It should. But I’m not talking about Tuesday’s $68 million bond referendum to remake problem-plagued Franklin Road. Rather, I’m referring to events of 75 years ago that led to the bulldozing of the city’s most notorious slum, and to how, as a result, its former residents moved into decent housing for the first time in their lives.
The slum that was known as both “Hollandtown” and “Green Street” was just downhill from Marietta Square and was bounded by Roswell, Waterman, Waddell and Alexander streets.
As I wrote in a 2008 column, “Hollandtown was Marietta’s biggest and most notorious slum, a foul-smelling neighborhood of rotting wooden houses, haphazard privies and unpaved roads that was home to a substantial part of the city’s black population. They were forced to live in such Dickensian squalor due to the lack of better housing, because of segregation, because of absentee slumlords (all of them white) and because most probably could not have afforded better quarters even had they been available.”
The slum was a jumble of unpaved roads, alleys and trails, and was bisected by a fetid creek, which now runs in an underground culvert.
On the eve of World War II, city leaders successfully wheedled $750,000 from Washington for slum clearance and the construction of a pair of housing projects (one for whites and one for blacks). But that turned out to be the easy part. The hard part was persuading the public such a drastic step was needed, even after a study by an Emory economics professor showed that of the 2,278 families in town, there were 1,286 (mostly black) ones living in unsafe houses lacking running water and/or electricity.
But helping shift public opinion was a series of front page stories in the Brumby family-owned Cobb County Times by reporter Warren Duffee, some of the most pungent I have ever read.
“The dingy dens of ‘Hollandtown,’ a ratty rookery sprawling without order or planning across the muddy hollow that Marietta’s Negroes know as ‘Green Street,’ are soon to fall before the rams and hammers of wrecking crews,” began the first, printed in the March 2, 1940 edition of the Times.
(“Rookery” is not a word you often hear these days, but was a British term for slums inhabited by thieves, prostitutes and the poorest of the poor.)
Wrote Duffee, “Its crooked alleys, littered with trash and refuse, stink continually of frying fat meat and human refuse and burning pinewood.
“Inside many of the ratty hovels that pass for houses in Hollandtown, the odor is worse. It is a stink of dirt and darkness and improper toilets. A smell that sunlight and air might have remedied — had the houses been built and properly maintained. …
“Many of the homes have broken windows, in some instances patched with wood or cardboard or even stuffed rags. Floors are often broken and splintered. …
“Between or behind the squalid houses are the toilets. Some are broken, some are clogged, some offer no more privacy than the middle of the street.
“On winter mornings, the fat-pine smoke from a hundred leaking stovepipes shroud it in a pall of ‘smog.’ Covering as it does a low area, the fog does not rise rapidly. And squelched as they are in a lowland of society, neither do the spirits of its residents. …”
Duffee also stated what should have been obvious for decades, but apparently wasn’t: that the existence of such neighborhoods posed a risk to public health — and not just to those who lived in them.
“Into this area … weekly go scores of bundles of laundry from ‘the white folks.’ On Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday, the crooked little areas between the crowded houses are bright with the wet colors of ‘wash clothes,’ flapping from a score of clotheslines. In the grime and smoke, the dust and germs of the area, the clothes ‘get dry.’
“And eventually, thus ‘cleaned,’ they go back into the homes of their owners. Fastidious homes, too, where the children are taught to wash their hands before eating and where dusting is a daily household ‘must.’
“In the early morning, the grim little warrens that are home to the residents of Hollandtown crawl with activity. Domestic servants rouse themselves and pour forth to their labors in the ‘best homes’ of the city.
“Behind them, for the moment, is the gloom and despair and filth of their home environment. But with them, into the same ‘best homes’ they serve, often go the same germs that make life in Hollandtown none too healthful.”
A follow-up story in the March 28 edition noted the squalor of a “Negro” family of eight living in a two-room house where the privy, with its broken door, opened right off the kitchen.
“On the table, one greasy plate held a few bones,” Duffee wrote. “‘We only have three plates,’ the woman of the house explained apologetically. That makes it kind of bad when there’s eight of us to eat.”
Those stories helped set the stage for the then-brand new Marietta Housing Authority to replace Holldandtown/Green Street with the Clay and Fort Hill Homes public housing projects.
TODAY’S FRANKLIN ROAD residents live in comparative luxury. Many own cars and TVs and their apartments have plumbing and air conditioning. But many live in distressed circumstances of a different kind. That area was responsible in 2012 for 44 percent of the city’s robberies, 35 percent of its auto thefts, 34 percent of its assaults, 31 percent of its rapes and 24 percent of its burglaries. The sound of gunshots is said to be common at night. Most residents cling to the bottom rungs of the ladder. The elementary schools serving the corridor are plagued by astronomical transience rates.
Passage of Mayor Steve Tumlin’s bond would see the city purchase the worst of the apartment complexes for redevelopment. He promises the Marietta Housing Authority would be actively involved in relocating affected residents. They wouldn’t be soullessly scattered to the winds, in other words.
City Hall and most Mariettans turned a blind eye to Franklin Road’s woes for decades. Now a workable, compassionate plan for reversing its decline lacks only the approval of voters on Tuesday.
City residents should do what their forebears did: Open their eyes and act.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and co-author of “Then & Now: Marietta.”