Welcome to Blandtown: Public art display seeks to reclaim history of changing Atlanta neighborhood

By J.D. Capelouto – April 6, 2021

Hanging from the chain-link fence, 25 times, is the name of the neighborhood afraid of losing its history.

Some drivers at the corner of Huff and Howell Mill roads might not immediately recognize the name “Blandtown,” which is printed on banners in all-caps in red, Helvetica lettering. Artist Gregor Turk hopes that changes soon.

He installed the 4- and 5-foot banners with the goal of creating more awareness of the Blandtown neighborhood, an enclave in northwest Atlanta that has seen a wave of investment and displacement over the last several years.

Today, much of the area is known colloquially as “West Midtown,” though no neighborhood officially bears that name. Real estate developers have built new luxury housing, shopping centers, and eateries around the neighborhoods of Home Park, the Marietta Street Artery, Berkeley Park and Blandtown. Most of the new developments use the more general “Westside” or “West Midtown” monikers in their branding.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“The history’s been lost,” Turk said. “What I’m trying to do is reclaim that history and create that curiosity.”

Blandtown was founded by and named after Felix Bland, a former slave whose parents purchased four acres in the area in the 1870s. It grew into a vibrant community, one of the first African American neighborhoods in Atlanta after the Civil War.

At one point, Blandtown had over 200 houses, and was home to a broadcasting tower for WERD, the first Black-owned radio station in the country.

In 1956, the city rezoned the area from residential to industrial use. That change was “racist in intent, with the goal of disrupting a cluster of African American residences to minimize the power of the Black vote in local elections,” the Upper Westside Improvement District wrote in an article about the history of Blandtown.

Longtime residents moved out, heavy industrial businesses moved in. Today, only four of the original homes still stand.

The area has seen an influx of new commercial and residential development in recent years, including the new Westside Provisions Districtand mixed-use projects like The Interlock.

While the new economic development has made the neighborhood more popular, some residents and business owners like Turk worry the Blandtown name, history and identity are being forgotten. His new art installation features photos from around Blandtown, almost all of which were taken by Turk and edited with a sharp black-and-white contrast. Hung on the fence outside a city water reservoir, each poster features a play on words with the prefix “re,” including “re/construction,” “re/settlement” and “re/claim.” They will be up until April 28.

Given the number of innovative restaurants and design-centric shops and businesses in the area, Turk said there’s a cheeky opportunity to embrace the irony in the Blandtown name, similar to Normaltown in Athens and Boring, Oregon.

“I think you’ve got to own it, and it think it’s a great story,” he said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Turk installed the artwork with a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and worked with the Upper Westside Improvement District, Blandtown Neighborhood Association and the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management to make it happen.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of Census data backs up what neighbors on the ground have noticed over the last several years. From 2010 to 2019, the population in Blandtown grew by a third, from about 6,000 to 8,000 residents, just over half of whom are white.

There were 3,600 housing units in the neighborhood a decade ago, almost a third of which were detached, single-family houses, the analysis showed. In 2019, there were 5,000 housing units, but only a fifth of them were single-family homes, reflecting the influx in new apartments and condos.

It’s also become more expensive to live in Blandtown. The median gross rent there was about $1,350 in 2019, a 22% increase from 2010, the analysis estimated.

Turk has had a studio in Blandtown since 2003, located in one of the original structures. He has watched neighbors leave over the years, their homes torn down and replaced by new $700,000 builds.

Known for his public art exhibitions, Turk put up a large, orange sign in his own front yard a few years ago that has become a symbol for the neighborhood: “Welcome to the heart of Blandtown.”

Newsroom data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

Original article on AJC.com