Public Art, History, and Resistance in Blandtown

Meaghan McSorley for Places Journal | December 2021

I was surprised and delighted at the end of my first neighborhood-association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, when Renee Wright, the organization’s president, offered to take me on a personal tour of the neighborhood. We drove around in her small sedan chatting on a hot September afternoon, with the air- conditioning blasting. Towards the end of her tour, Renee drove us into a new development filled with large, expensive single-family homes. Tucked into the back of one of these tight residential streets was an older, one-story house. The house was anomalous within the development. It was dwarfed by its newer neighbors, but it also had a billboard installed on the front lawn. “Welcome to the Heart of Blandtown,” the billboard proclaimed. We had arrived at Gregor Turk’s studio.

As I soon learned, Turk is a White visual artist who has lived in Atlanta for over 30 years. During this time, his artistic practice has focused on Blandtown. The billboard was installed as a gesture of protest; his property is enveloped by a new “West Town” development project, led by local developer Brock Built. The billboard was meant to call attention to the history of the area, and particularly its historical name, “Blandtown,” Another Turk project was a 2019 tongue-in-cheek Blandtown logo, which notes the years that Blandtown was founded, redlined, burned, rezoned, razed, and gentrified. Turk printed the logo on t-shirts and sold them.

These projects and others provoke questions about disconnects between the neighborhood’s history, its present, and its future. Turk’s uses strategies of branding similar to those deployed by developers who are attempting to make the area more palatable to middle-class White homeowners. But whereas these developers often hope to erase Blandtown’s place-based sense of history, Turk tries to reinstate it.

Turk’s use of the word “Blandtown” is part of his mission. Blandtown takes its name from the Bland family, African Americans who in 1872 purchased the four acres that would become the neighborhood. There was a married couple, Viney and Samuel Bland, and their four children, Felix, Richard, Cherry, and Charlie, but little else is known. It’s not clear where the family came from, and when or if they’d been released from slavery. In 1873, Samuel willed the land to Viney as payment for “the love and affection she had shown him.” He passed away just a few years later, in 1879. Portions of the land were sold off over the next three decades, but most of it stayed in the Bland family until 1918, when Felix and Cherry sold the last parcel to the Blandtown Christian Church.

Blandtown History Logo

Blandtown was one of the first Black towns to emerge near Atlanta after the Civil War. It flourished until the 1950s, when it was annexed by the City of Atlanta and rezoned for heavy industry. Black families gradually left. When Turk bought his studio in 2003, very little of the original neighborhood remained. There were just 21 homes still standing that predated the annexation and rezoning, and by 2016, that number had dwindled to four.

Most Atlantans don’t know this history; many, in fact, don’t know where Blandtown is. The area comprised by Blandtown is generally understood to be part of West Midtown rather than a distinct neighborhood. Just northwest of Georgia Tech’s campus, West Midtown is associated with flashy condo developments. By insisting on the specificity of Blandtown and its unique history, Turk’s work represents a form of resistance to status-quo real estate development. Local planners have begun to pay attention.

Before the pandemic, Turk regularly led neighborhood tours in partnership with the Blandtown Neighborhood Association to educate residents about their local history. Another local planning organization, the Upper Westside Community Improvement District, features Turk’s work on its website and has included it in public workshops and informational displays. A partnership has evolved between Turk and these organizations, such that the neighborhood association now requests that new developments include a piece of artwork or signage that incorporates the name “Blandtown.” Various businesses and institutions have agreed to host Turk’s interventions on their properties, and when the Upper Westside Community Improvement District was working on a master plan, Turk led a neighborhood tour specifically for the project team.

Small measures perhaps, but evidence nonetheless that Turk’s work is accomplishing what social theorist Manuel Castells terms “rooting into place.” By anchoring into the specificity of a place, Castells suggests, architecture, design, and by extension, works of public art, “dig … the trenches of resistance for the preservation of meaning.” “Rooting in place” is important, Castells argues, because local histories and cultures are often lost as networked global spaces become increasingly homogenized.

In some ways, what is happening in Blandtown exemplifies what Castells warned against. Turk’s practice notwithstanding, the neighborhood is undergoing a rapid transformation into a district severed from its specific history. Certainly, Turk’s work cannot remake the community that left in the wake of earlier zoning decisions and gentrification; there is no clear road to justice for those families. And yet, Turk does encourage viewers to think harder about where they live. Ultimately, this inspires both local planners and residents to support projects and policies geared toward equity. As Turk told an interviewer in 2019, “I don’t understand moving into a place and thinking that it’s neutral territory, that it has no history. Nobody now is responsible for what happened, but we still have to account for it.”

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