appended to the end of the city’s street names, always letting you know which of the city’s four quadrants you’re in at any given time? That thing that, like a newcomer, we all recognize but really don’t have a very good understanding of? Well, it seemed like just the thing for some cartographic investigation…
The City of Atlanta’s quadrant system is straightforward enough. Four mostly straight lines radiate in the cardinal directions from the city’s midpoint at Five Points, creating four not-exactly-equally-sized quadrants due to the fact that Five Points isn’t actually the geographic center of the city anymore. The dividing line between east and west is Peachtree Street north of Five Points (save for a stretch where the line jogs a bit and picks up on West Peachtree Street) and Capitol Avenue SE to the south. The division of north and south is marked by Edgewood Avenue NE to the east and MLK Jr. Drive SW to the west once you get a little bit outside of the blocks surrounding Five Points. But things get a little bit complicated in a few places. If you want the full, point-by-point description of where these dividing lines are, look no further than the city’s 1977 code of ordinances which first enshrined these divisions officially with this particularly wordy description:
North and south line. Beginning at the center line of Lake Forrest Drive and the city limits boundary in Land Lots 119 and 94 of the 17th District of Fulton County, and running thence southerly along the center line of Lake Forrest Drive in Land Lots 94, 95, 96, 97, 117, 118 and 119 to that point at the center of Powers Ferry Road; thence southeasterly along the center of Powers Ferry Road in Land Lot 97 to the center of Roswell Road; thence south along the center of Roswell Road in Land Lots 97, 98 and 99 to the center of Peachtree Road; thence south along the center of Peachtree Road to that point coinciding with the line between Land Lots 113 and 100; thence due south on the center of Peachtree Road along the line between Land Lots 113 and 100; thence due south along the line between Land Lots 112 and 101 to a point intersecting with the center of Lindberg Drive; thence southwesterly along the center of Peachtree Road in Land Lots 112, 111 and 110 to the intersection of the center line of Collier Road; thence continuing southeasterly in Land Lots 110 and 109 to the intersection of the center of West Peachtree Street; thence continuing due south along the center of West Peachtree Street and along the line between Land Lots 109 and 104, 108 and 105, 107 and 106; thence continuing due south along the center of West Peachtree Street to Tenth Street; thence slightly southeast along the center of West Peachtree Street between Tenth Street and Eighth Street; thence continuing due south in the 14th District of Fulton County along the center of West Peachtree Street in Land Lots 49, 50 and 51 to the center of Peachtree Street; thence due south along the center of Peachtree Street and along the line between Land Lots 50 and 51 to Forsyth Street; thence continuing southwesterly along the center of Peachtree Street in Land Lots 78 and 77 to the center of the right-of-way of the Western and Atlantic Railroad; thence southeasterly along the center line of said right-of-way of said Western and Atlantic and Georgia Railroad to Piedmont Avenue in Land Lot 52; thence continuing southwesterly along the center of Piedmont Avenue to the center of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive; thence southeasterly along Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to the center of Capitol Avenue; thence southwesterly along the center of Capitol Avenue to a point coinciding with the line between Land Lots 77 and 52; thence due south along the center of Capitol Avenue and along the line between Land Lots 77 and 52, 76 and 53, 75 and 54, and 74 and 55 to a point at the intersection of the center of McDonough Boulevard; thence continuing due south to the southern city limits boundary along the line between Land Lots 73 and 56, 72 and 57, 71 and 58, 70 and 59, 69 and 60, 68 and 61, 67 and 62, 66 and 63, and 65 and 64.
And that’s literally just for the dividing line running north and south!
But the adoption of this particular way of organizing the city’s streets goes a good bit further back in time. The earliest evidence I can find of Atlanta’s adoption of this mostly unnecessary quadrant system is the 1926 map of the city’s proposed house numbering system seen below on the left, as found in the GSU Library’s Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Collection. As the map makes clear, the quadrant system served as a way of prescribing street numbers for every corner of the city by assigning them to cells, which were then assigned a range of street numbers depending on which direction the streets in those cells run.
The 1930 map from the same collection shown on the right, however, more closely resembles the contours of the city’s present-day quadrants, particularly with respect to the way the dividing line running vertically along Capitol Avenue SE takes a brief detour along the railroad tracks moving to the west to meet Peachtree Street at its point of origin before returning to its northern course. This little jig is, of course, what makes the vertex of the four quadrants sit precisely at the Five Points intersection downtown. By 1933 (at the very latest), the city’s quadrants were in full force, as seen in the addresses listed in the city’s public directory for that year. But that’s the mostly straightforward part that nobody really needed maps to understand.
One more interesting aspect of Atlanta’s quadrants is that they actually extend well beyond the city limits in all four directions, as you can see in this map of all the streets in Fulton and DeKalb counties that have been assigned a directional suffix.
Atlanta is also not the only city or county in the metro area to use a quadrant system for their streets, though it is certainly the most dedicated to the schtick. Bartow, Cobb, Gwinnett and Rockdale counties all use an extensive quadrant system, as does the city of Covington in Newton County.
There are a couple of significant oddities about Atlanta’s quadrant system, though. First, some streets deviate from the system by having no quadrant assigned to them at all. This includes everything from interstate highways to minor streets that run no more than a block or two, but it also includes the city’s most famous street of all: Peachtree Street.
Second, a number of streets within the city seem to have had their directional suffixes misallocated. For example, while Vance Street SW is clearly in the northwest quadrant, Westview Place NW is clearly in the southwest quadrant. There are a total of 14 different streets in the city that have had this little mishap, and they’re present in all four of the city’s quadrants and in almost every conceivable combination. It should be noted that this figure does not include streets that run continuously from one quadrant to another without their suffix changing. Because these 14 streets exist entirely within a quadrant that their name doesn’t reflect, I call these Atlanta’s exclave streets.
While noting the existence of these deviations from the norm is one thing, figuring out why they are the way they are is another. If not all streets have to have a directional suffix attached to them, why have we given a few handfuls worth of streets suffixes that don’t actually correspond to their location within the quadrant system? If the same street changes names on either side of the quadrant boundary, why do we need the quadrants to differentiate things for us? Answering those questions is going to have to be a job for somebody else though… I’m just the guy who makes maps!
Over the past week, the AJC has been running an excellent multi-part investigation of the housing conditions at some of Atlanta’s most notoriously dilapidated complexes, broadening out from the case of the now-condemned Forest Cove Apartments. While the whole situation is infuriating, I was particularly taken with the second part of the series investigating the absentee slumlord Ben Beroukhai, who lives in the lap of luxury in Beverly Hills while extracting rents from poor tenants in Atlanta’s historically marginalized Black neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Like so many landlords, Beroukhai has acted with impunity, receiving over 100 criminal violations in a single complaint with no punishment whatsoever, while people living on the streets are arrested and thrown in jail for the crime of simply existing. But what struck me the most about the AJC’s reporting is how this is a tale as old as time (and one I’ve done research on before!), where the enrichment of people like Ben Beroukhai and places like Beverly Hills comes at the expense of poor renters in Atlanta whose paychecks go to fund someone else’s gaudy house and luxury cars.
Ben Beroukhai is just one of many absentee landlords who extract financial resources from the city and its poorest residents in exchange for often shoddy, unlivable housing, all while being aided and abetted by local officials and judges who will almost always side with landlords rather than tenants. So while putting Beroukhai’s properties in their geographic context is one thing, thinking about the broader geographies of absentee landlordism in Atlanta can help us shift from thinking about this as a problem of ‘one bad apple’ to realizing just how pervasive these forms of speculation and exploitation are, and how other people and places are able to profit off of the immiseration of Atlanta’s residents and neighborhoods.
The first step in our analysis was identifying all the multi-family residential properties across Fulton County with 16 or more living units within them. Unfortunately this was limited to Fulton County and not the entire City of Atlanta or the surrounding metro area, due to the fact that Fulton County is the only one of the core metro counties that makes the necessary data available as part of their property parcel database (hint, hint other counties!). This filtering yielded a total of 996 different parcels across the county, which are visible as orange dots in the map up above. These properties are collectively home to over 150,000 total units and $20 billion in appraised value.
But splicing those thousand or so large multi-family buildings based on their ownership geographies tells us a more complicated story. Looking only at those absentee-owned complexes – defined somewhat conservatively here as those with listed owner addresses outside the state of Georgia – we can see just how much property these landlords control and how much value they’re able to extract from tenants across the city. Of the larger set mentioned above, 471 parcels totaling 94,042 units and $14,010,136,612 in appraised value are owned by people or corporations based outside of the state. While those 471 parcels represent only 47.3% of the unique large multi-family parcels in the dataset, they represent a disproportionate share of the total number of housing units and appraised value, at 61.6% and 67.8% respectively. So even though the more locally-based multi-family landlords own more properties in total, it is the absentee landlords who are able to influence (often negatively) the lives of tenants actually living in their complexes to a much greater degree.
The trio of maps below show these relationships of power extending out from Atlanta to the places where these properties are owned. The lines on the map connect the locations of the properties in question with the places where they are owned, highlighting the fundamental connection between the sites of exploitation and the people and places that profit from it. The circles on each map symbolize the aggregate number of absentee-owned parcels, housing units and appraised value per metropolitan statistical area, highlighting which places across the country (and beyond!) the wealth and resources extracted from Atlanta end up flowing to.
While the country’s largest metro areas – New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago – tend to have the largest concentrations across all three metrics, there are some interesting anomalies in the data. The final map below represents one effort to highlight some of these anomalies. In this map, each of the three variables are shown as proportional circles simultaneously. In effect, how spaced out or clustered the three rings are for a given metro area indicates the relationship between them for a given area. If the three rings are more tightly clustered, they show a relative parity across the three variables; if they are more spaced out, they indicate a disproportionate relationship, with one value for that place punching above its expected weight. For example, if the red ring is considerably more spaced out from the others, it would indicate that the properties owned by absentee landlords in that place are more valuable on average than one would expect based on the total number of parcels and units contained within them. This disproportionate relationship is even more true when the order of the rings gets inverted, with the either the green or blue rings being the outermost ring rather than the red ring representing appraised value.
Though it doesn’t take living halfway across the country to exploit one’s tenants, these dynamics of absenteeism across Atlanta’s large multi-family complexes highlights a troubling fact: what wealth and resources could be saved by some of the city’s poorest families are instead being shipped out-of-state to wealthy individuals and large corporations with no connections or obligations to the city except for their financial dependence on Atlanta’s most marginalized residents, who we’ve unfortunately done so very little to help or protect.
In a recent piece in The Architectural Review, Marianela D’Aprile examines the significance of one ever-proliferating element of our collective urban landscapes: the self-storage facility. D’Aprile draws a parallel between self storage units and luxury condos, another use of urban space that’s largely devoid of human life, and yet similarly important for the functioning of capitalist urbanization. Even though neither is meant for actual human habitation, their importance comes in their ability to store either one’s excess wealth or excess material belongings. As D’Aprile writes:
“Practically speaking, storage units hold items for people during times of transition: relocating to a different city, changing homes following a break-up or a divorce, a loved one’s death. These things, of course, happen to almost everyone, so these facilities seem to fill a nearly universal need.”
Despite filling a nearly universal need, I suspected that this need isn’t met in a geographically universal way. Indeed, thanks to another recent piece from RentCafe that I came across more or less at the same time, my hunch was confirmed.
As the table below shows, the geography of self storage space varies quite dramatically from place-to-place, and that’s true even when looking at just the top 10 metro areas. Part way down the table, you can see that Atlanta already ranks as one of the nation’s leading metros when it comes to self storage space. Atlanta already ranks 8th nationally with nearly 40 million square feet of self storage space in inventory, with another 3.5 million planned or under construction as of March 2022, a figure which ranks us 7th nationally.
MSAs by Population Total Population (2020) MSAs by Total Storage Space Inventory Total Inventory (by sq ft) MSAs by Storage Space Under Construction Planned Storage Space (by sq ft) #1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 20,140,470 #1 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 71,668,813 #1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 11,863,734 #2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 13,200,998 #2 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 71,653,718 #2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 6,324,477 #3 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 9,618,502 #3 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 68,285,797 #3 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 5,378,565 #4 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 7,637,387 #4 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 67,915,312 #4 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 4,629,836 #5 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 7,122,240 #5 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 48,456,168 #5 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 3,963,007 #6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 6,385,162 #6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 45,634,594 #6 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 3,852,158 #7 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 6,245,051 #7 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 40,311,628 #7 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 3,541,086 #8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA 6,089,815 #8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA 39,826,205 #8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 3,006,318 #9 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 6,138,333 #9 Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ 35,663,505 #9 Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 2,698,725 #10 Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ 4,845,832 #10 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 33,753,663 #10 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 2,608,456
While there’s a pretty close connection between self storage space and population that makes Atlanta’s top 10 ranking unsurprising, these metro-level rankings make it clear that the geography of storing our stuff doesn’t actually match up neatly with where people are as a whole. And while part of RentCafe’s analysis breaks down the siting of these new storage facilities by urban vs. suburban locales – with Atlanta’s recent construction heavily tilted towards urban centers rather than our sprawling suburbs – their analysis doesn’t give us any more granular of a look at the geography of self storage and what it might mean.
So using data from the artist formerly known as ReferenceUSA, I collected data on all the businesses in the Atlanta metro area that are primarily coded under the NAICS heading for “Lessors of Miniwarehouses and Self-Storage Units”. This yielded a total of 854 different locations. While just the four largest brands – Public Storage (113 locations), Extra Space Storage (100 locations), Life Storage (56 locations) and Cubesmart Self Storage (51 locations) – account for a significant percentage of this total, the majority of these 800+ self storage facilities don’t seem to be associated with a larger chain or brand.
After cleaning the dataset by deleting 61 locations without an exact location, I aggregated the remaining 793 locations to a uniform hexagonal grid spread across the metro area, representing the density of self storage facilities as proportionally sized hexagons on the map you can see below.
Based solely on the location of these storage facilities, it’s evident that despite the seemingly universal need for such places, this demand is met more in some parts of the city than others. Most of these storage spaces are located in the metro’s core counties, especially concentrated along some of the key highways and thoroughfares, with relatively few in the furthest reaches of the suburbs. Even though the difference isn’t absolute, there is also an obvious divide in the clustering between the predominantly white and predominantly Black parts of the Atlanta metro, with many fewer located in the southwestern parts of the city and surrounding counties that tend to have much larger Black populations.
While we as humans of course require some number of material objects to live, and especially to live comfortably, the proliferation of places for our things to live in the absence of affordable places for actual people to live suggest there’s a fundamental imbalance between the two; between how space is being utilized, who it is being utilized by and for. The structure of our society and economy is such that it makes more sense to devote tens of millions of square feet of space to store peoples’ things rather than actually create spaces where people can live with their things in a safe and healthy home.
Last summer, my parents made the trip to Atlanta to visit me for the first time since I’d moved here in the midst of the pandemic. In an effort to avoid either sitting at home the entire time or going out and exposing ourselves to COVID, we spent a lot of time driving around the city and looking at things from the car window. As is probably completely common for anyone not from around here, my dad almost immediately remarked upon the repetition of the word “peach” in the names of streets, businesses and nearly everything else across the city’s landscape. Putting my geographer hat on (the real question is whether I ever take it off!), I wondered whether this phenomena was universal, or whether there was something unique about the distribution of these peach names?
In an effort to answer this question authoritatively, I used the USGS National Transportation Dataset for the state of Georgia to identify all streets, roads and highways across the state that included the word “peach” in their name. These are what I call Georgia’s “Peach Streets”. After accounting for divided highways or parkways that duplicate the mileage for a given road, I calculate that the state of Georgia is home to approximately 217.5 total miles of Peach Streets.
But, as I suspected might be the case, these Peach Streets aren’t evenly distributed across all 159 of Georgia’s counties. While most of the state’s counties have at least one Peach Street, they are usually extremely short and less than a mile in length. Meanwhile, just the top five counties listed below are home to over half of the state’s total Peach Street mileage. Metro Atlanta counties like Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb, which rank #1, #2 and #4 statewide in total mileage of Peach Streets, are home not only to numerous Peach Streets each – the 20 county Atlanta region famously has 71 different streets with some variation of the name Peachtree – but also individual Peach Streets that stretch a dozen or more miles on their own.
#1. Gwinnett 39.13 miles #2. Fulton 29.32 miles #3. Richmond 16.47 miles #4. DeKalb 15.45 miles #5. Forsyth 14.60 miles Top 5 Counties by Total Mileage of Peach Streets
Conspicuously absent from the Top 5 Counties is Peach County in central Georgia, which has just the 6th most miles of Peach Streets in the state, despite being named after peaches itself! As is true for many counties across the state, nearly all of Peach County’s 11 miles of Peach Streets are concentrated on a single road, in this case the roughly 9.5 miles of Peach Parkway that run across the county. Third-ranked Richmond and fifth-ranked Forsyth counties have a similar dynamic, with almost all of their total mileage being made up by Peach Orchard Road and Peachtree Parkway, respectively.
Despite Fulton County ranking second in total mileage of Peach Streets across the state, it’s really the City of Atlanta pulling most of the weight for the county. Nearly 22 of the 29 total miles of Peach Streets in Fulton County actually lie within Atlanta’s city limits. If we were to separate out the city from the surrounding county, Atlanta proper would rank second statewide behind only Gwinnett County, which sits far out in the lead thanks to the 23.5 miles of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard that run diagonally across the length of the county.
All that being said, it’s important to note that for all the concentration of Peach Street mileage in a handful counties, a number of Georgia counties have no Peach Streets whatsoever! Indeed, of the Peach State’s 159 counties, 45 (or nearly 30%) have no streets named after peaches at all. So while we can’t be entirely sure the reason why so many places have a dearth of Peach Streets, their absence casts some doubt on just how peachy things are across the Peach State.
Several years back, the sociologist Kieran Healy made note of the fact that when it comes to mapping pretty much any social phenomenon across the United States, there’s a good chance that the resulting spatial pattern will be strongly correlated with one of two other variables. First is population density, with the densest counties scattered across the US in the heart of large urban centers. Or, second, the share of Black population, which tends to be tightly clustered across the South in what is often referred to as, unsurprisingly, the Black Belt. Healy called the resulting maps of these two variables America’s ur-choropleths.
To begin this indefinite experiment in mapping all things Atlanta, I thought it worth starting with what I already know to be Atlanta’s ur-choropleth; the one variable whose spatial pattern will be mimicked by so many other spatial patterns, regardless of how tangential the two may seem. Much like the country as a whole, so many maps of Atlanta could easily be confused for maps of the city’s Black population.
Using data at the scale of the Census tract, this map shows all those parts of Atlanta that are majority Black, and all of those that aren’t. But in Atlanta, a city that only recently shifted from being majority Black to plurality Black for the first time in 50 years, anything that’s not Black is pretty much automatically assumed to mean white. And that’s because for pretty much the duration of Atlanta’s existence, it’s been a city marked by the perpetual back and forth between Black and white.
Long story short, most variables mapped across the city of Atlanta are going to mimic this spatial pattern, with one cluster of values for predominantly Black neighborhoods and another for predominantly white, with the dividing line running diagonally from the city’s northwest to southeast. While there are the occasional anomalies, this pattern holds for everything from household income, to poverty, to educational attainment, and countless other variables one might typically map to help make sense of the big picture for a given city. That this is true only further engrains the division between Black Atlanta and white Atlanta into the spatial imaginaries of all the city’s residents.
It even makes it into the city’s master planning document meant to chart the future of changes to the built environment. Though framed through the ostensibly non-racial lens of growth, this map of the ‘growth line’ from page 130 the Atlanta City Design reproduces almost exactly Atlanta’s ur-choropleth shown above. Even though the line turns a bit more horizontal as it moves into the city’s east side, the association between “Strong/Stable Growth” north of the line in the city’s white neighborhoods and areas of “Low/No Growth; Decline” south of the line in the Black neighborhoods to the south should be entirely intuitive to any Atlantan.
But given that we don’t always share an understanding of what counts as Atlanta, it’s important that we look beyond the city’s jurisdictional borders to the more nebulous place we call Atlanta to anyone who doesn’t live here and know the difference. So extrapolating out our Black/white binary to the metro area’s five core counties, the pattern now looks something like this…
Rather than just a diagonal line cutting across the city running from the northwest to the southeast, the pattern now looks like wedge centered on Moreland Avenue running to the northwest through Fulton and Cobb, and to the northeast through DeKalb and Gwinnett. This too is Atlanta’s ur-choropleth if you think of the place as being more than just what falls within the formal jurisdiction of the city.
The problem, of course, is that despite the longstanding mental image of an Atlanta divided between Black and white, it’s not quite that simple anymore. While it once would have been entirely fair to assume that an Atlanta neighborhood with a 60% Black population would have a 40% white population, this has been complicated by the fact that Atlanta is an increasingly multi-racial metropolis, with a significant and ever-growing number of people who don’t fit the Black/white binary the city is used to thinking about. We even boast the most diverse square mile in the county, the Ellis Island of the South.
In fact, a lot of those places labeled as ‘white’ on the maps above aren’t majority white at all. Some aren’t even plurality white. They are instead metro Atlanta’s pockets of predominantly Latinx and Asian neighborhoods stretching out into the suburbs along Buford Highway to the northeast, along with some other scattered areas across the northern part of the metro area. There are even a few places previously labeled ‘white’ that are in fact plurality (but not majority) Black.
Given those simplifications in the previous iterations, perhaps it’s really this map that’s Atlanta’s ur-choropleth? Or maybe Atlanta has more than one ur-choropleth after all? Either way, you’re sure to be seeing a lot more of these patterns in the future.
Everything happens somewhere.
It just so happens that a lot of different things happen in Atlanta, and a lot of things that happen outside of Atlanta are in some way connected to or derived from things that happened here. Atlanta is one of the most interesting and unique cities in the US, if not the world, but it’s also one that’s been chronically understudied relative to other large cities. Even if more were written about Atlanta on a consistent basis, the city’s rapid changes necessitate ever more investigation of what’s happening, where and why.
Atlanta consistently has some of the highest levels of income inequality of any city or metro across the entire United States. And while the city had a reputation for being one of the most affordable large metros, the last several years have seen some of the most rapid housing price increases of anywhere across the country, with unchecked gentrification running rampant in some historically Black neighborhoods. Real estate speculators aren’t just coming in and buying up single family homes and building glitzy new mixed-use condo developments, they’re also transforming the broader cultural landscape of the city, changing the names of longstanding neighborhoods and changing the people that live in them too. But it’s precisely those people and places who have been most threatened and affected by the city’s changes that helped to make the Atlanta we all know and love (and sometimes hate).
All of these issues are fundamentally about geography, about how places are the way they are and how they change over time and how all of that matters to the people that occupy those places. And what better way than to explore these fundamentally geographic questions than through the most explicitly geographic medium there is: maps.
People love maps. There are multiple Twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers who do nothing but just post pictures of (sometimes extremely mediocre) maps. Even our former president was said to love maps. Seriously, I get it. I love maps too.
But as I wrote some years ago, it isn’t enough to love maps. You also have to be critical of them, and approach the seemingly objective and neutral visualization of spatial data in the same way you might approach any other kind of text, questioning the motives and possible impacts a map might have based on who made it, what they focus on, what rhetorical strategies they deploy. Because just like any other text or technology, maps are anything but an objective, scientific, apolitical mirror of nature. They reflect – if sometimes in a distorted way – the thoughts and values of those that make them. They are fundamentally subjective documents, but which carry an air of authority precisely because they’re so intuitive to us. We tend to think that if it’s on the map, it must be true.
This is as much an opportunity as a challenge though. Rather than just use maps as a way of showing what is, we can use mapping as a way of calling things into question, as my colleague Jeremy Crampton has written. We can use maps to uncover spatial patterns and processes we’d never thought to look at before, to explore why things are the way they are where they are, who’s responsible, who benefits and who loses. Maps can not only help us to understand the rapid changes taking place across Atlanta’s landscape, they can also (hopefully) help us resist them and assert an alternative future for the city.
By day, I make my living researching and teaching about maps and data and the ways they are – and can be – used to shape our understandings of the places we live in (in case that’s not obvious already). But some days, the typical academic research and publishing process doesn’t really feel like it lets me do all the kinds of work that I want to do or think is important. But maps and words are still the medium I’m most comfortable working in, even if it isn’t “for work”. And it’s been several years since I was making maps and writing for a more public audience on a consistent basis, and I’ve been itching to get back into it.
So taking a page out of the books of fellow geographers at Bostonography and Detroitography, I wanted to start this blog as a way of both giving myself an outlet for some of my maps and writing that don’t fit so neatly into the conventional academic format, as well as providing me the opportunity to get to know my adopted home all the better. Since moving back to Atlanta in the early days of the pandemic, I’ve been relatively isolated from a lot of the things that drew me back here after my brief foray living here from 2015-2016. Like most everyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time pent up in my apartment, and hardly enough getting out and enjoying the city and all it has to offer. But digging into data about the city and understanding the social and spatial structures that shape it has been a halfway decent replacement, and something I want to share with people besides my partner and dog.
The hope is that the maps and ideas I share on this blog will run the gamut from the whimsical to the critical, but all with an eye towards providing an alternative, fundamentally geographic, perspective on Atlanta and its environs. Whether it’s probing the depths of how inequality is engrained in the fabric of the city or exploring Atlanta’s everyday eccentricities, if it’s got maps and is about Atlanta, it’ll have a home here. New posts may not be entirely regular, but just having a place to put ideas and works-in-progress is half the point of doing this in the first place.
Hope you all enjoy!