Gentrification and Erasure: LGBTQ History in a Southern Suburb
|Author: David S. Rotenstein, public historian and folklorist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
History is one of the earliest and in some ways most invisible victims in gentrifying neighborhoods. Gentrification frequently is cyclical: each successive wave of new, wealthier people moving into a space erases the bodies, material culture, and histories of earlier residents. Finding these histories and LGBTQ material culture and cultural landscapes is difficult in communities that put a high premium on property exchange values and devalue and stigmatize people of color, the poor, and even gays and lesbians. This blog post documents the erasure of an LGBTQ site in Decatur, east of Atlanta, Georgia.
Artists and people who identify as LGBTQ oftentimes are among the first wave of gentrifiers in neighborhoods. This was true in the 1990s when gays and lesbians living in the Atlanta area began moving to a Decatur neighborhood after more conservative jurisdictions began enacting local laws designed to push them out. In 1993, then-Decatur Mayor Mike Mears began telling Atlanta area newspapers that Decatur’s doors were open to gays and lesbians. “Our City’s always been open to anyone,” Mears in 1993 told a writer for the Southern Voice, a LGBTQ newspaper.
Several scholars, including Sylvie Tissot (Boston) and David Madden (New York) have observed that history is an early victim in gentrifying neighborhoods. “One of the greatest injustices in … redevelopment has been the callous obliteration of its past,” wrote Chester Hartman on gentrification in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood.
Linda Mitchell, an African American woman living in a gentrifying Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood told an interviewer in the 2003 documentary Flag Wars, “You don’t try and take somebody’s history away from them because you want their house.” In her neighborhood, large numbers of gays and lesbians were buying and rehabilitating homes. Mitchell’s account is an accessible and palpable example that helps to frame what is taking place in Decatur.
After a while, the gays and lesbians and others who found themselves being displaced by people with more money and more political power. Sociologist Paula Doan has written about the displacement of queer people in Atlanta and other cities experiencing gentrification. Doan found that the communities she studied experienced increases in anti-gay sentiments that combined with economic forces displaced the earlier residents.
Historic preservation has made great strides in documenting and protecting important LGBTQ sites. Some notable examples include New York’s Stonewall Inn (designated in 2016 a National Monument) and Washington’s Dr. Franklin E. Kameny House. Much more can be done, though, to understand LGBTQ cultural landscapes and historic properties in places like Decatur.
Danny Ingram’s former Decatur home is an example of lost LGBTQ history. Ingram is a former U.S. Army sergeant who became a leader in the nationwide effort to overturn the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). He is a Decatur native. Ingram attended Emory University and after the army he worked at Georgia Tech before retiring in 2016.
He moved to Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood in the 1990s. Its proximity to his then-partner’s church, affordability, and many trees made Oakhurst an attractive choice. He bought a small bungalow built in 1925 and lovingly restored it. His home in Fayetteville Road had been one of 113 that the City of Decatur sold for $1 in a pilot urban homesteading project designed to bring people and money back to Oakhurst in the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had been the single largest property owner in the disinvested neighborhood due to the large number of foreclosed and vacant properties.
I first met Ingram in April 2014 when I interviewed him in his living room. Proudly displayed on a wall nearby was a photo of him shaking hands with President Obama after the unpopular Clinton-era DADT military policy was overturned, in part because of Ingram’s work with American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER). Ingram served as the advocacy organization’s president.
I had first seen him a few months before when he made a passionate statement to the Decatur City Commission in a hearing about enacting tree-cutting and single-family home demolition moratoriums.
“I strongly support both moratoriums,” Danny said October 21, 2013. Though he was sympathetic to the teardown moratorium, Danny focused his testimony on the trees. “There is a very serious problem of deforestation and air pollution in this city. Trees go a very long way to fixing the problem of air pollution,” he said.
Ingram made a passionate and artful statement that evening:
I have lived on Fayetteville Road for 20 years in that neighborhood known as Lawnhurst – oh, excuse me, Mini-Mansionhurst. No, sorry – Oakhurst. It’s called Oakhurst. [laughs from audience]
It’s called Oakhurst because we value trees there. We have an arboretum tree walk there. We have three urban forest restoration projects there. It is a great place to live. If you live in a place called Lakeview, you do not drain the lake in order to make more room for houses.
If you live on Hillcrest, you do not get rid of the hill in order to put more houses there.
And if you live in Mountainview, you do not get rid of the mountain in order to make more room for houses there.
I live in OAK-HURST and I want to continue to live in OAK-HURST.
I strongly support both moratoriums.
Ingram loved his neighborhood and his historic home. “It was my first house so I liked the yard a lot,” he told me in 2014. “That was probably the main thing.” And then there were the trees. Oakhurst was off the beaten track and there were lots of trees.”
I asked Ingram about the changes he was seeing in his street and the neighborhood. The significant number of teardowns and the deforestation, gentrification hallmarks, bothered him so I asked him which bothered him more. “Both. The combination,” he replied. “It’s really the combination because they go hand in hand. They want to tear down the little house, build a great big one. And in order to build a great big one, they frequently want to cut down the trees as well.”
In our 2014 interview I asked Danny how long he planned to stay in Oakhurst. He thought that he had two or three more years there. “When I retire I’ll probably move. Because it’s almost at a point where it’s too good not to sell,” he explained. “I can get so much for the property now, why not buy something brand new where I don’t have to paint, I don’t have to worry about the plumbing, I don’t have to worry about the roof, you know. And not have to work in the yard or whatever.”
I then asked him what his prospects were for the house after he leaves.
“Oh they’ll tear it down,” he said.
In 2016, Danny moved to Texas to live with fiancé Eric Alva, a Marine veteran who was injured in the Iraq War and who also became a nationally-recognized human rights activist. The pair married in 2017.
In early 2018 Ingram posted a picture on Facebook. “Very sad news today,” the post began. “The little house that I called Sparrow’s Grove is being torn down.”
A substantially larger home replaced Ingram’s 1,250-square-foot bungalow (county tax records have not yet been updated with the new building data).
Gentrification in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood has displaced many of the African American residents who were living there when Ingram first arrived in the 1990s. Now it is also erasing the material traces of two significant periods in Decatur’s history: urban homesteading (1975-1982) and an important period in LGBTQ history in metropolitan Atlanta (1993-2000).
Ingram’s home would have been a comfortable part of any historic district because of its architecture. The property’s role in urban homesteading added associational significance; the 19 years that Ingram lived there and advocated for changes in national policies are another layer of significance. The nation lost a valuable link to LGBTQ history with the demolition of Danny Ingram’s home. Ingram’s home illustrated the intersection of housing history, the struggle for LGBTQ rights, and the vulnerability to displacement many in the LGBTQ community find themselves in places like Decatur.
David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who writes on gentrification, erasure, and industrial history. He is an adjunct instructor in Goucher College’s Master’s in Historic Preservation program.