The author of Flight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport (2017), Hannah Palmer, takes on several subjects that seem unrelated: the history of the Atlanta Airport, her own biography and that of her parents, his marriage to her husband Jake and their son, born in the penultimate chapter. This book is a memoir, a book about urban planning (or the lack of it), a study of economic and social forces that at least in the case of the small cities and towns around the airport separated and ultimately excluded residents on the basis of race and economic class. The search for “roots” for Palmer involves finding the houses where she lived as a child, where she grew up. This becomes difficult because most of the neighborhoods where she lived were bought up and razed either by the airport or by developers. Her own memory along with her research into county maps and records allow her to find these houses, or the vacant lots where they once stood. The house she is most interested in is one where she and her sister lived with their father and stepmother for nine years, but it has either been burned in a fire department exercise or moved to another location—she can never determine which.
Time is one subject of this book. In the case of the airport, expansion, developer greed, and shifting racial demographics—along with the ever-present noise of the airport—pushed people out. The neighborhoods and houses in which people live, with which they identified in a personal way, are wiped out. Even geography changes—this is how time’s impact becomes manifest. Palmer fixes on the small town of Mountain View, where she lived in part of her childhood, and which, in 1977, by legislative mandate, ceased to exist and was absorbed into land marked for seizure or development around the airport.
Palmer sees a sharp divide between the economic forces surrounding the airport and the lives of the people who live in near it—people who are powerless to influence decisions of corporations and legislative bodies that directly affect their lives. These residents have almost no voice. She wonders how identification with place, with the land of one’s birth, can survive in an age where things can disappear so fast, where one’s identification with place becomes a weak or non-existent factor in decisions that are made, where one’s significance as an individual becomes meaningless.
I lived in College Park near the airport for the first two decades of my life, from 1950 to 1970. The deafening noise of jets flying in and out of the airport was a constant part of the environment. During peak traffic times, we often had to stop talking because the noise made it impossible to hear what others were saying. Palmer discusses the ever-present airport noise. In the 1970s, when I came home from college to visit, I saw the gradual changes being worked by the airport. I saw a neighborhood, Newton Estates, where I used to go to play with friends, become a wasteland of empty, silent, uninhabited houses, bought out by the airport’s noise abatement programs.
Palmer’s book is surprisingly good—surprisingly because one doesn’t often expect a book about the impact of an airport’s growth and development to be so full of intelligence, compassion, human insight, interest, and life. Flight Path has all these qualities.