Grant Park, Atlanta: An Old South Landscape for a New South City

Steve Gallo, Architectural Historian at 106 Group, is a published historian whose work focuses on built environments of the United States. He brings skills in researching neglected histories to his work in cultural resources. This summer, Steve’s article on the history of Atlanta’s Grant Park was published in an issue of Southern Cultures. In an inhouse interview, Steve shared his thoughts and insights on an Old South landscape for a new south city and the history and complexity that comes with it.

Steve on site surveying for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources
To what can you attribute your interest in history?

I truly became interested in history during college, when I was introduced to a profoundly influential teacher. He opened my eyes to the fact that studying history is not simply a matter of memorizing important events and dates, but critically examining the stories that we tell ourselves about the past in order to better understand our present. I have been inspired by that idea ever since.

Describe what cultural landscape means to you.

When I think of a cultural landscape, I think of physical spaces or geographical areas that hold significance for groups of people, specific communities, or society more broadly. These can be landscapes that are consciously designed to have cultural significance, or those that acquire significance over time. I’m particularly interested in how the meaning of such places evolve over time. Because the way we relate to the past is constantly changing, the significance of a particular cultural landscape can differ depending on who is viewing it and when.

How can the development of a cultural landscape shape the identity of a community?

A cultural landscape can shape the identity of a community by memorializing its history physically proclaiming its values. Such places—particularly when they are highly visible and in heavily-populated areas—can project a message that tells outsiders what to think about a particular community and tells members of that community what to think about themselves. The effects of both undoubtedly influence community identity.

How can that shaped identity be positive; how can it be negative?

These effects can be positive in the sense that they foster community cohesion. The identity that is generated by a cultural landscape has the potential to bring members of a community together through a shared sense of belonging. On the flip side, it can very easily do the opposite. If the historical narrative that is promoted through a cultural landscape elevates a particular group’s understanding of the past over others, it has the potential to divide a community.

The antebellum South continued to be highly romanticized in Atlanta post-Civil War era. It was a way to provide comfort to the white elite community members during a time of change. What is the depiction of the antebellum South today? Who is involved in telling that story?

That romanticized picture of the antebellum South persists, without a doubt. Its prevalence in American popular culture since the end of the Civil War means that it won’t be easy to break away from. It’s definitely being challenged, however. There has been a conscious effort—especially since Movement for Black Lives started—to not only show the brutal reality of life within a slave-based society, but to challenge the supremacy of a white-centric notion of the South. Recently, there has been a variety of scholars, artists, journalists, and filmmakers of color that have worked to lay claim to southern identity and show that the South has always been a diverse place.

How is/has Atlanta approached the truth and reconciliation at Grant Park in the 21st century?

Unfortunately, there has not been much of an effort to confront the history that lays at the center of Grant Park’s creation. The city, generally, tends to distance itself from its ties to Civil War, especially after it became a center of Black culture and politics in the 1960s. And because Grant Park is now more of a neighborhood park, located outside of downtown, I think people have been able to forget about its past.

Is the antebellum culture and history still preserved at Grant Park today?

Traces of it are still there, but not nearly as visible as they were in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. There are no more celebrations of Confederate troops held within the grounds and the Cyclorama—the massive panoramic painting of the Battle of Atlanta—has been relocated to the Atlanta History Center. The earthworks of Fort Walker—one of several defensive positions that was constructed during the Civil War—are still visible in the southeast corner of the park, but they would be hard to notice unless you were looking for them. The only prominent indication of the park’s association with romanticized antebellum culture is a cannon that sits atop a stone pedestal within Fort Walker. It has a plaque that memorializing the siege of the city during the war that was dedicated by the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Association in 1938.

How can we move forward in developing cultural landscapes in the United States that are inclusive and enjoyable for all races, genders, and ages?

I think the most important way to work toward this is to bring as many voices into the process of developing or designating cultural landscapes as possible. If we want to create cultural spaces that are truly inclusive, we need to ensure that they reflect a diverse array of perspectives.

As a historian, what is the biggest take away from your essay, "Grant Park, Atlanta: An Old South Landscape for a New South City"?

The central idea that I hope readers take away from my essay is that cultural identity and historical narratives are promoted in a variety of ways. I wrote this piece when there was renewed conversations about taking down Confederate monuments. Critics of these monuments point to them as tools of white supremacy—as a means of elevating white claims to cultural identity above all others. With this piece, I wanted to show that the same effect was produced by less obvious means. Grant Park, by providing a space reminiscent of the antebellum South, reaffirmed a white-centric idea of southern society whether those who visited were aware of it or not. And, because that message was delivered through a more subtle means than a monument, it is more difficult to recognize and confront. I hope that idea inspires the public to think more critically about the everyday landscapes that they might take for granted.