Tomorrow Atlanta’s City Council will vote on whether to change “Harris Street” to “John Portman Boulevard at Historic Harris Street.” I wrote my opinion, below. If you can’t voice your opinion tomorrow at City Hall at 1 pm, please contact your City Councilperson to let them know what you think.
John Portman, famous architect and developer, should be honored by the city of Atlanta. His contributions to our city are invaluable. His impact on skylines around the world has been substantial. Portman is unequivocally a great Atlantan.
But renaming “Harris Street” to “Portman Boulevard at Historic Harris Street” is a bad idea. It’s not just a bad idea because it cheapens the legacy of both John Portman and Judge John L. Harris. It’s a bad idea because it would set a dangerous precedent for the way we honor Atlanta’s most important citizens.
Picture Bernie Marcus Boulevard at Historic Ponce de Leon Avenue. Or Arthur Blank Street at Historic Andrew Young International Boulevard. What about John Smoltz Boulevard at Historic Hank Aaron Avenue?
Few would dispute the contributions to the city of Atlanta from any of these men. (Well, Ponce de Leon is on his own.) Like Portman’s efforts, their contributions are substantial and usually lauded. I’d contend, however, that we can find a better way to honor these esteemed individuals.
I’m not alone. Recently the Atlanta Preservation Center and five individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the city over the renaming. The idea of changing this particular street name at all has been rejected by the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association. It’s also been rejected by downtown’s Neighborhood Planning Unit. It’s also been rejected by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission.
The Atlanta City Council doesn’t like street renaming either. At the most recent City Utilities Committee meeting, Councilmember Aaron Watson said, “I hope we figure out a way to avoid [street renaming] in the future. I absolutely favor looking into other ways of honoring great Atlantans.” Council President Ceasar Mitchell echoed the sentiment: “We will find other ways to honor people. That’s the direction I want to see us go.”
Oddly enough, however, both men support renaming “Harris Street” to “Portman Boulevard at Historic Harris Street.”
Some folks have argued that this particular street renaming is permissible given the significance of Portman’s contributions and the relative insignificance of Judge John L. Harris’s reputation. Council President Mitchell complained that he couldn’t find anything about Harris on the internet. This is perhaps because Judge Harris served as Fulton County’s first and only representative to the State Legislature in 1855.
Please recall — the internet had not yet been invented in 1855. Neither had the chocolate chip cookie. Judge Harris was a pioneer when Atlanta was a twinkle in the eye of a handful of citizens. If not for him and for them, we wouldn’t even be talking about John Portman. Not in Atlanta anyway.
Street names honor many of our citizens long after their memories have faded. That’s the point. The patina of history, however, has allowed City Council to play favorites with well-connected contemporaries. No matter what Councilmembers might think, Atlanta’s history isn’t comprised of fictional characters that should be discarded in favor of friendship or politics.
John Harris was a man with a family who served our city, our county, and our state. No doubt he and his family took pride in their name, both before and after we named a street after him.
Harris’s cousin was one of Atlanta’s most famous citizens, Joel Chandler Harris, an associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution alongside Henry Grady. I can’t imagine he’d be thrilled if our City Council stripped his family of its honor for no particular reason.
The same goes for Joe Harris’s son, Julian Harris, a prominent Atlantan who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for his “energetic fight against the Ku Klux Klan.” He in particular wouldn’t hide his displeasure with our City Council for stripping his family of its honor for no particular reason.
So too his great-grandnephew, Robin Harris, who as a State Legislator was instrumental in developing MARTA and Georgia’s current Constitution. He wouldn’t be happy about the $100,000 our cash-strapped transit agency will needlessly incur by having to change its maps and signage from “Harris Street” to “John Portman Boulevard at Historic Harris Street.”
Robin Harris’s grandson, yours truly, isn’t exactly thrilled about it either. Honor meant to outlast memory shouldn’t be stripped once someone’s contributions are forgotten.
City Council President Mitchell has said that naming a street after a citizen is “the highest honor a city can bestow.” If that’s true, we can’t leave City Council to pit the merits of great Atlantans against one another and thus erode that honor’s credibility, one street renaming after the next.
By the way, other major cities have already figured this particular issue out. Check out Chicago’s Madison Avenue at Wabash.