Down the Barrel

by Vivienne Chen, May 2012.

On the corner of Boulevard and Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, is a row of one-story, grayish-blue houses. A line of parked cars with windshields covered in a dusty film of lime-colored pollen signals that spring has come to the South. The porches of the houses face the historic Fire Station Number 6 across the street, the United States’ first racially integrated firehouse. Just down the road is the birthplace of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

A national parks ranger there named Travis, in his wide-brimmed hat and forest-green uniform, points to the houses.

 

“Those there are called shotgun houses,” he says. “Anyone know why?” He looks at his silent tour group, comprised of a handful of Princeton University students and a family of four, their sweaters tied loosely around their hips in the mid-afternoon sun.

 

Travis has mocha-brown skin and an accent that makes “picture” sound like “pitcher.” He answers himself, “Because they say you can point a gun through the front door and shoot straight through all rooms in the house, right out the back.”

 

A shotgun house, in other words, is long and narrow. After you cross the porch you might step into a living room, and behind that maybe a kitchen and bathroom, and behind them a bedroom. The doorframes to each room are constructed in a straight line, from porch to backyard, emphasizing the lore in the name.

 

Shotgun houses are so emblematic of American Southern architecture that even though Travis’ tour group came to see King’s birth home, he always points out the houses across the street. Their porches are painted a traditional shade of pale haint blue, once used to ward off “haints” or spirits. According to the Gullah people of the South, ghosts cannot cross a body of water and will mistake the blue for a river or moat.

 

In the 1800s, Haitian refugees fleeing the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Overture (the only recorded successful slave revolt in history) brought the architecture of the shotgun house to America. The style quickly spread from New Orleans across the South, especially among the poorer African-American communities. Some speculate that the shotgun house was used as antebellum slave housing, when plantation owners would stride into slave quarters and send a bullet barreling through every room to stop a runaway.

 

The history of the South is worn into the wooden grooves and knots of the shotgun house’s face. From bondage to emancipation, Jim Crow to civil rights, the row of modest houses down the street from King’s home are a structural reminder of structural inequality.

 

King, however, did not grow up in a shotgun house. Along with every other home on Auburn Avenue, his house was Victorian. Two stories, complete with parlor, study, three bedrooms, guest room, kitchen, laundry, bathroom, and dining room. King’s family bought the house in 1909 for less than $20,000 in current US dollars. Well-furnished and carpeted, it seems fitting for a middle-class African American preacher like Martin Luther King, Sr., his wife, and his three children.

 

Looking at King’s home and then gazing down the street, or at any side street in downtown Atlanta, one wonders what sort of privilege it takes to have a dream, to enact a vision to change the social and political landscape of America. Shotgun houses are no longer the dominant style of architecture in the South. Like the racism and chattel slavery from whence they came, they seem to be a remnant of a bygone era, a time of inequality and injustice that no longer exists in America.

 

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Now, a few days later, I’m walking down Sims Street Southwest in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. Pittsburgh is what Atlanta natives would call “ITP”—inside the perimeter, meaning it resides within the I-285 beltway and belongs to the inner part of the city. Katina Andrews shows a shuffling group of my fellow Princeton students block after block of foreclosed shotgun houses.

 

Katina works at a local outreach shelter, Jars of Clay. This is the neighborhood where many of her clients come from. The area is almost suburban and, if not for the boarded up doors, yellow tape, and broken windows on every other house, it might seem like a nice place to live if you were trying to escape from the bustle of the city. Friday afternoon and the streets are quiet. No one comes to greet us but barking dogs that shake chain-link fences with their paws. An overcast sky seems to threaten rain, and wind drives more pollen into our hair.

 

Katina takes the time to point out certain houses along our walk. That one with the open door, she says, that’s a drug dealer’s house. The one three doors down the street is a brothel. This large street, Metropolitan Parkway, is where young prostitutes linger to meet their clients. We pass a shotgun house where a wooden board blocking the entrance has been broken apart. The corner of a bright red door can be seen through the splintered wood. Katina says that house is probably occupied by squatters.

 

The reason that we Princeton students are here is to learn about child sex trafficking. Atlanta is considered a major hub for commercial sex trade due to its large airport. The campaign to stop the exploitation of underage girls and boys as sex slaves has catalyzed the Georgian community. But despite a large amount of recent media coverage on the topic of sex trafficking, few seem to be willing to talk about the “race issue,” a taboo topic especially in the South. Non-profit activist organizations like to paint the narrative of sex trafficking as “it could happen to anyone.” For the OTP (outside-the-perimeter) crowd, this means telling the story of the young white girl who ran away and got picked up and pimped out in the city. But the shotgun houses tell a different story—that even though sex trafficking can happen anywhere, it doesn’t happen everywhere. It happens on backpages and in back alleys. It happens to those whose mothers, fathers, and grandparents already knew the meaning of slavery and oppression. It happens in the one-story, rundown shacks inside the beltway, in smoky motels and shaded streetcars.

 

But even among the poverty and urban decay, you find a bright red glimmer of hope peeking out from rubble. Katina says she was homeless, jobless, and contemplating suicide when she found herself in the arms of Jars of Clay. The shelter, though small, imbues its community with messages of faith, of God, and of love that even touch a cynical city-dweller like me. This day, we work to clean Jars of Clay’s kitchen and cook a hearty meal for those who would stop by on their way from school or the streets. Despite the gratitude of the community, I hear my friends express their apprehension. Why are we doing this? How is this going to stop trafficking? This is a question I’ve asked myself constantly about community service and social activism. The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the poor and dusty corners where King’s dream hides.

 

People think of social progress as a straight shot down the hallway of history. We’d like to think that our society moves ever forward, traveling boldly through every open door, passing decades and eras of lesser knowledge until we reach future enlightenment. But the barrel of progress is bent and broken, imperfectly molded, and fickle to fire. And yet we still pick it up, as we wander twisting and turning through room after room, crossing thresholds that stopped our ancestors’ spirits, and pounding against locked doors until they break.