Writer and urban designer Hannah Palmer paid a visit to Arnold Hall Wednesday evening to share her experiences in understanding the link between story and place in a talk titled, “Stories in the Landscape: The Intersection of Creative Writing and Urban Design.”
Palmer grew up in a small town called Mountain View, Georgia, which was within earshot of the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The airport and its place in Palmer’s life are the focus of her newly-released book, “Flight Path.”
Published by Hub City Press, “Flight Path” explores the overlap of Palmer’s experience growing up near the airport and the deeper impact of its massive construction development, which ultimately took over her home town.
Currently based in the Atlanta area, Palmer said her work as both a freelance writer and urban designer compliment each other surprisingly well.
A lover of reading and writing, Palmer earned her MFA in creative writing from Sewanee: The University of the South. She shared some of the tools she regularly uses to research and understand a variety of places and environments, which play into both of her careers.
“Who has been to the Atlanta Airport before,” Palmer asked, to which the majority of the room raised their hands. “You and everyone in the world have been to the Atlanta Airport. 100 million people fly through the airport every year.”
All three of Palmer’s childhood homes were too close to the airport runway, which, she explained, is why none of them exist anymore. Using online mapping tools and technology, she was able to trace her roots and find the lots of those lost homes.
“So if you’ve flown in and out of the airport, you’ve flown over my houses,” Palmer said. “But growing up next to it, I didn’t know how bizarre it was on a global scale, or how big it was. It wasn’t until I moved away from Atlanta. You talk to people around the world, and you say, ‘I’m from Atlanta,’ and they say ‘Oh, the airport.'”
Palmer explained the airport bought out the entire city of Mountain View, which is why the city does not exist today. Until Palmer decided to write about the airport’s influence in her life, almost no one knew the story of Mountain View.
“Through writing this book, it’s the first time anyone’s ever talked about this,” Palmer said. “I had to start looking at all these archival plans of the airport.”
One of Palmer’s tips for writers was to tell a story nobody else can. With her own book, Palmer took a personal angle, one no journalist could take.
“This is something that people in Atlanta don’t know,” Palmer said. “People don’t know there’s any history there.” Palmer said great works of nonfiction take what people generally don’t care about and present that subject in a unique, intriguing manner. That was Palmer’s main goal throughout her writing process.
In her early stages of writing “Flight Path,” Palmer took to riding her bike around land the airport bought but never fully developed. She started blogging about her discoveries and subsequent research, but she never considered the blog would garner a following.
“I was asking questions and doing research, and then over time, people were asking me questions,” Palmer said. “And I had all this material that I turned into my MFA thesis.”
Palmer said writers might pick up her book and be surprised by how much urban design is woven into it and urban designers might be taken back by the amount of memoir included.
When writing about place, Palmer advised to be creative about generating a sense of setting.
“This may be obvious, but Google Streetview is revolutionary,” Palmer said. “You can go to the streets of Paris and see how people are dressed, you can actually go on elephant trails in Africa. You can really zoom up and down and all around. It’s going to change the kind of creative work we’re creating.”