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.
Welcome to Mapping Atlanta
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!