My newest book project, which got underway in August 2017, is provisionally titled Sandhills Cities: Metropolitan Ambitions on Georgia’s Fall Line. My research examines metropolitan and regional development in and around three cities—Augusta, Macon, and Columbus—in the 20th century. As the project progresses, it is moving toward a comparative urban environmental history. These cities have been neglected in urban history scholarship. Moreover, as Richard Harris’s recent essay, “A Portrait of North American Urban Historians,” in the Journal of Urban History suggests, few historians are currently concentrating on southern cities or smaller cities regardless of region.
The Fall Line, the natural slope that separates the Piedmont from the Atlantic Coastal Plain, furnished water power for industry and marked the head of navigation on the Savannah, Ocmulgee, and Chattahoochee Rivers. Until the late 19th century, any of the cities that grew along the Fall Line in Georgia and in the Carolinas seemed capable of taking their place alongside older seaport cities such as Savannah and Charleston, but the rapid rise of upland cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated the Fall Line cities to second-tier (if not third-tier) status in the Southeast. The Fall Line also overlaps closely with the so-called “Black Belt,” a region within a region that relied heavily on cotton into the 20th century and continues to have an African American population that ranges from about 40 to 60 percent of the overall population.
This comparative study explores how the three cities strove to be more than small urban hubs for processing agricultural products (first cotton and then other commodities ranging from peaches to pigs). Each carved out a niche for itself as the market for perhaps a dozen and a half rural counties. All three cities, starting with Columbus, succeeded in securing permanent military installations. Each sought to develop its river for hydroelectric power, industrial development, and navigation, none more so than Augusta. Much more than Columbus and Macon, Augusta also led the way as a regionally significant tourist destination. The distances that separated each city from the others may have diminished leaders’ resolve to compete head-to-head with other Fall Line cities. Nonetheless, I am interested in the ways these cities sometimes treated each other as rivals. I am also interested in the degree to which they emulated Atlanta’s forward-looking growth agenda and, eventually, Savannah’s efforts to harness history and culture. All three cities experienced substantial growth, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, but for most of the 20th century their growth lagged behind the region. In addition, after World War II, as was true in many other cities, the older urban centers declined as suburbs grew. However, thanks to aggressive annexation and successful consolidation, Columbus managed to grow along with its metropolitan expansion while Augusta and then Macon eventually succumbed to population loss once their ability to annex waned–until they also ultimately consolidated with their counties.
With support from a Faculty Scholarship Initiative award from the Office of Research at Cleveland State University and the CSU-AAUP Travel Fund, I made five research trips to Athens, Augusta, and Macon to collect extensive primary materials. An additional award from the John Nolen Research Fund supported additional research in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library. As I’ve done with past book projects, I dug in with initial papers that I presented at the Urban History Association 2018 conference in Columbia, South Carolina, and the 18th National Conference on Planning History (SACRPH) in Arlington, Virginia, in November 2019. These grew into two articles. The first, “‘Green Spots in the Heart of Town’: Planning and Contesting the Nation’s Widest Streets in Georgia’s Fall Line Cities,” appears in the Winter 2020 issue of Georgia Historical Quarterly. The second, “Making ‘The Garden City of the South’: Beautification, Preservation, and Downtown Planning in Augusta, Georgia,” was published in the May 2021 issue of the Journal of Planning History.
Although I had planned to present a paper titled “The Heart of Georgia: Metropolitan Ambitions and Regionalism in Macon and Middle Georgia” and will be part of a panel on smaller cities and their regional contexts at the Urban History Association conference, it was not to be. The UHA conference was first postponed from October 2020 until October 2021 and then canceled due to the pandemic. Likewise, my plans to do further research in Georgia with a second Faculty Scholarship Initiative award were postponed (thankfully with a grant extension). If there is any silver lining in the effect of COVID-19 on my research, it lies in the benefit of having time to allow project conceptualization to evolve. The year of inertia proved useful in a couple of ways. First, I was able to return to examining collected material with the benefit of having had some separation from regular work on the project, and helped me fashion a new chapter structure that feels much more manageable and compelling. Second, during this period I was fortunate to teach graduate reading seminars on Making the Modern South and U.S. Urban Environmental History, both of which shaped how I am now approaching my own book project. And so, one year later than expected, I’ve started writing. So far, I have full drafts of the first two chapters, one of which, appropriately enough, was inspired by the UHA paper that wasn’t! I’m on track, hopefully, to complete a third chapter (out of six) in the remainder of summer 2021. I plan to submit a book proposal and these chapters before fall semester gets underway. My hope is to find time to complete a fourth chapter in the 2021-22 academic year. With four of six chapters drafted, I should be in a better position to tailor my remaining research trips in spring and summer 2022 to fill gaps exposed by writing. Then I will write the final two chapters and revise the ones already drafted.