Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Sacred Harp singers, Sapelo Island sugarcane, and a battle with a deadly superbug

Plus, the changing face of Atlanta’s sprawl and a pair of streetcar stories
C. Diff
An up-close medical illustration of a deadly superbug.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Doug Monroe in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on his battle with a deadly superbug

In February 2015, Georgia writer—and former Atlanta Magazine columnist—Doug Monroe grew sicker than he’d ever felt before. Over the course of a day, he went from his doctor’s office to a local emergency room to a regional hospital. It turned out he had contracted a deadly superbug called Clostridium difficile colitis (known as “C. diff”) that upended his life:

I was too sick to be scared. But I knew I wasn’t ready to die. My life to that point had been like a bumper-car ride at the fair. I hopped jobs. I drank too much until I quit at 35. I sank into deep depressions but kept climbing out. I got divorced, but we had two amazing kids. I wanted to finish a book I’ve been working on forever. I wanted to see my grandson grow up. I had left so much undone that my heart ached.

I used to joke about my musical children: “I’ve seen both of my kids play at The Earl in East Atlanta. My life is complete.” But it wasn’t complete. It wasn’t nearly complete.

The intensive care unit doctor at Piedmont told me I needed so many drugs so fast that he wanted to put an IV in my neck. I signed a form acknowledging the procedure might produce a blood clot. The ICU staff saved my life.

Read: Fixing to Die

Quinn Mulholland in the Harvard Political Review on Atlanta’s sprawl

During the last century, racism largely limited the growth of Atlanta’s transit system and helped spur the region’s vast sprawl. However, Mulholland writes, once-ardent opposition has started to thaw:

In the 1990s, urban development expert Christopher Leinberger dubbed Atlanta the poster child for urban sprawl, and “the name kind of stuck.” The city’s suburbs were growing at a rapid pace, adding over a million people between 1990 and 2000. With MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, confined within city limits because of worries of the crime it would bring, massive freeways and wide parkways provided the only connections to the wider metropolitan area. Gas-guzzling cars filled the roads, ferrying suburbanites to and from their homes on quiet cul-de-sacs, past big box stores and strip malls, and through open countryside.

Atlanta’s sprawl fueled a booming economy but also isolated its poorest residents in pockets of poverty. Those without cars faced long commutes on MARTA’s underfunded, limited bus and rail service to get to their job or simply to buy food. The interstate highways that suburbanites relied upon to commute to the city demarcated racial boundaries and gutted black neighborhoods. Yet since the 1990s, the city has begun to change.

Read: Urban Sprawl’s Poster Child Grows Up

Stories on the Atlanta Streetcar from Kate Sweeney and Darin Givens

The Atlanta Streetcar is polarizing. Ask around, and you’ll either hear that it offers hope for the future or is a rolling boondoggle. WABE’s Sweeney looks back to the origins of the city’s first streetcar to see how it differs from today’s system. After you’re done with that piece, check out a story at Medium from Givens, who looks at how today’s problems could impact the project’s future:

At some point during the process of planning the streetcar route, was there no one at the city level saying: “Is there even a chance to develop empty spots around the tracks”? Many of the parcels are owned by large institutions like GSU and Big Bethel church, and neither of them seem to be on board with the idea of filling the places alongside the tracks with urban density.

There are some new student apartments going in on the Edgewood Avenue stretch, but we already have a lot of student housing near the streetcar and it isn’t producing any ridership that I’ve seen. The spending and mobility habits of GSU students seems to not really align with the streetcar service. This area needs more that students, and the city’s lack of ability to get new non-student residences and businesses developed on the streetcar line isn’t only hurting ridership.

It’s also hurting the handful of businesses that have opened. I’ve spoken with a couple of owners of businesses on Auburn Avenue who’ve verified that the streetcar is not bringing in customers and that street traffic from pedestrians is so unreliable that regular opening hours are difficult to maintain These stores get no foot traffic from the surface parking lots. No customers came from the empty Atlanta Life buildings and weeded, empty lots.

Read: Could Atlanta Once Again Become A Streetcar City?

Read: Empty spaces and empty streetcars in Atlanta

Jill Neimark in Hakai magazine on Sapelo Island sugarcane

A quarter century ago, the residents of Sapelo Island stopped growing sugarcane. In an effort to save Geechee culture, Neimark writes, a movement is afoot to revive the indigenous crop:

Will the purple ribbon cane repatriation project save Hog Hammock? Or is it a wistful dream? If you ask Bailey, she resorts to storytelling. “They tell me I died as a child and when I suddenly came back to life all the elders said I had come back for a reason. They believed I could see and hear and know things the ordinary person can’t.” She hints that the legend may be true; she seems to know things before they happen. “My husband and I moved to St. Simons Island for a while in the 1960s, and then we came back here. And people said, ‘You’re back for a reason. God sent you back.’” That expectation, she acknowledges, is a burden, but it’s woven into who she is.

“I’ve been talking to residents about lending me their yards to plant cane. I’m envisioning sugarcane growing, the leaves blowing in the breeze. I want to smell it. I want to see it. I want to sharpen a machete and watch the young people cut it down as if they were slaying a dragon. We’ll take long stalks and peel them and cut them into strips and sit in the shade chewing them. There’s nothing more delicious in the world. We’ll bottle our own syrup. We’ll sell the cane to rum distilleries.”

Read: Bringing the Sweet Back to the Saltwater

Chuck Reece in the Bitter Southerner on Sacred Harp singers

For this week’s Bitter Southerner feature, Reece writes about how the 172-year-old tradition of Sacred Harp singing has not only survived, but also expanded its reach to include both religious devotees and nonbelievers:

It’s a hard thing to figure out: how Sacred Harp attracts so many different kinds of people, from near and far away, people who might have no interest at all in its religious roots. I asked our photographer Kelso, who freely identifies as a Christian, why he thought the music could cross those lines.

“I had a punk-rock and rock-and-roll background, and I had just a loud, boisterous nature. Couldn’t sing a lick to save my life, and I didn’t feel like I sounded pretty,” Kelso told me. “The thing that I love about Sacred Harp is that when you walk into that church door, you have people from all different kinds of walks of life. You have people from different denominations, you’ve got people that are young, people that are old, people who have grown up loving the Lord their entire life, and you have people that do not know the Lord, who have rejected the Lord. Strong contrast, from any way you look at it.”

Jesse Karlsberg had told me: “Once I started to meet people, you just realize that everyone really does love and care about each other for being here, and that manifests itself in all kinds of ways. It just builds relationships. A lot of people say that Sacred Harp singers are like family to them, and we’ve certainly sung with and stayed with singers all around the U.S. and in England and in Poland and Ireland.”

Some people come from places in Alabama, where Sacred Harp never died, and their faith is deep. Others come to Sacred Harp because it sounds like a cappella heavy metal. The only inescapable fact is that the music binds them all.

Read: Let Everybody Sing