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Carley Rickles History of Urban Form Semester Project - Spring 2019

Oakland Cemetery - Atlanta, Georgia

the view as i approach the cemetery from the east; approaching along memorial (cemetery right)

The event of visiting the cemetery begins when I leave my house. I have rituals associated with each aspect of the walk. The Oakland Cemetery is my safe space in Atlanta. For me, it serves as the place I go when I don’t know how to fill my time. It is a public park with a rich history and a large biodiversity, both of which keep me curious and observant. Each visit I become more aware of cultural contradictions, Atlanta, and individual graves. When I walk toward the cemetery I always enter from the same place, the south entry. There are only to entry points to the cemetery. I speculate the lack of entries help to manage the space, or it is a measure to preserve the site’s history. I use the secondary “pedestrian entrance” along Memorial Drive. When I look out of my studio window I can see the cemetery calmly peeping over the brick wall onto the busy Boulevard and Memorial intersection. This begins the journey of mental and physical rituals. As I cross the busy Boulevard, I walk along the warm, narrow brick walkway perpendicular to the brick wall – no foliage. During the summer I avoid this walkway because it is too hot. The brick paving signifies the start of an incline. It is also the start of my wall game. I run my fingers on the brick wall cap as my hand moves above and below my site line. The wall conceals and then reveals the cemetery. At some points the cemetery is unseen. It reveals itself at the top of the hill and then exposes downtown’s skyscrapers, slowly, behind. i like the experience of watching the cemetery appear and disappear. Often when walking along the brick wall I think about walls and the visual power they have. The can create


feelings of safety, or insecurity depending on their size and position. They maintain borders and land ownership.

Halfway along the wall, the section I feel the most related to becomes visual, the Jewish Section. Particularly I relate to the burial grounds of the Ahavath Achim congregation dating back to 1892. I grew up going to this synagogue. Although I am unsure if my family is buried here, I feel connected to the plots. My imagination is stimulated in response to the densely packed memorial grounds. By viewing the Jewish Section from the elevated walk I experience an axonometric perspective where I am looking down toward the cemetery. It is a completely different experience than walking in the section, and upon its walled reveal it is always shockingly impenetrable to what lies behind.


Once inside the cemetery I venture east toward the Jewish Section. If time allows, I like to walk in circular route. As I walk through the cemetery I acknowledge social histories, dated burial practices, and symbolism. I have created my own story and theory for the cemetery’s burial juxtaposition based on my experience and some prior knowledge. I realize my reasoning for the layout of the cemetery is speculative, but it is my own experience that I build on each time and through more informed investigations. As citizens experiencing space independently, we are all entitled to have imagined ideas of space. It engages one instantly to her surroundings. It feels like a bond with the landscape. The first observation I make comes as I approach the Confederate Memorial Grounds which come sequentially before the Jewish Section. The Confederate Memorial Grounds are sprawling. Each grave takes up equal space. The tombstones remain in a gridded form. There are two larger monuments attributed to the Confederate soldiers making the landscape hog attention.

As I walk I consider the irony of the Confederate burial grounds in relation to the Slave Square, African American burial, and Jewish Burial. It is central between each of those. It stands out as a spacious and reflective memorial, whereas the Jewish grounds are dense with little room to walk, and the African American burial is minimal. The Oakland Cemetery represents an accurate picture of the social history of Atlanta; it contains both spatial and societal contradictions visually marked and coexisting. Meanwhile the landscape is vibrant and the space itself holds a deep aesthetic beauty. No matter how inconsistent Atlanta is, its natural beauty cannot be contained. It will forever shine through its informality, and it especially does in the Oakland Cemetery. Once past the Confederate Memorial grounds I walk into the dense Jewish section. I like to imagine I am in a big city. Sometimes I pass through, other times I gently walk


through each row, tiptoeing, careful not to step on the graves. I like to pretend I am searching for forgotten family members. I study the symbols on the graves: the vails, the hands, the books, the Hebrew. I place a stone on a grave or two to offer the dead company. I wonder if this small plot was chosen by the congregation or if antisemitism affected its form. I look toward the spacious confederate grounds starkly contrasting the morphology of each lot.

Next I walk toward Potters Field. Potter’s Field was for those who could not afford a gravesite. Today it’s graves are unmarked and it functions as an open space. It is a pastoral field with subtle hills. I like that you can walk right on the field. The sacredness associated with marked burials disappears here. As a community we agree to let the spirituality and respect go for the unmarked graves. There are approximately 7500 people buried under Potter’s Field. It is often the site of dogs playing catch.


sawtooth oak leaves hexagon pavers

Potter’s field is lined with sawtooth oaks. These are rarely planted oaks. I seldom see them. Their acorns form a funny cap with long tendrils that resemble hair. They look like an acorn with a wig. The leaves have little sawtooth-like serrations. Along the edge of the field, and all the streets, are brick gutters to assist water run-off. I imagine they are an old infrastructure because the bricks look aged. In addition to the brick gutters, the walkway has a hexagon pattern found in the surrounding neighborhoods. I like that locals will recognize this; it is an instant connection of citizen to public space.

After walking through Potter’s Field, my cemetery education drops off and I become entertained with the changing views associated with the elevation, the monuments, and the city behind. There are a series of views I like to revisit; certain memorials I like out of dark humor, aesthetic beauty, typography appreciation, and their associated essence I have formed.


The first view includes a female figure standing tall in the foreground. Behind her intentional landscape and unintentional landscape grow lush. There is a palm behind her which brings a different character to the southern landscape, one nostalgic of Florida. Behind her is a radio tower I call “mother�. Mother acts a reference point for me in the city. She is constantly lingering in the background. I like the juxtaposition of the memorial (the history), with the natural elements (the inevitable future), and the radio tower (the present). Next I like to visit the headless monument. There are many of these. I usually spend time with a couple headless monuments. Headless monuments add some humor the cemetery and humanize to the individual monument. They remind me of the temporality of life and of monuments. This one resides along the neighboring railyard wall. It is in the shadow of the MLK MARTA station. Its rails ring in the background.


My experience at the cemetery peaks when I reach my favorite view in all of Atlanta. I thoroughly enjoy the experience of looking at the city through towering monuments. There are several opportunities to see the city framed and appearing to look smaller than the gravestones. I like to imagine the skyscrapers as a continuation of the cemetery city; their spires a continuation of the deceased’s headstone. Sometimes the Marta train rolls by in the midground. I love to watch these elements of the city overlap through a seen, everyday, perspective. I talk about juxtaposition a lot because there is no other word to describe this spatial relationship: To stand at a vantage point that allows for historical and built forms to overlap. This juxtaposition is common, yet rare, and thus beautiful to me. It allows one imagine space while stepping out of scale to realize where one is in the city.

I conclude this journey at the visitor’s center. The visitors center reminds me of a castle. I find its style surprising. I know nothing of its context. My only speculation is that it was a fort, and for some reason it resembles a castle fort. It is humorous and unsure. A southern castle among the dead. Part of my interest in the cemetery comes from an accepted autonomy of the dead and of myself in their space. By embracing a cemetery as a public space the memory of the dead can live on and serve the current. Although I speculate my way through the cemetery, my curiosities become affirmed or denied with time. I enjoy this experience of imagining, learning, and engaging with the past in the present. To me the Oakland Cemetery is a perfect public space for getting to know the city as it has changed over time. In addition to learning through the dead, the cemetery reveals elements of the changing constructed city surrounding its walls. The juxtaposition of history with the natural and constructed world


allows for a holistic experience that connects spaces, perceptions, and scales within the city and further within the cemetery. While existing within the walls of the cemetery, the presence of Atlanta is felt and seen.

map of the cemetery

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walking oakland cemetery  

walking oakland cemetery  

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