This may be one of those things where the idea of the thing is better than the thing itself, but who said you can’t take the best bits of inspiration from both the present and the past to collage together an idea of Grant Park then and now?
And let’s be clear: I’m not not advocating that you go on an urban walk through this historic neighborhood like I did. I’m saying it helps to know the backstory for a fully meaningful visit. To Grant Park’s place in the south’s history, its timeless landmarks, and the place today!
Grant the Man, a Parcel of Land & the New South
Before Atlanta was “Atlanta,” in 1837 the area was known as Terminus, a critical hub for Western & Atlantic Railroad. Fast forward about 30 years. By 1868 Atlanta was not only known as “Atlanta” but also deemed the capital of Georgia, and in full on New South, post-war growth mode.
In 1883 at the end of the Reconstruction Era, Lemuel P. (L.P.) Grant, a civil engineer for the Georgia Railroad and later known as the “Father of Atlanta”, gave the city 100 acres of land, i.e. what is now Grant Park, the park. (1) From that purchase forward, the neighborhood of Grant Park grew up around the the land and remains a haven for “hip-roofed Victorian bungalows.” (2)
Unfortunately Grant Park reached its prime prematurely. The area hit “its zenith around 1905,” but (1) given the neighborhood’s pre-automobile layout, soon after the turn of the century, car-owning residents began to migrate to “faraway places like Druid Hills, Morningside and Buckhead.” Grant Park was again subjected to urban disruption in 1960 when I-20 horizontally halved the neighborhood.
Despite the disruptions that cars and highway brought to the area, Grant Park will always be home to three important Atlanta landmarks:
- Oakland Cemetery: It was from a hilltop there “that General John B. Hood watched the Battle of Atlanta,” in 1864. Today it houses an estimated 6,900 tombstones including ”Gone With the Wind,” author Margaret Mitchell and famed golfer, Bobby Jones. (3)
- Grant Park: Designed by none other than Charles Omsted, son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the “father of landscape architecture” and creator of Central Park in NYC among dozens of other renowned urban green scapes. (4)
- Atlanta Zoo: In 1889 businessman, George V. Gress donated his defunct circus to the city of Atlanta, and Grant Park, the “most ambitious city play-ground in the South” according to Harper’s new monthly magazine, became the obvious location to keep the the influx of exotic animals. (5,6)
What it’s like today
Much like Cabbagetown or Candler Park, Grant Park feels like a secret. It’s quiet, hiding in plain sight. Despite being home to a handful of famous landmarks, I wonder how many Atlantans really know where its boundaries lie. The neighborhood isn’t a destination the way Inman Park, Buckhead, or the Westside are. And that is precisely why I like it.
When you walk around, you feel like the residents don’t want anyone knowing about their oasis either. Families walk their strollers down Victorian bungalow-lined sidewalks, one person sits in solitude under an oak tree in the park, a small assortment of bistros are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, but there’s no true commercial center. Instead parks are the neighborhood’s central features. As if a time capsule, Grant Park has changed immensely since the 1880s, and yet it hasn’t. According to a 1991 Washington Post article, the author came to a similar conclusion to my own:
There is the refreshing sense, deriving both from the neighborhood’s diversity of population and from the uniform modesty of its houses, that this is not a place that will lend itself to wholesale gentrification…There’s almost no commercial presence here, no industry, nothing that feels new, no bustle. It is as quiet as a village.The Washington Post
So if you want to, go to Grant Park. But don’t go expecting to see anything, and that’s when you’ll see what it really has to offer.