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Essay: Remembering devastating 1962 Paris plane crash helps reconnect Atlanta’s past to present

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Rodin's "The Shade," a gift of the French government when the Memorial Arts Center opened in 1968, serves as a memorial to those who died at Orly Airfield in 1962.

This Sunday will mark the 50th anniversary of the crash of Air France Flight 007 at Orly Airfield near Paris, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 122 Atlantans. Among them were 106 Atlanta Art Association members, the very core of the city’s cultural and civic leadership, returning from a month-long tour of European art treasures.

I was only six years old at the time, which puts me in a transitional generation. I was not old enough to know any of the passengers, nor, to my best knowledge, did my working-class immediate family have connections among Atlanta’s artistic elite. The exception might have been my late uncle Charles Leftwich, only because he was a city alderman under the old municipal governance system, representing what was then the Fourth Ward, and thus was obliged to know people, but not to talk about them.

But we who are native Atlantans, even those of my generation, do share the Southern tradition of measuring our present by the yardstick of an excruciatingly well-remembered past — whether things are better or worse today, where we have been and where we might be going. For us, the Orly crash was a collection of stories passed down by our community elders. Even more so, it was the unspoken reverberations felt in the creative undercurrent as we grew up in its aftermath, before Atlanta became mostly a city of newcomers without emotional connection to the city’s past.

If it is true that the most important things we need to know in life are what we learn early in childhood, those stories and resonances have shaped how we relate to the city’s evolving artistic community and ourselves as artists, even if on subtly powerful and subconscious levels.

Some people say that “old Atlanta” died in that crash. I’m not so convinced that it died, but the tragic loss may have hastened cultural and social changes that were already starting to surge. One certainty is that the crash itself serves as a dividing line in our cultural history as much as Ponce de Leon Avenue long did geographically: things were different on the other side.

Some describe it as the most significant event in Atlanta’s history since Sherman burned it. I believe that is a fair statement in terms of its tragic consequences, and I would place it above the 1996 Olympics in impact. As the Woodruff Arts Center, which was born out of the tragedy, commemorates the anniversary on Sunday, many newer residents may not understand that perspective, but perhaps it comes to those of us who were born here. It is our tragedy, our sense of grievous loss, our history — part of the toughened sinews that bind us together more strongly by a collective memory which, if often repressed, is far from forgotten.

Overwhelming social and economic changes were already on their way as the civil rights movement marched forward and the new Hartsfield Airport began to do for the city what railroads had accomplished in the past. During the half-century since, change has been the single most identifiable characteristic of Atlanta, indeed the entire South. It’s not surprising, then, that the tsunami of social change and concurrent economic growth across the South since the 1960s has been compared with that of post-World War II Germany and Japan.

But with major change has also come a loss of the city’s unique identity. There was a time when Atlanta took great pride in being symbolized by the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes. By the end of the 20th century, that had degenerated into “Whatizit,” the 1996 Olympics mascot, which somewhat resembled a blue electric garden slug and was described as being “whatever you want it to be” — which essentially proved that it meant nothing to anyone.

We cannot undo what happened at Orly Airfield. We do not know how far or in what direction the arts in Atlanta might have gone had it not occurred. What we do know is that the shock galvanized the city into coming together in search of a way forward. Since then, the arts in Atlanta have evolved greatly, perhaps beyond the expectations of those days.

Still, we have yet to fully reconnect our present with our past and our roots, to redeem our unique identity as a city, and make ourselves whole again. If remembering the tragedy in France can help us accomplish that, then we will truly honor the legacy of those who were taken from us in the midst of serving Atlanta’s arts.

For more about the Orly crash and its impact, see the GPB documentary “The Day the World Stood Still.”

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