On reflection, travel

A simple shrine to a great man

It was the ordinariness that got me. The unremarkable, almost indifferent ‘80s architecture, executed in concrete and red brick. The lack of a grand portal. The absence of ornaments, of gold and marble. Even the central water feature, which invites visitors to sit and reflect, is plain and undramatic.

This is not what I expected. When I headed downtown on the interstate on my way from the airport, the signpost to the Martin Luther King Center was on of my first impressions: this exit for the National Memorial. I imagined a something with a vast statute akin to Lincoln’s, a majestic palace of worship overrun with camera-toting pilgrims enthusiastically buying sentimental kitsch. The more I elaborated on the idea, the less I wanted to go. If America was going to have a National Memorial, I was convinced that it was bound to be in bad taste, disneyfied.

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A most humble memorial

I put my visit off. It was on my list but like the Georgia Aquarium, never an urgent priority. More than a week had passed since my arrival when one morning I decided to leave my apartment block on Auburn Avenue, and head towards the Center, which was about ten blocks down the road. Auburn Avenue is a special place, full of atmosphere and history – opposite my block was the Royal Peacock Theater, a nightspot that had been going since 1937 (on the playbill anyone you ay care to mention, from Ray Charles to Marvin Gay to Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight), the Silver Moon barber shop, which announced itself as Atlanta’s oldest black owned business (established 1904), Big Bethel church, which has the legend JESUS SAVES in large blue capitals affixed to its spire, and two murals the size of the house. One is a quote by King: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. The other giant mural depicts a quote by one of King’s lieutenants, John Lewis. “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution is complete”. And most importantly of all, this is the street where Martin Luther King was born, where he grew up, and where he served his congregation as a minister.

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“Dr King’s plan of action in the Deep South”

I followed the road, which lay peacefully in the sun, past the boarded-up Thelma’s Rib Shack, past Ebenezer, King’s old church, until I reached the Center, which resembled a public library in a provincial town. As I entered, I saw the courtyard with its plain water feature and the Walk of Peace, a prefab esplanade whose greatest luxury was the protection it afforded from the sun.

Inside, there was a monumental plaque with a quote by Coretta Scott King, complete with a portrait of King’s widow, who survived him for 38 years. If I had considered Coretta as a counterpart to Jackie O – a tragic but apolitical widow – the exhibits on display taught me different. Coretta was a campaigner in her own right, with strongly-held convictions. Above all, like her husband, she preached a gospel of love.

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Coretta Scott King was a campaigner in her own right

Among the contemporary artwork on the wall, commemorating slavery and condemning its continuation by another name, the exhibits are displayed in plain cases. There’s no Tiffany-style presentation for King’s Nobel Peace Prize medal – it may have pride of place in the modest entrance hall, but the packaging is simple. On the first floor, there’s a room dedicated to Rosa Parks, whose one-woman campaign of civil disobedience preceded that of King. Contemporary clippings of Parks’ court appearances make for fascinating reading: the tone of the newspaper is more factual and detached than I expected. A German mother walks in with her two young children and explains to them what Parks’ campaign was about. It’s touching she made the journey, and how she tries to explain racism in a way a child can understand without making it sound too scary or too sad.

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Travelling light: Martin Luther King’s suitcase. To the right, the key to the room on whose balcony King was shot.

There’s a room dedicated to Gandhi, whose teachings King studied and applied. And perhaps most touching of all, there’s King’s travel suitcase, not much larger than an airplane tray and neatly packed with the bare necessities. Beside it is the key to the Memphis hotel room on whose balcony he was shot. The year was 1968. King had achieved his first objective; to smash all the legal structures that held segregation in place. Considering where to go from there, he was thinking about economic rights, economic equality. A bullet ended that.

In the courtyard, King’s voice comes tiny from an outdoor speaker. Sitting at one of the concrete tables and looking to his tomb, the words are chilling.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The following day, King was shot in the face.

Now the man’s body lies but a few yards away, next to that of his wife, in a simple tomb surrounded by pale blue swimming pool water.

Humble in appearances but forceful in spirit, there could be no better memorial to the couple.

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Eating and drinking, Leisure pursuits, Skateboarding, travel

Forget what you thought you knew about Atlanta (and take a walk in the park)

It seems like everyone passes through Atlanta, the hub of the south, but almost no-one seems to spend any length of time there, or explore the city beyond the confines of its downtown business district. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that all Google throws up when you do an image search are depictions of a skyline that could be anywhere in the world. At Stanford’s, London’s largest travel bookshop, I could only find one travel guide on Atlanta, from the soulless, ever-so-earnest Wallpaper series. (It had one good listing in it – the rest of the booklet devoted itself to staircases of note, and wanky boutique hotels). As a result, I expected a soulless, corporate centre (Coca-Cola, CNN) set in a sprawling sea of projects (which I imagined all that hip hop ATL is so famous for must be coming from).

Wear a funny hat and I am yours

Wear a funny hat and I am yours

I was proved wrong. Yes, Atlanta has a concrety, skyscapery city centre, and yes, there are only a tiny handful of historic buildings left downtown, such as the Georgia State Capitol and the Tabernacle concert hall. But outside this relatively small core – think Croydon or Frankfurt minus pedestrians – is a lush, verdant city consisting of quiet, well-kept streets which are made up of wooden houses and brownstones. Almost all of Atlanta’s cityscape is low rise and human in scale, making it a joy to explore on foot (a pursuit which will immediately mark you at as European or very odd, or probably both.)

Big botany

Atlanta is so green, it has a tree coverage of 53.9 per cent, ranking first of all major cities in the US. And they don’t just have any trees: gorgeous pink crate myrtles are in bloom everywhere, accentuated by white magnolias and – if you look closely enough – peach trees (a fruit Georgians are famously dotty about). And the people? Well, they say Southerners are hospitable and Atlantans certainly live up to that label. Here, people make time to talk – but crucially, they also get things done. Visit any café or restaurant and you’ll find that staff have found the sweet spot between easy-going small talk and American-style speed and efficiency. So here are a few highlights of the city.

Don't miss Piedmont Park

Don’t miss Piedmont Park

Leaving the tourist attractions of The World of Coca-Cola, CNN and the Georgia Aquarium (which everyone raves about) for later, take a breather first and acclimatise to the city in the serenity of Midtown’s Piedmont Park. Gleaming in the distance, you’ll see the tall buildings of the business district, together with the W Hotel, while all around you there is beauty on display. The sophisticated landscaping – based on the Olmsted Brothers’ 1912 design – creates a huge variety of vistas, uses, activities and people.

Take the time to explore and there are surprising features everywhere. At the park’s centre is a lake, almost hidden away by the surrounding trees. There are swings to relax in and a small path leads across the water to the swimming pool. Before you get there, you’ll pass a gazebo inviting you to stop awhile and take in the view. The running track, basketball and tennis court attracts some astonishingly handsome locals who casually display their perfect physiques. On Sundays, the picnic stands play host to cookout parties, blasting R&B and hip hop out into the park. And in the back, there’s a vast expanse of mud for dogs both big and small to play in, which keeps the belabelled lifestyle gays who own them away from the cruising ground (legal waiver: there isn’t one). Best of all, if you’re into longboarding, you’ll have hours of fun on the park’s slopes and inclines, with just enough people to make slaloming around them a little bit of fun.

The Piedmont Park area is a tad gay, actually

The Piedmont Park area is a tad gay, actually

The truth about grits

If you’ve had enough or your tummy rumbles, there are a number of great cafés and restaurants nearby: Willy’s and Zocalo’s serve Mexican, and The Flying Biscuit is so renowned for its breakfast people stand in line on Sundays. Do not miss but never, ever order grits by themselves – add shrimps or frankly, anything at all to this tasteless pap. I thought my tongue was malfunctioning but in reality, I just didn’t know that this quintessential southern favourite has the consistency of glue (sadly lacking its taste). And another word of warning – your Biscuit may be airborne at this restaurant, but your wifi will stay grounded. To go online, y’all cross the road and hook yourself up for free at the Caribou coffee shop on the corner of 10th St and Piedmont Ave.

By the way, did I mention that this is the heart of Atlanta’s premier gaybourhood? Just in case the massive rainbow flag flying from Zocalo’s didn’t give the game away….

Stay tuned for more of Hotlanta’s delights in the next post!

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