Project Reviews

Vale of Amusements: Modernity, Technology, and Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Park, 1870-1920
Created by Sara Toton and maintained by Southern Spaces, 15 January 2008

Sarah Toton, an American Studies Ph.D. student in Emory University's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, allows her research interests in media studies and popular representations of technology in American culture to shine in this digital article. Examining Atlanta's Ponce de Leon Park as a microcosm for an emerging modern southern city, this essay explores transportation, technology, electrification, modernization, and the rise of Jim Crow culture. The article meets Southern Spaces' mission to explore the "real or imagined places of the American South and their connections with the wider world." Toton succinctly declares that Ponce de Leon Springs development into Ponce de Leon Park mirrors the transformation of Atlanta from railroad town to modernized metropolis as revealed within national trends in recreation and transportation.

Creating a comprehensible structure for the article, Toton fashions six sections: Introduction, The Springs, The Park, Epilogue, Notes, and Recommended Resources. Toton's introduction provides outstanding context of mechanical parks and recreation in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Engaging the secondary literature to offer a new assessment of amusement park culture, Toton argues that these sites did not serve as harbingers of mass culture, but rather as carefully regulated spaces that emphasized the established broader social conventions, particularly in the American South. With this argument, the article portrays Ponce de Leon Park and Atlanta emerging as modern, yet segregated spaces.

Continuing her treatment, Toton asserts that Ponce de Leon Park offered Atlantans not only a venue for amusement, but also an interactive stage for emergent and complex technologies. With a theater, electric lights, mechanical rides, manufactured lakes, picnic grounds, outdoor gardens, and, eventually, a baseball park, Toton clearly depicts Ponce de Leon Park as a nexus between nineteenth-century naturalism and twentieth-century modernism. Here, the essay offers an attention-grabbing insight regarding new technologies and cultural facets. The modernism and emerging technological utopianism of the early twentieth century clashed with the prevailing Jim Crow segregationist ideology and racist exclusion in the American South. As Ponce de Leon became an increasingly popular leisure spot for white Atlantans, blacks faced exclusion. Unfortunately for the reader, Toton does not delve much further into this interesting facet of race and class.

One place that digital scholarship and online sources can improve the way authors present history is to introduce the public to the intrinsic values in studying change over time and more intimately relating the present with the past. Toton's epilogue successfully brings Ponce de Leon Park's saga to the present. While, the article situates the development of Ponce de Leon from roughly 1870 to 1920, it forges ahead, bringing the reader to the present. For instance, a 2006 video, a primary digital addition to this article, shows Atlanta, at the park's original location, as a vibrant, bustling modern city. Further, the author describes the connection with the past mentioning that currently venture groups seek to re-establish the park as an urban green space with close proximity to a potential Beltline. Revealing crucial connections, the author's depiction evokes the relationship between transit, entertainment, and business that flourished in the same location over one hundred years earlier.

Toton's article certainly benefits from digital media and the ability to link to other information thereby relating the past to present. As a digital article, "Vale of Amusements" provides excellent hyperlinks opening new windows of discovery. Rather than bogging down readers with lengthy informative footnotes, as one might find in a print article or book, the hyperlinks provide an opportunity for the reader to take detours and gain additional information about a person, place, or topic. As can be the case with digital history and the placement of hyperlinks, there are not too many to distract the reader and seem well placed here. Toton has strategically restrained the hyperlinks in the text and has produced a structure for precise navigation through the article. Internal links direct readers to postcards, and newspaper images and transcriptions, while framing the article's structure. The majority of links, however, link to URL's outside of the author and article's control, which creates a problem if the information on a particular webpage changes or disappears altogether. While some links in this article seem to establish an evidentiary base, others link readers to additional or background information. One can link to the public park movement and ascertain the context for a national park movement and its reasons. Researchers can link to census records to confirm Toton's numbers. At times, the essay directs readers to the New Georgia Encyclopedia for more background information on a reference made in the text. However, with much of the evidentiary base and supporting information open to the possibility of alteration or deletion, the article's argument diminishes.

The article provides access to some primary sources giving the reader a personal connection with historical documents. The author has digitized or transcribed full-text newspaper articles, postcards, and photographs and effectively inserted them within the narrative and as separate links. These few items notwithstanding, this article is void of original sources. The notes section is, for published scholarship, unusually sparse and the evidentiary links are secondary in nature. One can imagine a wholly untapped cache of primary source research for this topic. For instance, one has to believe that local patron's journals exist. City government records or business records from the rail and manufacturing companies involved could certainly shed light on the city and park's development. The reader might also wonder why there are some, but not all newspaper articles digitized or transcribed. In fact, only one of the newspapers articles cited in the notes section has a transcription. Why did the author not take the time to digitize or transcribe the March 5, 1887, May 13, 1887, January 19, 1889, or July 17, 1904 Atlanta Constitution articles?

Despite some editing oversights, the writing is clear and well organized. While the author makes a lucid and credible argument, the connection between the city and the park's development and transition to modernity is altogether lacking. Toton suggests that the histories of town and park intertwine as both spaces adopted and adapted to new technologies and social perspectives. Here, the author seems to lose the audience, general and professional, by assuming significant knowledge regarding Jim Crow racial segregation and technological development in the South. The author devotes little text and much worse, no visual representation, to the changing and developing modern city of Atlanta. Here, the article seems constrained in its digital possibilities. There are no maps and no visual interaction in comparing the growth and development in Atlanta and Ponce de Leon Park, which could enhance the argument and introduce useful digital additions to the article. The argument could benefit from enhanced imagery and greater comparative analysis on the development of Atlanta itself during the same period. The reader, therefore, must take the author's word that Atlanta's transition into a modernized city and its changing mores occurred in the same fashion as the park. Omitting a seemingly crucial part of the analysis, the author diminishes an otherwise intriguing and persuasive investigation. Overall, this digital article is a worthwhile read for students of popular culture, leisure, and technology; although one can only speculate as to the amount of knowledge gained from this piece. The clear structure, precise navigation, hyperlinks to online resources, and video production make for an interesting digital piece.

Brent Rogers
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2008