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Asylum: Inside Central State Hospital, once the world’s largest mental institution

Photographs by Gregory Miller

Parts of the majestic Powell Building stood when General Sherman’s troops camped on the grounds en route from Atlanta to the sea. Once the center housed administrators, with patients in two giant wings. Today only a fraction of the building is in use, accommodating state staff and employees of a redevelopment authority.
Parts of the majestic Powell Building stood when General Sherman’s troops camped on the grounds en route from Atlanta to the sea. Once the center housed administrators, with patients in two giant wings. Today only a fraction of the building is in use, accommodating state staff and employees of a redevelopment authority.

In 1837, Georgia lawmakers authorized a “Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum.”

Five years later, the facility opened as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum on the outskirts of the cotton-rich town that served as the antebellum state capital. The first patient, Tillman B. of Bibb County, arrived in December 1842. He died of “maniacal exhaustion” before the next summer.

A long hallway in the 181,582-square-foot Powell Building provides a reminder of the vast number of patients once housed at Central State—up to 13,000 during its peak.Many more patients followed Mr. B., and the institution grew into the largest insane asylum in the world. A century after it opened, 200 buildings sprawled over 2,000 acres and housed up to 13,000 patients at what was then called Central State Hospital. But throughout Georgia, it was known solely by the name of the neighboring town: Milledgeville.

Parents routinely admonished misbehaving children with the threat, “I’m going to send you to Milledgeville!” Georgia novelist Terry Kay recalls that as a boy in the 1940s, “it was one of the few words with great power. Milledgeville. City of the crazies. It was a word of fear and mystery, a word that classified ‘funny’ people.”

Thousands of Georgians were shipped to Milledgeville, often with unspecified conditions, or disabilities that did not warrant a classification of mental illness, with little more of a label than “funny.” The hospital outgrew its resources; by the 1950s, the staff-to-patient ratio was a miserable one to 100. Doctors wielded the psychiatric tools of the times—lobotomies, insulin shock, and early electroshock therapy—along with far less sophisticated techniques: Children were confined to metal cages; adults were forced to take steam baths and cold showers, confined in straitjackets, and treated with douches or “nauseants.” “It has witnessed the heights of man’s humanity and the depths of his degradation,” Dr. Peter G. Cranford, the chief clinical psychologist at the hospital in 1952, wrote in his book, But for the Grace of God: The Inside Story of the World’s Largest Insane Asylum. 

In 1959, the Atlanta Constitution’s Jack Nelson investigated reports of a “snake pit.” Nelson found that the thousands of patients were served by only 48 doctors, none a psychiatrist. Indeed, some of the “doctors” had been hired off the mental wards. Yes, the patients were helping to run the asylum. The series rocked the state. Asylum staff were fired, and Nelson won a Pulitzer. The state, which had ignored decades of pleas from hospital superintendents, began to provide additional funding. By the mid-1960s, as new psychiatric drugs allowed patients to move to less restrictive settings, Central State’s population began its steady decline. A decade before the national movement toward deinstitutionalization, Georgia governors Carl Sanders and Jimmy Carter began emptying Central State in earnest, sending mental patients to regional hospitals and community clinics, and people with developmental disabilities to small group homes.

A bronze angel serves as perpetual guardian of the dead at Central State. It was erected by members of the Georgia Consumer Council, some of them former patients, after they worked with volunteers to restore the overgrown cemetery beginning in 1997. A time capsule and a CD recording the names of the dead are buried beneath the angel.

This approach has been riddled with its own tragedies, such as homelessness and drug abuse. In recent years, the AJC has reported unexpected or suspicious deaths in both the community and regional psychiatric hospitals. Nonetheless, advocates do not support a return to institutions. A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Georgia case allows patients with mental health problems to choose community care over institutionalization if a professional agrees, and following a 2010 agreement with the federal government, Georgia will move all mentally and developmentally disabled patients to community facilities. Central State stopped accepting new patients in 2010.

As the asylum’s buildings were vacated, four were converted into prisons. One prison remains on the property today. In a separate facility, the Cook Building, the hospital houses 179 forensic patients (who have been found by courts to be not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial). Today only 14 non-forensic patients remain at Central State, all elderly people awaiting alternative placements. By the end of this year, the state Department of Behavioral Health and Disabilities, which operated at Central State, will occupy only nine buildings.

Georgia’s state seal is on the facade of the vast and imposing Jones Building, built in 1929 on the “quad” surrounding a pecan grove. It has been left to rot since 1979. The 142,140-square-foot building once served as a general-purpose hospital. The interior provided locations for the TV show The Originals, a Vampire Diaries spin-off.

With fewer than 200 patients on the campus, and only a handful of administrative offices operating, Central State feels abandoned. Indeed, several of the starkly beautiful brick buildings on the “quad” surrounding a lush pecan grove have been boarded up since the late 1970s and have begun to decay into haunted ruins. Yet amid the entropy, life goes on. Church services are still held in the chapel on the quad, which hosts weddings and funerals.

A new organization is trying to preserve the campus. The Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority was created in 2012 by the state to revitalize and repurpose the property. Led by Milledgeville native Mike Couch, the authority has worked with real estate experts to develop a plan for reusing the property for businesses, schools, and recreation. Central State’s grounds front the Oconee River and contain winding paths that the consultants envision as ideal for bicycle trails or a concert venue. The first new contract is decidedly more practical: A geriatric care facility for parolees will move into a former prison building.

Mab Segrest, a visiting scholar at nearby Georgia College, is writing a book about Central State and teaching a course titled Milledgeville and the Mind. She has explored the hospital’s impact on the fiction of author Flannery O’Connor, who lived just seven miles from the asylum. “Her crazy preachers walk right out of case histories of ‘religious excitement’—their fears of ‘wise blood’ part of the belief in insanity as a hereditary illness that worsened over generations,” Segrest says.

A tiny museum in an old railroad depot on the quad bears witness to the asylum’s tumultuous past. Segrest argues the importance of preserving the hospital’s history. Central State “impacted kinship networks all across the state, and many Georgians still carry painful shards of this history,” she says. “I believe that the truth can set us free, and the hospital’s history is one truth that needs more fully and collectively to be told.”

Morgue drawers sealed with iron doors once held the corpses of patients in the basement of the Jones Building. Today the building is collapsing from the top down, and falling debris covers the morgue floor.Morgue drawers sealed with iron doors once held the corpses of patients in the basement of the Jones Building. Today the building is collapsing from the top down, and falling debris covers the morgue floor.

Throughout the campus, details serve as a reminder of Central State’s past, such as the rounded portal in this door, which allowed staff to observe patients—even if they hid in corners. Throughout the campus, details serve as a reminder of Central State’s past, such as the rounded portal in this door, which allowed staff to observe patients—even if they hid in corners.

Most of the Powell Building is now empty, including treatment rooms and rooms that once housed patients.

Most of the Powell Building is now empty, including treatment rooms and rooms that once housed patients.Most of the Powell Building is now empty, including treatment rooms and rooms that once housed patients.

The Jones Building served as a general hospital, offering medical care to patients at Central State as well as residents of Milledgeville and the surrounding area. Wheeled doors that look as if they belong on a submarine were part of the machinery used to steam and sterilize equipment and garments. The Jones Building served as a general hospital, offering medical care to patients at Central State as well as residents of Milledgeville and the surrounding area. Wheeled doors that look as if they belong on a submarine were part of the machinery used to steam and sterilize equipment and garments.

A marble marker commemorates the asylum’s origins. A marble marker commemorates the asylum’s origins.

Advocates for redevelopment hope to preserve the Jones Building. Campus caretakers sometimes find dead foxes and hawks in the abandoned buildings. Birds fly in and out of open windows.Advocates for redevelopment hope to preserve the Jones Building. Campus caretakers sometimes find dead foxes and hawks in the abandoned buildings. Birds fly in and out of open windows.Advocates for redevelopment hope to preserve the Jones Building. Campus caretakers sometimes find dead foxes and hawks in the abandoned buildings. Birds fly in and out of open windows.

Some 2,000 cast-iron markers at Cedar Lane Cemetery commemorate the 25,000 patients buried on the hospital grounds. The markers, with numbers instead of names, once identified individual graves but were pulled up and tossed into the woods by unknowing prison inmates working as groundskeepers to make mowing easier.Some 2,000 cast-iron markers at Cedar Lane Cemetery commemorate the 25,000 patients buried on the hospital grounds. The markers, with numbers instead of names, once identified individual graves but were pulled up and tossed into the woods by unknowing prison inmates working as groundskeepers to make mowing easier.

This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue.

April Fool’s! These tales of Atlanta history are more myth than fact

Last summer local news outlets carried a story about the proposed sale of the decrepit Clermont Hotel on Ponce de Leon Avenue. An Associated Press dispatch, which was posted on WSB radio’s website, stated, “Atlanta lore has it that the building eventually converted to a hotel once was home to gangster 
Al Capone.”

I laughed so hard I choked on my grits. That “lore” is utterly false. Sure, it’s also been cited by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, but it’s an urban myth fashioned out of whole cloth more than a decade ago by a heavily tattooed cook at Eats restaurant, just down Ponce from the Clermont. I learned of this charade because that cook happened to be my son, Matthew.

He actually made up a couple of versions of the story, depending on where he was and whom he was with. Most often, Matt told people that Capone crashed on the top floor of the Briarcliff Summit, the former hotel turned Section 8 housing for the elderly, at the corner of Ponce and North Highland Avenue. When Capone was there, Matt vowed, armed guards kept watch from the roof.

He’s lying. I’ve consulted several Capone biographies and the gangster’s only residence in Atlanta was our federal penitentiary, where he was holed up from 1932 to 1934 before moving 
to Alcatraz.

The night this Scarface fable was uncovered, I’d met Matt and some of his friends, including Maggie White, the co-owner of the Young Blood Gallery, at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club. Maggie repeated the story about Capone living in the 
Briarcliff Summit.

“That’s not true, you know,” I said. “Matt made it up.”

Maggie’s face went pale and her eyes grew dark. She’d been telling this tale since the 1990s. “I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t true. I wanted to punch Matt in the face.”

Matt was wildly amused, just as he was amused this summer when the AP picked up his myth. He sent me an email about it from Philadelphia, where he is now a lawyer. How he went from cooking jerk chicken at Eats to a Philadelphia law firm is as mystifying as his penchant for concocting bogus urban legends.

Yes. There are others. Did you know, for instance, that Reynoldstown was named for Burt Reynolds when he was in Atlanta to shoot Sharky’s Machine? Sure! Mayor Andrew Young gave him the key to the city! Just ask local historian Matthew Monroe.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

Any bets on how long before the Emory trustees can James Wagner?

Just as Lindsay Lohan’s dissolute ways have earned her a designated Death Watch on the Internet, we have to wonder how long before Emory University President James Wagner gets his own countdown. In this case, to his firing.

On Wednesday the Emory College of Arts and Sciences faculty voted to censure Wagner, and are reportedly considering a no-confidence vote. This comes in response to Wagner’s ham-handed column in the school’s alumni magazine that held up the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 as an example of good leadership. (Civic refresher: As part of that compromise between Northern and Southern states, each slave would be counted as “three-fifths” of a person by census-takers.) The thing went viral, of course: CNN, NPR, Salon, Gawker, Twitter, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, DiversityInc, on and on.

As editor-in-chief Evan Mah writes in the Emory Wheel, faculty members were “shocked that Wagner had to be told that his column was offensive and that he was unaware of the potential backlash.”

Well, wow. This seems as good a place as any to mention Wagner’s salary, which has been put at $1.2 million a year. Evidently that’s not enough to find a leader with a modicum of common sense. I mean, we’re talking about one of the most prestigious universities in the country, a place sitting atop a $5.4 billion endowment as it charges students up to $54,900 per year. Oh yeah, and it’s Black History Month. And this is Atlanta.

Perhaps now is the time for some context. Wagner’s column came amid the backdrop of controversial cuts that he spearheaded at Emory. Last fall, the university announced it would eliminate the journalism program, visual arts, physical education, educational studies, and graduate programs in Spanish and economics. Such cuts would result in about forty people losing their jobs. It’s important to remember that these cuts were not a product of economic straits (endowment investments alone last year netted $100 million) but rather would permit the university to devote more resources toward fields that administrators saw as greater priorities: neurosciences, China studies, digital media.

Wagner’s absurd example of the slave compromise was an attempt to put a big smiley-face Band-Aid over what has become an oozing scab at Emory. He wanted alumni to think his administration was happily compromising with the very people and programs it is purging from the campus while marching forward to an even more glorious future for the health and science programs. He ends his column by saying: “I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.”

The thing is, he and his administration did not use the rich tools of compromise.  The discussions about cutting the programs were conducted by a committee in secret. People were tricked and deceived. The head of the committee that studied which programs to axe, political science Professor Micheal Giles, admitted “he would always ‘lie’ about how well everything was going” when asked by colleagues how the situation was looking, according to another Evan Mah article, this one from last fall in Wheel. (Disclosure: Mah was an Atlanta magazine intern last summer. And will graduate this spring from Emory’s doomed journalism program.)

Let us speak now specifically of the journalism program, a field close to our hearts. Just weeks before Emory announced it was killing the program, it named Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as program director. That’s like promoting someone to captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.

Dean Robin Forman has been busy defending the decision to dump journalism. In a letter to one concerned alumnus, he wrote: “We are also reimagining, and expanding, our undergraduate interdisciplinary majors in novel and exciting ways. Effective writing has always been an important element of such programs, and journalism may play a role in their future. Finally, journalism is less about conveying information than it has ever been—we have immediate access to all of the information we could ever need—and is much more about providing context and analysis.”

Um, Dean, the reason you have immediate access to all the information you could ever need is that much of it has been gathered and disseminated BY JOURNALISTS.

Forman’s letter was posted on an Emory Journalism alumni Facebook group. Now, a lot of Emory graduates know that the dean responsible for killing the journalism program has no earthly idea what he’s talking about.

Emory spokeswoman Nancy Seideman did not return a call for a response this morning. She did write the statement that appeared in the Emory Report on Tuesday after the online publication of the original column and Wagner’s apology.

Back to President Wagner. At last night’s meeting, faculty members also voted narrowly in favor of a “formal and neutral review of the decision-making process” behind the cuts.

The PR folks at Emory have been earning their salaries these past months. Besides Wagner’s foot-in-mouth disease and the much-opposed program cuts, last August the university acknowledged that it had intentionally fudged the SAT and ACT scores of its students. Then, two months later, Wagner publicly apologized for the anti-Semitic tenure between 1948 and 1961 of a former dean of the dental school, which resulted in 65 percent of Jewish students being kicked out or forced to redo coursework.

As the president of Emory’s Student Government Association, Ashish Gandhi, pointed out in an email yesterday to the Emory community: “This year has been one of revelation. The acknowledgement of misrepresented admissions data, an admittance of past anti-Semitism, and the implementation of curricula changes have made us realize the imperfections of our university. More recently, we have come forth in concern and disappointment over remarks made by students on The Dooley Show and by President Wagner in Emory Magazine.” He said the SGA “reaffirms a vision for Emory University, one which is more respectful and inclusive.”

In a December episode of The Dooley Show, a campus news satire program, some Emory students made jokes about lynching, tarring and feathering, and cross burning.

Good grief. Is there something in the water over there?

 

Doug Monroe is an editorial contributor to Atlanta magazine and teaches writing in the mass communication department at Georgia College in Milledgeville. Disclosures: Atlanta magazine editor Steve Fennessy is on the advisory board of Emory Magazine and the magazine’s deputy editor, Rebecca Burns, is an adjunct instructor in the Emory journalism program.

Where It All Went Wrong

This article originally appeared in our August 2012 issue.

0812_Features_AtlantaMetroCoverOCT1971Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta’s past lapses in judgment haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn’t just a one-time blunder—it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region’s transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there’s no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl is key to the metro area’s potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future–type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we’d settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical “undo” key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

In 1971, given the lack of support for MARTA by the five core counties, then Mayor Sam Massell came back with a new plan: to provide an ongoing subsidy for MARTA through a sales tax levied in Fulton, DeKalb, and the City of Atlanta. No other jurisdiction in Georgia had a local option sales tax, so the General Assembly had to approve the idea. When the notoriously anti-Atlanta legislators gave the go-ahead, Massell called a press conference that featured a flatbed truck pulling up in front of city hall, facing the Capitol, with a large billboard that said, “Thank You, Georgia Lawmakers!” Massell then dug a hole in the city hall lawn and buried a hatchet to symbolize his appreciation for the state’s rare support of the city.

In a promotional stunt worthy of Mad Men, Massell sent a bevy of young women to the Capitol in pink hot pants with little keys to the city, a proclamation expressing the city’s gratitude, and invitations to city hall for a lunch featuring fried chicken (for Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox), peanuts (for Governor Jimmy Carter), and, of course, Coca-Cola. “We got a four-column picture—the biggest exposure we ever got from the Atlanta newspapers,” recalls Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition.

After getting the legislative approval for the sales-tax option, Massell had to persuade voters to pass the sales tax. “We were going to buy the existing bus company, which was then charging sixty cents and a nickel transfer each way—$1.30 a day—and they were about to go out of business. I promised the community we would drop that fare to fifteen cents each way immediately,” Massell says. The daily fare would plunge from $1.30 to thirty cents. Not everyone believed him. City Councilman Henry Dodson cruised the city in a Volkswagen with a PA system that blared, “It’s a trick! If they can’t do it for sixty cents, how are they going to do it for fifteen?”

Massell countered the VW with higher visibility, chartering a helicopter to hover over the Downtown Connector, congested even then, while he called through a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes!”

“This being the Bible Belt, they thought God was telling them what to do,” Massell quips today. Still, to make sure Atlantans voted his way, he rode buses throughout the city, passing out brochures to riders, and he visited community groups with a blackboard and chalk to do the math on the sales tax. Voters approved the plan by just a few hundred votes.

Another of the blunders that crippled MARTA at the outset—and haunts it to this day—was engineered behind closed doors by the segregationist Lester Maddox, according to Massell, who believes Maddox’s intervention was even more devastating than the vote not to extend MARTA into the suburbs.

After the Georgia House of Representatives approved funding MARTA through the sales tax, Massell had to approach the Georgia State Senate, where Maddox held sway. Maddox told the mayor he would block the vote in the senate unless MARTA agreed that no more than 50 percent of the sales tax revenue would go to operating costs, Massell recalls. “He called me into his office and told me that was it. Either I swallowed that or he was going to kill it and it would not pass.”

That has meant that whenever MARTA needed more money for operating expenses, it had to cut elsewhere or raise fares. As a result, MARTA has raised the fare over the years to today’s $2.50, making it one of the priciest transit systems in the country.

Although the 50 percent limit has resulted in higher fares, few people realized the ramifications of the so-called “Maddox amendment” at the time, Massell says. In fact, it actually was viewed favorably by DeKalb legislators because they were afraid MARTA would spend all its money in Atlanta before extending rail service to DeKalb, according to a thirty-six-page history of MARTA written by former State Treasurer Thomas D. Hills.

Hills’s MARTA history also illuminates why the state never contributed funds for MARTA, despite that 1966 vote that would have allowed it to. One early plan was for the MARTA sales tax to be three-quarters of a penny, with the state chipping in up to 10 percent of the cost of the system as approved by Georgia voters. But early in his administration, according to Hills’s history, then Governor Carter called MARTA attorney Stell Huie—who was on a quail-hunting trip—and said the state couldn’t afford its $25 million share for MARTA. Carter offered to raise the sales tax to a full penny if the state didn’t have to pay, and Huie agreed. The lawyer said the 1 percent sales tax plan came out of the House Committee on Ways and Means and “there was a tag end, not even part of the act, that just said the state won’t put any money in.”

Hills wrote that the events help to “explain why some representatives of state government and others in the community understand that the state’s support in allowing the local option sales tax for MARTA was a bargain in exchange for a reprieve for the state from future funding for MARTA.”

The 1965 and 1971 votes against MARTA by residents of Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett weren’t votes about transportation. They were referendums on race. Specifically, they were believed to be about keeping the races apart. Consider the suburbanites voting back then. The formerly rural, outlying counties had exploded with an astonishing exodus of white people fleeing the city as the black population swelled during the civil rights era. This mass migration came at a time when Atlanta was known through its public relations bluster as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

The 1960 census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city—Atlanta’s white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton professor who wrote White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta’s slogan should have been “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.” “Racial concerns trumped everything else,” Kruse says. “The more you think about it, Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together.”

In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham Davis observed, “The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood.”

The votes against MARTA were not the only evidence of the role of race in Atlanta’s transportation plans. The interstate highways were designed to gouge their way through black neighborhoods. Georgia Tech history professor Ronald H. Bayor, author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, says the failure of the 1971 MARTA referendum in Gwinnett and Clayton was the beginning of the region’s transportation problems because of the lack of mass transit in the suburbs. Yet his research goes back to the racial reckoning behind the route of the interstate highway system that began construction in the 1950s.

The highway now called the Downtown Connector, the stretch where I-75 and I-85 run conjoined through the city, gutted black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working-class blacks from the central business district. It could have been worse. The highway was first designed to run smack through the headquarters of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the city’s major black-owned business. “The original intention was to destroy that black business,” Bayor says. A protest by the black community saved the structure and moved the highway route a few blocks east, where it still managed to cut through the black community’s main street, Auburn Avenue.

Interstate 20 on the west side of town is a particularly egregious example of race-based road-building. Bayor wrote: “In a 1960 report on the transitional westside neighborhood of Adamsville . . . the Atlanta Bureau of Planning noted that ‘approximately two to three years ago, there was an “understanding” that the proposed route of the West Expressway [I-20 West] would be the boundary between the white and Negro communities.’”

The strategy didn’t work, of course, as whites fled by the tens of thousands. One of the unintended consequences of the race-based road-building is today’s traffic jams. “What happened didn’t change the racial makeup of the metro area but led to congestion within the metro area,” Bayor says.

Aside from political vengeance and racial politics, another enormous factor was at play in transportation policies of the 1960s and 1970s: Atlanta’s love affair with the automobile. The great migration out of the city started in the late 1950s—just as workers at General Motors’ vast Lakewood assembly plant in southeast Atlanta put the finishing touches on one of the most iconic cars in history: the 1957 Chevy.

The allure of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA started running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and fill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn’t afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working-class blacks. Racist suburbanites brayed that the system’s acronym stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”

While MARTA was struggling to crank up the bus and rail system, the State of Georgia and its powerful highway department had other, bigger ideas.

David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the road-building binge that led to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta—some of the widest in the world—diminished MARTA’s potential. “It’s not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one big mistake—the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways,” says Goldberg, now communications director for Washington-based Transportation for America. “We were too damn successful—it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it.”

As metro Atlanta’s geographic expansion grew white-hot, developers had to move homebuyers—those fleeing the city and others moving South from the Rust Belt—in and out of the new subdivisions they were carving from the pine forests and red clay. Georgia started “building highways expressly to enrich developers,” Goldberg says. “A whole lot of land owners and developers who knew how to do suburban development had the ear of state government and the money to buy influence. They took all that money we had and put it into developing interchanges way out from town. A lot of what was new suburban development back then is now underused, decaying, and part of an eroding tax base in the older suburban areas.”

The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA—until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. “The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use,” Goldberg says. “The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion—the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin.” He refers to the neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, then force them to merge onto the freeways, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

More than forty years later, what does the failure to create MARTA as a regional system mean for Atlanta? Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and professor at George Washington University, has been watching Atlanta’s growth—and decline—for decades. In January he declared, “Atlanta is no longer Hotlanta.” He cited the free fall from the number eighty-ninespot on the list of the world’s 200 fastest-growing metro areas to ranking at 189 in just five years. Not to mention the plunge of 29 percent in average housing price per square foot between 2000 and 2010. Not to mention that Atlanta has the eleventh-most-congested traffic of 101 metro areas in the country.

“The big mistake was not taking advantage of MARTA,” Leinberger says. “Atlanta was given by the federal taxpayers a tremendous gift that they squandered as far as MARTA. It’s not just that Atlanta did not take advantage of it. They didn’t expand it and they didn’t recognize that it could allow them to build a balanced way of developing.”

Leinberger agrees that part of the region’s blindness toward MARTA’s potential was the belief “that the car was the be-all and end-all forever. The other part was the basic racism that still molds how Atlanta is built.”

The most maddening realization is that the once virtually all-white suburbs that voted against MARTA years ago are today quite diverse and reflect Atlanta’s evolution from a biracial city to a multiracial, multiethnic one. Today’s suburbs are not only home to African Americans, but also Latino, Asian, and Eastern European immigrants. The city’s diversity is projected to increase over the coming decades (see page 68). Many of the people who voted against MARTA decades ago are dead or retired. The suburban lifestyle they were so eager to defend has lost much of its cachet as gas prices soar and houses don’t sell. Smart young people up to their necks in college debt don’t want to spend their money and time driving cars back and forth; they want to live in town. Atlanta’s only neighborhoods to gain inflation-adjusted housing value in the past decade, Leinberger notes, were Virginia-Highland, Grant Park, and East Lake.

The Georgia Sierra Club’s opposition to the July 31 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax—on the grounds that the plan, despite including a majority for transit, was a sprawl-inducing road expansion—troubled Leinberger. “That’s a dangerous strategy. From what everybody tells me, this is a one-off.” He says the state legislature has traditionally treated Atlanta like a child, and is saying, “Finally, one time only, children, are we going to let you decide for yourself. This is it.”

The July 31 vote is “an Olympic moment,” he says. “If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area.” Forty years from now, will we look back at failure to pass the referendum as a mistake as devastating as the 1971 MARTA compromise?

Atlanta faces a classic problem. It boomed in the go-go decades at the end of the twentieth century when everyone zoomed alone in their cars from home to office to store. Now it must move beyond what worked in the past to a new era that demands a new way of building, with up to 70 percent of new development oriented around transit, Leinberger says. “Atlanta has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s hard for old dogs to learn new tricks.”

The never-ending ramifications of a race-based transportation infrastructure, built to accommodate a suburban driving lifestyle that has started to die off in a state that has traditionally refused to embrace mass transit, could doom Atlanta to a future as a newer, sunnier Detroit.

“It only takes a generation-plus of yinning when you should have yanged to wake up and say, ‘Oh my God! How did it happen?’” says outgoing MARTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott, who watched from afar the decline of her hometown, Cleveland.

Atlanta’s failure to build out MARTA looks even more shameful when compared with what happened with similar transit systems in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which started at the same time as MARTA, she says. “The reality is, this region got stuck. We have about half the build-out of what it was planned to be.” But San Francisco and Washington “kept building and moving . . . they had plans regardless of whether folks were red or blue. They had a vision and the fortitude to make purple and keep moving. We just got stuck.”

MARTA was born out of Atlanta’s giant ego in the days when the city was entering the major leagues across the board—baseball, football, international airport—bolstered by a racially harmonious reputation unmatched in the South, deserved or not. “You said to yourself, ‘We’re top-notch. Everybody’s got to have a rail system,’” Scott says. “But it was built as a manifestation of ‘we have arrived’ without a bigger vision of ‘what do we want to do for our region?’ You built it like a trophy.” Indeed, some of the Downtown MARTA stations were built on a scale that would please a pharaoh.

Yet Scott says she is no doomsayer. During her tenure at MARTA, she has seen marked progress in forging the civic-political infrastructure necessary to build an integrated transportation network. Her concern is that the region is at a critically urgent juncture in the process and can’t afford to lose focus or momentum.“There’s still much work to be done,” she says.

Word about Atlanta’s transportation muddle has gotten around. Scott says she’s been privy to meetings during which corporate relocation experts tell Chamber of Commerce members: “Hey, Atlanta is not only not at the top tier anymore, we’ve got companies saying, ‘Don’t put the Atlanta region on the list.’” It’s not just the congestion and pollution—“they’re not seeing leadership or plans to get yourself out of the fix.”

Atlanta’s leaderless transportation fix is the ultimate example of the admonition, “Be careful what you pray for.”

“This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation,” says historian Kevin Kruse. “As a result, they have been in their cars on 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. They’re just not moving anywhere.”

Hindsight: Other lapses in civic judgment
The 1818 Survey Snafu That Keeps Atlanta Thirsty

Surveyors in 1818 goofed when marking the border between Georgia and Tennessee. At least that’s Georgia’s story, and we’re sticking with it. Legislators still quarrel over the alleged historical cartography blooper that left all of the Tennessee River within Tennessee. Georgia claims surveyors set the boundary line too far south by more than a mile and should have included a sliver of the mighty river within our borders. During recent severe droughts, Georgia thirsted to stick a pipe into the Tennessee and route water to Atlanta, which now draws all its H2O from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River, whose water is also lusted after by Alabama and Florida. Another mistake is our failure to build additional reservoirs —just being addressed now.

The “Grow No More” Edict of 1953
The city of Atlanta hasn’t extended its boundaries in the last sixty years, while the population and landmass of the surrounding counties has exploded. The last time Atlanta expanded its limits was 1952, when it took in Buckhead and went north—almost to Sandy Springs. Timothy Crimmins, who directs the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State University, thinks Atlanta’s biggest mistake—bigger than the MARTA compromises—was a 1953 decision by the state supreme court that declared unconstitutional an effort by the local legislative delegation to annex additional parts of Fulton County. The court said only the General Assembly could expand city limits—and the referendum sought to preempt that power. It was a critical opportunity that would have set up a central government that could grow with our expanding population instead of the proliferation of regional governments.

The last major effort at annexation was Sam Massell’s “Two Cities” plan of the early 1970s, which called for Atlanta to annex unincorporated Fulton County north of the city, and College Park to annex unincorporated Fulton to the south. The plan passed in the House of Representatives and was set to pass in the Senate, but it was killed by Lester Maddox. Ironically, segregationist Maddox stopped annexation that would have returned Atlanta to a majority-white city. Adjusting racial allotments “was not the motivation” for the plan, Massell says. What he was after was a city with a greater population, and thus greater power. Crimmins says Maddox killed the bill at the request of black leaders and the City of East Point.

Our Sewer Woes—Dating Back to Reconstruction
In the years after the Civil War, Atlanta built a two-pipe sewer system: a separate but integrated network of pipes that collects sewage and storm water. During downpours, rainwater forced raw sewage into the Chattahoochee. As the population grew, the pollution became grotesque. In 2001 the city agreed to federal and state demands to fix the problem with giant underground tunnels to store the overflow and then send it for treatment. The Clean Water Atlanta program has cost $1.6 billion so far and will cost another $450 million over the next thirteen years. This is why Atlantans have among the nation’s highest water-sewer bills. The situation in the suburbs may be worse because so much wastewater treatment is the responsibility of private homeowners with septic tanks. “The pollution potential for that is gargantuan,” Crimmins says.

This article originally appeared in our August 2012 issue.

The Long Goodbye

We thought Daddy was going to die in 2001. He was staggering around the house in his underwear, gasping in pain, his eyes hollow, his face slashed from shaving with an old-fashioned safety razor. He was eighty-two years old. We took him to a doctor, who said his spine was deteriorating, gave him pills, and suggested he pray. A few days later, Daddy fell at the mailbox, bounced his head on the pavement, and crawled up the driveway, scraping the skin off his knees before collapsing on the front steps. Mama sat in her recliner in front of the TV, worried and clueless, until a neighbor called an ambulance. The EMTs got Daddy propped up in his recliner. He refused to go with them. When I arrived, Daddy was gulping down whiskey. I called the ambulance back, and they took him to DeKalb Medical. Doctors found prostate cancer and operated. My sister and I cried, sure Daddy was in his last days.

That was eleven years ago. Since then, Daddy’s long goodbye has drained his retirement income and life savings of more than $300,000. Where’s that money gone? Assisted living, mostly. Of course, that amount doesn’t account for his medical bills, most of which have been paid by Medicare and insurance policies that were part of his retirement. Daddy’s income—Social Security, plus monthly checks from two pensions—pays for the facility where he lives, his taxes, his life insurance policy premiums, and such incidentals as a visiting podiatrist to clip his nails.

And he has been kicked out of two hospices for not dying.

Daddy is ninety-three now and wears a diaper, is spoon-fed, and urinates through a catheter, drifting in and out of deep sleep in which he gasps for air and appears to be dead. Trisha, my sister, texted a picture of him in October to one of her daughters, who texted back: “Happy Halloween!” When he wakes up, his caregivers dress him and plop him in a wheelchair. He rolls around like a child until it’s time to eat again.

I cannot imagine that this once-dignified Southern gentleman, who clawed his way out of the grit of a Depression-era tobacco farm in North Carolina and bought a snazzy double-breasted suit with one of his first paychecks, would be anything but humiliated by what is happening to him now—if he had all his faculties. Yet as one of his nurses told me, “Your father has no interest in dying.” It is not heroic measures keeping him alive; he just keeps ticking. He takes only two medicines: an antibiotic for a urinary tract infection and OxyContin for the pain in his spine.

At sixty-four, I am at the leading edge of baby boomers who have ringside seats to the slow-motion demise of the Greatest Generation, watching our parents pass away slowly and stubbornly, dying piece by piece over a decade or more, often unwilling or unable to share their feelings. Most of us, such as my sister and I, head into the turmoil of caring for an aging Immortal utterly unprepared.

Daddy used to laugh at Trisha and me whenever we suggested discussing assisted living and long-term care insurance with him. He insisted—with the unshakable confidence of a career civil engineer—that he didn’t need to make such plans, that he would simply drop dead one day and that would be the end of it. He refused to discuss it further.

It didn’t work out according to that plan, and there was no other plan.

>> EXTRA ESSAY: Read Monroe’s 2002 piece on putting his parents in assisted living

Augustus Currie Monroe was the hardest-working person I’ve ever seen. When he graduated from the University of Florida in 1942, he got a job at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A big reason? The guaranteed pension. He never trusted the stock market, with the crash from what he called the “Hoover days” always fresh in his mind. He ended up earning two pensions—one for his career as a civilian engineer and one from a second career as deputy director of DeKalb County’s water and sewer department.

For twenty-five years, he and a partner operated a private land-surveying business. With me as their rod man, we surveyed many of the subdivisions that went up in DeKalb and north Atlanta during the city’s boom years. For twelve hours every Saturday, Daddy stomped through the woods, chopping down bushes, dripping sweat, and stepping over snakes. He never complained or seemed to get tired. At the end of the day, we always got a milkshake at the old Dairy Queen on North Decatur Road. About once a year, he would take me to an Atlanta Crackers game at Ponce de Leon Ballpark, and we always went to the Georgia–Georgia Tech freshman football game every Thanksgiving.

He was tall, strong, quiet, and had a wicked sense of humor. We used to watch Ernie Kovacs on TV and laugh until we were in tears. He was also pathologically stubborn. As an old man, he refused Trisha’s efforts to move him and Mama into her home or even her neighborhood. When he retired, he just sat down in his recliner. He was worn out.

After his fall on the way to the mailbox, Daddy told us his final wishes. He had a cemetery plot and wanted a graveside service with no flowers and a medium-priced “outfit,” by which he meant a casket. He clearly thought he was about to die. We moved Mama and Daddy into a Decatur assisted-living facility in 2001. Mama needed their highest level of care, so Daddy paid about $6,000 a month for both of them.

After Mama died three years later, he moved to a floor with less care and paid $2,500 per month. During that decade, he lost most of his vision, most of his teeth, and more than a hundred pounds from his peak weight of 250 on his six-foot-three frame. Today all of the meat and muscle is gone.

Last May he fell in his bathroom and broke his shoulder. Doctors were afraid his heart wouldn’t make it through surgery, but they operated anyway. We moved him to a nursing home for rehabilitation, where the aides dropped him, breaking the shoulder again. Unable to urinate, his body swelled up. He was rushed to a hospital, where the doctors inserted a catheter and sent him to a hospice. They figured he had suffered a stroke that interfered with his swallowing. They said he would last only a couple of weeks. Trisha and I cried again.

After a few weeks, the hospice administrator called and said, “We don’t know what’s going on, but he seems to have bounced back and we can’t keep him here any longer.” She added, “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Later he was rushed to another in-house hospice facility after choking on his own mucus, with doctors again convinced he was at death’s door. He got the boot from that place, too, like a bad boy making the rounds of prep schools. His Medicare HMO paid the bills from those facilities.

“He must be growing new organs, like a frog,” I told Trisha.

The hospices had soft-spoken chaplains who talked to Trisha and me. One of them asked, “Has your dad talked about death?”

“Well,” I said, “he has a burial plot next to my mother at Melwood Cemetery in Stone Mountain. He used to describe death as ‘doing the Melwood mambo,’ but he hasn’t mentioned that lately.”

For years when I was growing up, my maternal grandmother cared for her mother and sister, who each had been felled by strokes, in a one-bedroom apartment at Pershing Point. My grandmother ran the mail room at the state highway department. Her sister’s former boss, Mayor William Hartsfield, paid for a nurse to watch over the invalids until my grandmother got home from work.

In those days, extended family cared for the oldest. Now, in an age when family members are separated by hundreds of miles, we leave it up to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. And the need has never been greater. The fastest-growing age group in America is the eighty-five-and-older cohort. As the population ages, healthcare costs continue to outpace inflation. Many older people have seen a sharp decline in their retirement investments since the 2008 economic collapse and are rapidly losing value in their homes. American political leaders are not preparing adequately for the huge demographic shift caused by the aging of the boomers, who began turning sixty-five in 2011. Many of them are retiring at the same time they are dealing with parents who are still alive.

Costs for long-term care are skyrocketing because only 3 percent of adults carry long-term care insurance. As a result, middle-class people without Daddy’s pension income are bankrupting themselves and then applying for Medicaid to pay for a nursing home in which they may languish for years. Medicaid now pays for some 28,000 Georgians to live in nursing homes. Another 2,200 apply each month, although many are rejected.

The long ordeal endured by my sister and me, juggling our father’s care while still trying to scratch out a living for ourselves, will be experienced by virtually every middle-class boomer with an Immortal in the family. When I shared my situation with a fellow teacher, she said she had gone through a similar scenario with her mother, who died slowly, over a period of years, from what was supposed to be a fast-moving cancer.

“She wouldn’t die. She just wouldn’t die!” the teacher told me. “People used to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky!’ But I wasn’t lucky. It was a nightmare.”

Trisha and I were lucky in one sense: Daddy has the type of retirement income that is becoming an anomaly. After all, how many of us will be able to fork out $300,000 for assisted living? Pension plans like my father’s have often been eliminated in favor of risky 401(k)s, vulnerable to the stock market’s volatility. Politicians are champing at the bit to cut back on Social Security and Medicare at a time when so many of us will depend on them. The financial reality of old age—our parents’ and our own, often at the same time—can feel overwhelming.

One thing you learn fast in dealing with navigating the fantastically complicated world of elder care is that it’s a fat, unguarded treasure ship constantly under attack by pirates. I once took Daddy to his doctor, who told me that Daddy’s Medicare HMO had changed his doctor on him. I called the HMO and they refused to talk to me. It seems an HMO representative had entered Daddy’s assisted-living facility and signed him up, even though he was legally blind. The HMO, based in Florida, refused to recognize our Georgia medical power of attorney. I was furious and paid out of pocket for the doctor visit. Eventually I had to involve my lawyer son to get the HMO to communicate with us.

Last June we moved Daddy to a personal care home run by two Bosnian women. A visiting nurse from the most recent hospice sees Daddy several times a week. The Bosnian women keep Daddy sparkling clean. They change his diapers and catheter bag. They coat his bald head with lotion every day. They lift his skeletal frame out of bed, dress him, and put him in a high-back wheelchair that he scoots from room to room, propelling it with his size 12 feet. He grins at the other aging people who live there and watches Westerns on TV with a retired chicken farmer named Ernest.

The Bosnian women run Daddy’s food through a blender and spoon-feed it to him. He doesn’t gain weight, the nurse tells us, because of “adult failure to thrive.” Still, he thrives, so to speak. I told one of the nurses that you could drop a smart bomb in Daddy’s lap and he wouldn’t be late for lunch.

The personal care home costs $4,100 a month, straight from his checkbook. A corporate-run nursing home would cost more than twice that much and would provide a much less personal level of care. Medicare pays for medically necessary skilled nursing facilities under certain conditions, but it wouldn’t pay for Daddy’s long-term nursing home care or assisted living.

Medicaid, on the other hand, does pay for nursing homes. Those costs are the fastest-growing piece of the Medicaid program. But qualifying for Medicaid, which is designed to help people with no assets, can be a complicated legal process, especially for an elderly person who still owns a house. Daddy has too much retirement income to qualify for Medicaid. He quitclaimed his small house in Collier Hills to Trisha and me, but that’s not a guarantee of anything.

One of the toughest parts of dealing with the long-term aging of a parent is coping simultaneously with the crises of younger family members who are not immortal. After I moved to New York City to teach, Trisha had to deal with the fatal illness of her husband, Jack. He was diagnosed with brain cancer, the same kind that Ted Kennedy had. I told Daddy about it over the phone, not realizing the extent of his dementia. A few hours later, Trisha called me in tears. She had gotten a call that Daddy was disoriented and in a terrible panic, roaming the halls of the assisted-living facility in his wheelchair as fast as he could roll, crying, looking desperately for my mother. By that time, she had been dead for five years, but he thought she was lost in the facility and it was up to him to find her. He was confused, but he knew at a deep level that he needed to rescue somebody. He was trying to be the strong man who once caught an 80-mile-per-hour fastball with his bare hand to keep it from hitting my head.

We let Daddy have a shot of Jack Daniel’s now and then. I put a fifth in his sock drawer. He sips part of a jigger at a time. He seems to have some sort of crisis every few months and has to be rushed to a hospital or doctor’s office. It always turns out the same: “He’s doing fine now! Never mind!” And back to the Bosnians he goes. So far, knock wood, those visits have been paid by the Medicare HMO and the backup policies. But the thing about medical bills is that you never know when a hospital will suddenly drop a six-figure bill in your mailbox. Trisha learned this the hard way when Jack was sick. The system is complicated and unpredictable, and giant debt always lurks on the horizon like a storm cloud.

The last time I saw Daddy was in October when I was driving my son and his wife, who live in Philadelphia, to the airport after my daughter’s wedding. When the three of us went in, Daddy was sitting up in a chair and hardly seemed to recognize us. He kept wincing in pain, trying to get comfortable. He said the middle of his back hurt. His head is barely more than a skull now, with giant Gollum eyes and a black chasm where his lower teeth used to be. The scene was so stark I turned my head. I later left messages all around, demanding more OxyContin for my father and generally making an ass of myself. I calmed down after I talked with the nurse and my sister. The fact is, old people are often in pain. Trisha visits and reports he is clean and happy and doesn’t complain about pain. I must have caught him on a bad day.

Trisha and I now have to consider what will happen if Daddy outlives us both. And, of course, we wonder what will happen as we age. Neither of us will have anything like Daddy’s resources. We’re both still working, making much less than we used to.

Frankly, I don’t want to put my two children through an experience like this. What’s so crazy is that medical science is keeping people alive longer. We just won’t be able to afford to live—we’ll be a nation full of immortal poor people.

I went through a serious illness a few years ago and slept through most of 2006, living on savings and credit cards. I describe myself now as “preruined.” I’ll never be able to retire, so I’ve downsized, simplified, and learned to live with much less than I used to.

I would rather kill myself than live like Daddy is living. I’m sure I’m not the only baby boomer who jokes about replacing his 401(k) with a .357. But I certainly haven’t given up yet. I will turn sixty-five in June, and I’m busily examining brochures about medical insurance policies that supplement Medicare. I checked with AARP about long-term care insurance. I can’t afford it.

A while back, I had a talk with my son, Matthew, about what was going on with my father. I said, “If I end up like your grandfather, I want you to take me out in the backyard and shoot me.”

Matt thought about it and then said quietly, “Dad, it’s time to go to the backyard.” 

 

Doug Monroe was a senior editor, columnist, and blogger for Atlanta magazine. He lives in Brooklyn. On December 1, as this issue was going to press, his father, Augustus Monroe, passed away.

Lester Maddox

Maddox grew up poor around the Georgia Tech campus and opened his Pickrick Cafeteria in 1947. The restaurant was known for its fried chicken and the owner’s defiant opposition to racial integration. Maddox penned newspaper ads called “Pickrick Says” and made three unsuccessful runs for public office. His fame spread in 1964, when he and his followers brandished red pick handles—known as “Pickrick Drumsticks”—at black people who approached his business. Two years later, he stumbled into the governorship when his opponent failed to win a majority of votes and the General Assembly picked Maddox. As governor, he appointed a surprising number of African Americans to government positions.

No Business Like Show Business In a spotty postpolitics career, Maddox dabbled in real estate and opened a souvenir shop in Underground Atlanta. At one point, he starred in a musical-comedy duo, The Governor and His Dishwasher, with a black ex-con.

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster


Manuel Maloof

Maloof was the blustery barkeep who established a beer-soaked bunker for Atlanta’s Democratic establishment while he carved out his own political career governing the formerly Republican enclave of DeKalb County. “Anybody don’t like this life is crazy,” he proclaimed from the rowdy pulpit of Manuel’s Tavern on North Highland Avenue. He was elected to the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners in 1974 and later served as commission chairman and DeKalb CEO. “Who would ever believe a bartender, a Lebanese, a Catholic, someone as ugly as me, could get elected in conservative DeKalb County?” he asked.

More Than a Bar Maloof said his tavern had a higher calling: “This ain’t no beer joint. It’s a community center.” Paul Hemphill, the late Atlanta writer whose columns in the 1960s turned Maloof into a folk hero, went further. When he checked into the hospital during his fatal illness, Hemphill was asked what church he went to. His reply? “Manuel’s Tavern.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

Ralph McGill

McGill won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing after he denounced the 1958 bombing of the Temple on Peachtree Street. The lionhearted journalist, who had covered the rise of Hitler, linked the bombing to the racial hatred of the South’s white leaders: “When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.” His civil rights columns established him as the “Conscience of the South.” When racists called his home asking for “Rastus,” McGill let his dog bark into the phone. Starting as a sportswriter, he rose to the position of publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. Over the span of his career, he wrote 10,000 daily columns, many of which bordered on poetry about the full breadth of Southern life.

Passing of Namesakes McGill’s son, Ralph McGill Jr., a top Atlanta advertising writer, died in 2010 at sixty-five of a massive heart attack. Grandson Ralph McGill III, forty-two, died a few weeks later in his sleep at a friend’s house.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

This article originally ran in the May 2011 issue.

Mum’s the Word

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Whenever I take MARTA from the airport, just before the train dips underground in College Park, I crane my neck to see the high, wooden house that my great-grandfather built for his family. In fact, he built most of the beautiful old homes in College Park that have stood for more than a century.
His name was D.G. Bettis; people called him Duke. He was a contractor and banker who served one term as mayor of College Park. He filled the enormous house with children. He had six girls and two boys. He is buried with many of them at the College Park Cemetery, and I have visited their graves.
My interest in the old home has deepened since I uncovered a dark family secret that was hidden from my sister and me by the dishonesty of our mother. Throughout her life, my mother told me that Duke died from an accidental shooting. He had a gun beneath his pillow, she said, and it discharged accidentally. That was her story, and she stuck with it until she died in 2004.
About a year ago, I had an urge to Google Duke’s name and found a 100-year-old newspaper article detailing his death. Turns out it was no accident.
Duke had gone spectacularly insane and shot himself three times in the chest on February 11, 1911. One bullet passed through him and wounded his wife, Belle. His fifteen-year-old daughter Nora, who would become my grandmother, cradled his body as his life ebbed away in a room filled with screams and the smoke from his gun. He was forty-six years old.
The headline on page four of the Atlanta Constitution the next day read: “Mind Unbalanced, Bettis a Suicide . . . Former College Park Mayor Kills Himself. Brooding over ill health, the acts of a wayward son and other troubles, well-known citizen leaves a family of eight.”
In the six months leading up to his death, Duke lost an infant son and his own bid for reelection. His seventeen-year-old son Roney ran away to sea, sending a letter from New York saying he was shipping out as a deckhand on a freighter.
Duke reportedly declared, “This is enough to drive any man crazy.” When he visited his office the day before his death, “his strange actions caused comment among his business associates,” according to the article. At a construction site the next morning, “his abstracted gaze was particularly noted by the workmen.” When Duke got home, he “acted so queerly that his wife’s suspicions were at once aroused.” Belle followed him upstairs. He had a pistol, and she tried to take it from him. “Don’t be afraid,” he told her. “I’m not going to kill myself. They are after me, and I’m just going to protect myself.” Belle was able to partially undress him and get him to lie down in their bed. Then he suddenly whipped out the revolver and shot himself in the chest. The bullet passed through him and struck Belle in the abdomen. Duke fired two more shots.
“All three of the wounds were inflicted almost directly over the heart, within a circumference that could be covered by a silver dollar,” the Constitution reporter wrote. Belle was hospitalized but recovered from her wound.
After Duke died, his business partner stole all Duke’s money and ran away to Florida. The family moved out of their grand home in College Park, moving from apartment to apartment for the rest of their lives—except for two of the girls, who married well. Roney never came home. The family believed he was murdered at sea. One of Duke’s daughters, Lula, died at sixteen in 1914 after swallowing a pin.
Duke was obviously mentally ill. Could he have gotten any medical care in 1911, when Freud still walked the earth? Who knows? But what I do know is that it didn’t do a damn bit of good to lie about what happened.
I believe Duke Bettis bequeathed a genetic time bomb that exploded in my mother and me. When she was in her late forties, Mama had a wild breakdown at her job in Midtown and was carted off to the mental ward at Grady. Our family doctor said my father chose not to pursue further psychiatric treatment for Mama and urged my sister and me not to upset her. We never mentioned it again, although Mama experienced some fairly extreme paranoia, such as the time she wrote me, “The neighbors think I have a boyfriend who looks just like your daddy.”
Would it have helped me to know about Duke’s medical history? As a teenager, I became a blackout drinker and careened in and out of deep depressions. I started therapy in my late twenties and quit drinking in my mid-thirties. Along the way, I considered suicide, often fantasizing about shooting myself—not knowing that my great-grandfather had pulled it off before me. I never owned a gun, because I knew exactly what I would do with it. Knowing the truth about Duke helps me understand a little more about myself when I take inventory.
As far as I know, I’m the only current family member who has had extensive psychiatric treatment. Mama would never consider it.
I also know this: The day I found out about Duke’s suicide, I forwarded the link to my sister and both my children. When my kids were small, I told them the truth about my alcoholism and depression. When they asked questions—“Have you ever been in jail?” or “Have you ever smoked pot?”—I told them the truth. I made a point not to lie to them. Not about this stuff. Shakespeare wrote, “Truth will out,” in The Merchant of Venice. And in Duke’s case, the truth came out for me a century after his death.
I don’t blame Mama for lying, but she was wrong to deny her children such an important piece of medical information. While she was lying to us, she was also lying to herself, denying her own mental problems. Now that I know the truth, I can only wonder what else she might have lied about.
My sister once mentioned to one of Mama’s neighbors that our mother never seemed to cry. “Oh, I’ve seen her cry,” the neighbor said. We never did find out what Mama was crying about. Maybe it’s about time to start Googling my mother.

Monroe was a senior editor, columnist, and blogger for Atlanta magazine. He now lives in Brooklyn.

Illustration by Chris Silas Neal

Requiem for a Reporter: Kathy Scruggs

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Centennial Olympic Park Bombing Memorial
A crowd gathers on July 30, 1996, in Centennial Olympic Park during a memorial service for the victims of the bomb explosion. The same day, the AJC published its story naming Richard Jewell as the FBI’s lead suspect.

Photograph by Michael Cooper/Getty Images Sport

This column originally appeared in our July 2003 issue.

I recognized her immediately. She first appears on page 79 of Jack Warner’s riveting novel, Shikar. Warner changed her name, of course. In the book, she is Kathleen Bentley. But there’s no mistaking Kathy Scruggs.

In the thriller, Kathleen Bentley is a husky-voiced reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who barges into a North Georgia forest with a photographer in search of a man-eating Bengal tiger that is gobbling hill folk.

This is precisely what Scruggs would have done, had the world not fallen on her shoulders after the 1996 Olympics and had a 12-foot tiger invaded the wilds of North Georgia instead of Warner’s fertile imagination.

In her heyday, Scruggs was a hard-drinking, tough-talking police reporter who wasn’t afraid of anything.

Kathleen Bentley is not the first fictional character inspired by Scruggs. Atlanta author Robert Coram borrowed liberally from Scruggs to reporter Kitty O’Hara in his 1997 Atlanta Heat. “You can tell how badly she needs a story by how short her skirt is that day,” the cops say in the book. Scruggs later laughed about the portrait over drinks with Coram at Manuel’s Tavern.

Her raucous sense of humor was what I loved most about Scruggs. One morning when I worked at the AJC, I read a brief she wrote about a guy who was arrested for carrying a shotgun in his pants.

“Hey, Kathy!” I shouted. “This is not news! I often carry a shotgun in my pants!”

“Yeah,” she growled. “Sawed-off.”

Cops still talk in amazement about her bravado. She once beat the police to a murder scene and brazenly crawled in through a back window. When the officers arrived, Scruggs was waiting with the corpse. “Where have you been?” she demanded.

“The cops just loved her,” Coram says. “I don’t think there has been a reporter in town since Orville Gaines who had the sort of trust and access she did.” Gaines was the Atlanta Journal police reporter from 1947 to 1988.

Scruggs grew up in a prominent family in Athens, attended the University of Georgia and graduated from prissy Queens College in Charlotte. But she acted more like the Queen of the Silver Dollar.

She was blonde and wore miniskirts and gaudy stockings. She smoked. She drank. She cussed. She flaunted her sexuality. She dated Lewis Grizzard. She dated an editor who allegedly beat her with a telephone. She dated cops, including one who was accused of stealing money from the pockets of the dead. “Kathy was a bigger-than-life figure,” Coram says. “She was over the top in many ways.”

She also had a keen eye. David Pendered, a veteran AJC reporter, told this story about her: Scruggs was trying to track down the mother of a shooting victim. Relatives said the woman had gone to a beauty parlor to look nice for her son’s funeral. Scruggs took off and tracked down the woman, who was walking with hat in hand. “Any woman carrying her hat instead of wearing it had to be coming home from the beauty parlor,” Scruggs explained.

Seven years ago this month, Scruggs’ career and life came to a head when she was the lead reporter on the biggest story in the world. On July 30, 1996, she broke the story that security guard Richard Jewell was the focus of the federal investigation into the bomb that killed one person and injured 100 at Centennial Olympic Park.

A couple of days after the story ran I congratulated her on the scoop. “Yeah,” she said. “We think he’s the guy.”

But he wasn’t the guy. Jewell was cleared and sued The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a bunch of other news outlets. Most of them settled. The AJC fought the suit and, in 1999, Scruggs was ordered to jail if she didn’t reveal her source for the story. She refused and avoided jail on appeal.

I think the Jewell case killed Kathy Scruggs. Certainly, the stress that plagued her in the aftermath of the story contributed to the health problems that lead to her unspeakably sad death.

She was found dead in her Cherokee County home, wearing an Atlanta Motor Speedway T-shirt and panties, on September 2, 2001, just 24 days shy of her 43rd birthday. The cause of death was acute morphine toxicity, according to the GBI medical examiner, who was unable to determine whether the overdose was intentional or accidental. The examiner also said severe coronary artery atherosclerosis might have contributed to her death. Cherokee Coroner Earl Darby said Scruggs appeared to have died peacefully in her sleep.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened to Scruggs if the AJC had just admitted the obvious fact that it made errors and settled with Jewell. But Scruggs never wanted the paper to settle. She adamantly felt she had done nothing wrong. She was a reporter who came back with the story from her sources and went to her grave protecting their identities. The essence of her initial story was correct: At the time, investigators were indeed looking at Jewell.

But as soon as she brought back the scoop, her work was fed into an editorial meat grinder that spewed out copy like chum. In story after story, the paper’s relentless coverage of Jewell, with Scruggs as the key reporter, was the journalistic equivalent of a “shock and awe” campaign. Critics later said the AJC failed to exercise healthy skepticism about information from law enforcement sources. And some cops and friends feel Scruggs became the scapegoat for errors of fact and judgement made by her editors.

The paper said Jewell contacted the paper looking for publicity, which wasn’t true. The contact was made by a public relations man for AT&T, which had hired the company Jewell worked for. An editor inserted that line into the story. The paper also published a column comparing Jewell to convicted murderer Wayne Williams, but it was written by Dave Kindred, not Scruggs.

Scruggs may be dead, but the Jewell libel case is still alive. It was hobbled when a judge ruled that Jewell was a public figure. The FBI’s current suspect, Eric Robert Rudolph, escaped capture until May. [Editor’s Note: In 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the AJC, noting that “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published.” In 2005, Rudolph plead guilty to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and three other bombings and was convicted and sentenced to four life sentences.]

The stress of the libel lawsuit took a terrible toll on Scruggs over the years. She didn’t go to jail for refusing to identify her source, but she was arrested twice in Buckhead on charges involving intoxication. A friend thinks she was slipped a date-rape drug in one of the incidents.

Scruggs’ health declined horribly. She was hospitalized and had intestinal surgery. She moved from her Cross Creek condo near Buckhead to a remote place in Cherokee County that had a big backyard for a new dog. She was trying to get better. But she was also under stress from financial problems as her medical bills mounted. She felt treated as a pariah in the newsroom and complained that she no longer had a desk.

All my feelings about Scruggs were stirred by Jack Warner’s respectful memorial to a controversial, colorful and troubled reporter. I e-mailed Warner, a legendary UPI editor and former AJC writer now living in retirement in New Mexico. He confirmed Scruggs had read the novel and approved of the Kathleen Bentley character long before the book was published.

As I read Shikar, I got a powerful feeling that Warner created a character that imbues the memory of Kathy Scruggs with lasting nobility and dignity. He perfectly captured what she might be doing in heaven: talking tough and tracking tigers.

Doug Monroe is a journalist and longtime contributor to Atlanta magazine. This article was part of his monthly column for the magazine, The Monroe Doctrine.

This column originally appeared in our July 2003 issue.

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