I grew up near the town of Canton, and since I am spending my holiday there, it seems appropriate to report back on more than just my visit. It's becoming harder and harder for me to recognize this place where I spent my entire pre-college life.
Canton only dates back to the 1830s when the Cherokee Indians were forced off of their land. The city was incorporated in 1834 as the county seat of Cherokee County. The name comes from the original aspirations of some early settlers to cultivate a silk industry here. The climate, of course, didn't support that production, but Canton was destined to stay in textiles. The town mainly served as a trading center until after the Civil War. In 1864, Union troops under the command of General William T. Sherman burned Canton in the Atlanta Campaign.
Nevertheless, Canton rebuilt and the future was much brighter with the arrival of the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad in the 1870s. In 1899, the Canton Cotton Mills Company opened Mill Number 1. Canton continued to grow, and the textile industry dominated the economy. In 1924, Mill Number 2 opened and included a mill village about 1 mile north of Canton proper.
Mill Number 2, now loft apartments, SR 5 Bus. in foreground.
Canton was largely a factory town for many years. Until 1981 the textile mills were just about the only game in town, but cheap labor in Asia put an end to denim manufacture in the Georgia foothills. Were we to take a look at Canton at the beginning of the 1980s, then, we would find a town of several thousand, mostly removed from the economy of far away Atlanta.
By the 1990s, however, spurred on with the 1985 opening of Interstate 575, a housing boom was beginning to show Canton as an exurb of the far-flung metropolitan region. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Census showed 7,700 residents. That estimate had almost doubled by 2005, and the construction of housing and retail is transforming this city, 40 miles north of Atlanta, into something barely distinguishable from the identical schlock which characterizes the hinterlands from Los Angeles to Bangor.
The sprawlscape, however, has not yet swallowed all of the uniqueness of the place that has been home for my predecessors since the Great Depression. And while it would still seem a bit far-fetched to think of Canton as a potential setting for "It's A Wonderful Life," that image might not be too inaccurate either. The cotton fields and verdant woodlands might have been converted into vinyl siding and striped asphalt, but the heart of my little hometown beats yet.
Downtown Canton, as the locals (and the Highway Department) call it, is doing well. The first round of decentralization, which hit in the mid-70s took much of the business away from the Town Square, but public monies and a resurgance in support for anything unique in the "Mass Production Zone " (as the band Rush calls it) has helped keep a coronary at bay.
So the few square blocks centered on Main and Church, just across the Square from the Cherokee County Courthouse remains, for me, recognizable. Recent streetscape improvements give Downtown a luster I've never seen. Now, instead of serving as a makeshift office park for law offices, restaurants, shops, and residences are beginning to return life to the quiet streets.
The historic Couthouse dates from 1928 and is made of white Georgia marble
The newer Courthouse dominates the town Square
One thing that has helped to keep people in the older part of Canton is the government. In this respect I don't mean subsidies, but rather the administration of the government. As Cherokee County's seat of government, the Courthouse bring residents to Downtown Canton for every reason from auctions to traffic tickets. Still, the massive Justice Center takes away valuable land that could be used for housing or commerce. While the tradeoff is the presence of many daytime only workers and other visitors, I'm not sure that opportunities are not being missed. At any rate, the administration of the county will likely continue in its role of securing Downtown Canton as the governmental seat of the county.
The Square was at the center of the county for many decades
Looking east from the Square on Main Street
Looking west from the Square on Main
Looking north from the Square on Church Street we see the old First UMC
The area immediately adjacent to the Square is a great place to people watch. The lunch crowd is pretty strong here during the week. With all of the county government workers, jurors, lawyers, and other businessmen, the sidewalks stay pretty busy. There are a few restaurants and shops within walking distance, but there is a lack of some of the essential needs to foster a walking community. A corner market would be a major asset to the neighborhood, as would a pharmacy. Another need for downtown is housing. Many Main Street houses have been converted to other uses. Recent efforts, however, by the Economic Development and Planning Departments have led to increased residential construction immediately adjacent to the central business district.
The Canton Theatre, center of redevelopment efforts
Canton has put significant resources into rebuilding Downtown. The first major step in these efforts was the renovation of the old Main Street moviehouse. Now a stage theatre, the Canton Theatre has injected life and monies into the older part of town. It has been spruced up with the subsequent streetscape project. Continued investment will only further this part of the city.
Recently, East Marietta Street, one block east of the Square, has seen redevelopment, including one condo-above-restaurant building.
Looking down East Marietta Street from Main
The new condo building, one block off Main
Looking north along East Marietta toward Main
One step that could be taken to improve the number of people living Downtown would be to convert the existing upper levels of commercial buildings into apartments and condos as they were in days past. Even without that, however, some good housing stock stands within a few blocks of the Square.
New townhouses a block from Main on West Marietta Street
Another asset of the older part of Canton is the ease with which one can walk to wonderful parks. The Square, is of course, one that has already been mentioned. Brown Park is also a beautiful green space. Now fronting City Hall (which only moved there about a year ago), the park stands on what had been Joseph Brown's home site. Joseph Brown was governor of Georgia during the Civil War, and had been a resident of Canton for some time. The city has also made a major addition to the city's parklands with the construction of a riverfront park known as Heritage Park. The park is the first section of what will eventually become a greenway along the length of the Etowah River through the city. The city's recreational services have been further bolstered with the construction of a community center just across the river from downtown. It is adjacent to the new Heritage Park.
Perhaps one day Canton's Main Street will again be the main street. One day, Americans will realize the value of the hearts of our many varied and unique small towns. Even though Canton's policies seem to indicate a preference for redevelopment, its zoning changes show that the strip shopping mall and the tract house are the preferred method of growth. As long as this bias is present, Downtown Canton will suffer. Only a true Smart Growth initiative--one that eschews sprawl--will be able to bring the glory days back to what used to be the center of this county.