Date of Award

Spring 5-14-2021

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

First Advisor

Jeffrey Trask

Second Advisor

Marni Davis

Third Advisor

Alex Cummings

Abstract

In 1899, Atlantans saw their city streets as multi-purpose open spaces, freely available to all persons and transit modes. By 1929, that understanding had changed. Streets became automobile conduits to rapidly and efficiently move motor vehicles around town. Other modes of transportation had disappeared or been marginalized. New government regulations tightly controlled or banished other street users and uses. Vast amounts of municipal space became the domain of automobiles, losing the democratic values which public roads formerly represented. This study will demonstrate that during the 1920s, Atlanta’s powerful elites brought about this transformation of society’s comprehension of the meaning and function of a city street. Seeing the automobile as the essential tool for city expansion, this pro-growth coalition directly intervened in state and municipal government to enact laws favoring motor vehicles. They sought and won the allocation of public funds to build the physical infrastructure and legislative superstructure to facilitate the presence of cars on city streets. The print media marketed the changed definition of street space, and promoted the automobile as a status symbol and a way to escape the always-contentious, multi-racial streetcars. Realtors and investors urged better roads for automobile access to their burgeoning suburban developments. While the transformative process took root and sprouted between 1900 and 1919, the twenties witnessed the bulk of the efforts of the growth alliance to remake Atlanta’s city streets. No longer a luxury vehicle for the very rich, by 1920, the car had emerged as a necessity for all but the poorest citizens. Utilizing modern marketing methods and innovative business strategies, automakers helped emplace a national culture of consumption. Advertisements urged Atlantans to go into debt to purchase the latest models, while the local government struggled to cope with traffic gridlock and outrageous numbers of auto-related fatalities. Blaming streetcars for the congestion, business and civic leaders also increasingly faulted pedestrians and children for their own injuries and deaths—they should not have strayed onto streets which no longer belonged to everyone. By 1929, Atlanta’s leadership had surrendered the city streets to the automobile; the car had “won” the road.

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