By Matthew Terrell
If it weren’t for some clever public relations, the symbol for Atlanta would be a big ball of tar. The idea of the luscious “Georgia Peach” is one part lie and one part marketing, because our namesake fruit is not native to this area.
According to Central Atlanta Progress, “pitch” trees were originally native to Atlanta – the kind of pine trees used to collect sticky resin. In the early 1800s, settlers garbled the word “pitch” and eventually turned it into “peach” – and sensing that a nice piece of fruit is better than a smelly ball of pine tar – they ran with the idea as a simple but effective form of boosterism.
Local historian Ann Boutwell sees Atlanta as a city in flux; our streets and neighborhoods are often at the center of change. Outsiders would have a much different view of our city if we were known for dozens of overlapping streets all named “Pitch Tree.” Boutwell sees three central factors to Atlanta’s change.
Boutwell says, “If you look at the history of Atlanta, you see that boosterism has defined much of our progress. But beyond that, racial issues have certainly shaped who we are as a city. And now we are seeing transportation define how Atlanta is changing.”
New Atlantans are often confused by our perplexing system of street names. It seems just about every street in Atlanta changes name mid-route, often without rhyme or reason. A little look at race relations can explain why streets change names below Ponce de Leon – the north part of town (Briarcliff, Juniper, Monroe) was where white people lived, and the south part of town (Moreland, Courtland, Boulevard) was where black people lived.
Despite this remnant from segregation, Atlanta honors positive social change and civil rights leaders by scraping outdated street names. Ralph McGill Boulevard is now named after the influential anti-segregationist editor of The Atlanta Constitution. The street was originally named Forrest Avenue, after Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Sometimes change comes from roads we don’t want at all. The revitalization of Inman Park and the growth of Virginia Highland occurred in conjunction with the 30-year long Atlanta freeway revolts. Inman Park was once full of rotting mansions, and the Georgia Department of Transportation saw it as the perfect neighborhood to bulldoze and put a freeway. Residents were outraged, which helped spark revitalization on the eastside, and GDOT’s new freeway never came to fruition.
As blatant boosterism and race relations become less important, transportation issues have become the biggest influence in Atlanta. Walkability and access to public transit now dominate the real estate scene, and our Intown neighborhoods are ready for a complete change spurred by the proposed BeltLine. Old-timers talk about a time when streets had old names, or when entire neighborhoods were overrun with hippies; perhaps in 40 years we will talk about an unimaginable time when there wasn’t a train station in every community. As a city in flux, Atlanta is in the business of bettering itself. Maybe trains, bike paths and sidewalks seem far-fetched, but so did naming dozens of streets after a non-native tree.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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