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What’s the Big Idea?
Cover up the Connector. Turn vacant lots into gardens. Demolish Underground. Build the BeltLine. Synchronize the traffic lights. Atlantans have plenty of suggestions for our new mayor. Here are their two cents.
This article originally appeared in our January 2010 issue.
This month Kasim Reed becomes Atlanta’s first new mayor in eight years. He takes office at one of the most challenging periods in the city’s history. But tough times can spawn great ideas. We canvassed dozens of Atlantans to find the most intriguing.
John Morse, contemporary artist and writer
The Connector splits Atlanta like an open wound. Imagine that sunken eyesore—from Memorial Drive to Atlantic Station—completely covered by an undulating, tree-lined promenade with outdoor cafes, bike paths, fountains, soccer fields, dog runs: four long miles of new parkland in the heart of Atlanta! Expensive, yes, but profits from selling slim parcels at the park’s edge for low-rise development would cover the cost. Best of all, this verdant ribbon would finally stitch together our serpentine urban core. Cities around the globe have covered thoroughfares and rail lines to transform blight into beauty. So can Atlanta.
Matt Ruppert, owner of Noni’s Deli
Downtown needs to incorporate more demographics and full-time Downtown residents into the daily mix. A great place to start is Underground. I propose we knock down that pigsty and erect in its place a skyscraper called High Ground. On ground level, we’d have an open, authentic street food vendor market. The bulk of the building’s space should be residential. The High Museum could use the roof to showcase sculptural exhibits amid a landscape of flora designed by the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Sally Flocks, president and CEO of PEDS (Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety)
Atlanta residents are fed up with drivers who threaten pedestrians’ lives by speeding through residential areas and school zones. The city should install speed radar signs on neighborhood streets. Radar signs show drivers how fast they are going. They also collect useful traffic data. Unlike speed humps, they can be used on collector streets and bus routes. They’re effective at getting drivers to slow down.
Sean Sobottka, student at Emory University School of Law
On a drive from Emory to west Midtown, I hit every light on Ponce de Leon between Briarcliff and Juniper. What Google Maps estimated as an eighteen-minute trip took over half an hour in light traffic. Synchronizing traffic lights would be an easy fix to ease congestion.
Jay Pratte, lead keeper at Zoo Atlanta
The most poignant impact this city has had on me since I moved here was the trash one sees in public. Some areas are very clean compared to others, but all of Atlanta should be beautiful. Place new trash and recycling receptacles with a logo at key problem points. Provide an incentive—a tax break or financial reward program—for people to participate in “Clean Mile” sections of the city, promoting ownership and pride in the appearance of our great city.
Peggy Barlett, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University
There is a lot of unused land in Atlanta that could be used to strengthen our local food system. The city could grant some tax incentives to encourage landowners to develop an urban farm or a community garden. That’s good for quality of life in the neighborhood, and it produces healthy, fresh food, which helps us combat our declining health standards. Another thing is to use tax incentives to encourage grocery stores to locate in underserved areas. If people don’t have access to a car, it is sometimes extremely difficult to eat healthily.
Darian Cole, North Metro Career Center, Georgia Department of Labor
The train system and just MARTA period needs to run twenty-four hours a day. Some people get eliminated from a job if the job starts at five in the morning, because MARTA doesn’t run at the time.
Susan Bridges, Whitespace Gallery
I recently went to Toronto to attend Nuit Blanche, an all-night art show. People stood in line at 3 a.m. to get into venues held in vacant buildings, grocery stores, and on tops of buildings. Everything was free and the entire city was into it. This “art show” draws about 1 million people into the streets. Atlanta has so many open spaces and so many amazing artists who want and need to have a more active and supportive community. How can we make our great city a cultural center as well? Through education and public art.
Bob Amick, Concentrics Restaurants
The city ought to look into the privatization of the whole process of licensing and inspecting projects within the city of Atlanta. The city has not proven that it can do that efficiently and do that well. You have to spur development and have people want to be there. Development and money coming in creates diversity, which drives all the other pieces of the pie. Plus, all the one-way streets Downtown need to be done away with; everything’s been developed to create a huge exit from Downtown at four o’clock in the afternoon, and that’s counterproductive.
Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit
We need to build Atlanta’s Regional Vision for Transit plan. It includes electric streetcars, electric light rail, diesel commuter rail on existing tracks, and the potential for high-speed rail at a passenger terminal Downtown. Rail vehicles on the BeltLine would serve Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods. Representatives of eleven metro counties have approved this plan. The next mayor should lead the push for regional funding. This is a crucial investment in Atlanta’s future.
Carl E. Sanders, governor of Georgia, 1963–1967
The Atlanta City Council should give the new mayor of Atlanta a 100-day honeymoon, similar to what the U.S. Congress gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which allowed him to create and propose programs that enabled the country to come out of the Depression.
Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition; mayor of Atlanta, 1970–1974
Thinking big is our mantra, but I wish we would come back down to earth for a while. I would freeze all tax increases, all bond issues, all new programs, and all capital projects (not judicially mandated) until our city has returned to a balanced economy—a growing economy that generates enough income to pay for our needs. When governments increase taxes, they never come back down, but reduction in services and facilities can be reinstituted. Do like your personal family does—tighten your belt, Atlanta.
Andisheh Nouraee, columnist at Creative Loafing
Treat critics with respect instead of as enemies. Honor responsible homeowners by cracking down on serial code violators whose derelict properties are magnets for criminals. Create an Office of Transparency and empower citizen watchdogs by putting every new government report and document online in real-time. Admit the BeltLine is a park with a bike path, not a mass transit project. Require large parking lots to install secure bike racks. Mobilize Atlanta business leaders against rural GOP lawmakers who revel in hurting the city. Hire more cops, and tell the ones directing traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson to stop being such dicks.
H.C. Warner, Alcove Gallery
In New York City, artists can go out anytime, set up their work, and paint outside. Right now in Atlanta, there’s no main place where local artists can get together and just line the streets and just paint—unless it’s a festival, brought to you by Budweiser. It would be great for the economy and the artists to just have a row of land where it was highly populated, where people walked through.
Tom Key, executive artistic director of Theatrical Outfit
We should provide—on the model of the Manhattan Plaza in New York City—housing for artists in the Downtown Fairlie Poplar District. The Manhattan Plaza was started in the seventies. Working artists live there, and because artists’ incomes fluctuate, they pay a percentage of their income as rent. If we can give creatives affordable housing in the center of the city, it will help stabilize Downtown and provide jobs for artists who bring so much back to the economy. And low-interest business loans would encourage art galleries or theaters or jazz clubs in the Fairlie Poplar District, generating a nightlife. If we have a vigorous nightlife, it gives a feeling of safety and enjoyment of our city 24/7, instead of people evacuating after work hours. Having housing for artists and those kinds of loans would be a critical element in the success of Downtown.
Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington of Fulton County
It’s estimated that the City of Atlanta spends more than three times the amount the county spends, per capita, for police services. A study of forty-eight U.S. cities with populations between 188,000 and 700,000 revealed that Atlanta had the fifth-largest per capita police expenditure. We have both the opportunity and the obligation to move beyond turf rivalry. It was once projected that taxpayers could save as much as $160 million annually if the City of Atlanta and Fulton County were to consolidate their duplicated services. We must now explore ways to use our available resources more efficiently and effectively. The solution might be found in consolidation.
Matthew Cardinale, news editor, Atlanta Progressive News
The concerns of Atlanta’s working poor were almost completely absent from the discourse of the mayoral race. As long as candidates have to raise megadollars to be successful, they will inevitably craft their platform in a way that appeals to wealthy donors. A Poor People’s Political Action Committee would organize Atlanta’s working poor families, bundle their dollars into sizable checks, and then allow Atlanta’s working poor to directly select as recipients the candidates who actually care about their needs.
Gina Simpson, president and CEO of Hands On Atlanta
If we’re truly going to make Atlanta a better place, having a stronger culture of volunteerism is key. I’d challenge every business to give employees time off for service or offer a financial match for time served. I’d also suggest our new mayor and City Council set a tone of leadership by agreeing to participate quarterly in a service project that touches on the three areas of greatest need: economy, environment, and education.
Wayne Robertson, president of Energy Ace
Require that all buildings—new and resale, residential or commercial—install low-flow dual-flush toilets and low-flow water fixtures. Newer technology makes these devices even better, and the water savings are substantial. A family of four today can save around 15,000 gallons a year for indoor use alone. In addition to water conservation, you preserve more of your paycheck as the cost savings add up.
David A. Jackson, president and CEO of the Center for Working Families
Atlanta needs a sustainability strategy that includes tax credits for weatherization of homes and businesses, and a concerted effort to give those jobs to low-income individuals. Such a program could front the cost of the work, enabling property owners to afford energy retrofits. They would repay the full cost over time, but their total energy usage would be reduced enough so that the loan payment on their energy bill will be less than what they saved, yielding a net saving. Local contractors, meanwhile, could expand their crews, creating new and permanent jobs in green construction.
Volkan Topalli, criminologist at Georgia State University
The city needs more control over zoning. Right now you’ll have a condo next to a nightclub next to a daycare center next to another condo next to a strip joint. That kind of design increases criminality. We need a separate entertainment district for the nightclubs and a residential area for the residents. Better city planning would mean more mixed-income property and more mixed-use property. Neighborhood residents need to be educated on what good city design is so they can approve things based on what they want the neighborhood to look like, so that you don’t end up with blighted properties.
Lain Shakespeare, executive director of the Wren’s Nest
Atlanta’s best idea is already at work: the BeltLine. The BeltLine’s potential addresses many of Atlanta’s problems so effectively, there’s no reason not to follow its lead. By focusing on what people need to thrive instead of exclusively on what cars need to thrive, Atlanta will become safer, healthier, and more competitive. Expanded transit, connected neighborhoods, affordable housing, and complete streets will foster denser and more vibrant communities.
Anita Beaty, executive director of Metro Atlanta Task Force
Include everybody who is a citizen in this city in housing opportunities, in healthcare opportunities, in transportation availabilities. Over the past twenty years, the policies of the city have been policies of exclusion—machinations that restrict access to Downtown for people who are poor or homeless with the excuse that the appearance of these people is detrimental to business. It’s past time for this city to live up to its nickname, the City Too Busy to Hate.
Raya Tobler, Campbell High student, age sixteen
Want a way to make the city better? Put the mayor in it, literally. Mingling and talking with the people of this community is essential. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw Shirley Franklin around Atlanta just talking with the people. Atlanta authorities have to do one better than leading the city; they need to become a part of it.
Last November, as the mayoral race (and the attendant rhetoric) went into extra innings, we assembled a group of local leaders—including an educator, an imam, a developer, and a neighborhood activist—to talk frankly about the city on the cusp of a new decade and a new mayor. The panel was moderated by Atlanta magazine editor Steve Fennessy, who edited the transcript for length and clarity.
Bill Bolling—executive director and founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank
Imam Plemon T. El-Amin—Resident Imam of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, one of the largest mosques in the United States
Angelo Fuster—former deputy chief operating officer for Mayor Bill Campbell and currently a consultant in government, politics, and public affairs
Edward Gilgor—self-employed attorney and chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit W, which includes East Atlanta, Grant Park, and Ormewood Park
Sharron Pitts—chief of staff for Atlanta Public Schools
Dr. Catherine L. Ross—former executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and currently director of the Center for Quality Growth & Regional Development at Georgia Tech
Scott Taylor—president of Carter, the largest office developer in the Southeast
Fennessy Let’s start by getting an idea of how the city looks from your own perspectives. Ed, you’ve been Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) chair in East Atlanta for most of Shirley Franklin’s administration. What’s the top concern now?
Gilgor Safety. The people in my NPU are willing to accept that they don’t live in a manicured community and that cars can get broken into, things can happen. They’re not looking for, if you will, Alpharetta-like tendedness. It’s not a gated community. Safety has gone up and down. But now we have citizens hiring off-duty police officers. [East Atlanta, like dozens of neighborhoods throughout Atlanta, pays off-duty police officers to augment normal police patrols.] I have direct control over police officers. That’s not a good idea. These guys have guns and badges and I control a paycheck they get. Why would you want this relationship? The answer is, I want it because I need to provide protection that the city is not providing. With crime, perception may not be reality, but it’s very close. You may be safe, you may not be safe, but if you don’t have a feeling of security, then whatever is really there doesn’t matter.
Pitts [At Atlanta Public Schools], we’re benefiting from the revitalization of the public schools in the northern section of the city. People are starting to come back to us, which is a really positive thing. On the other hand, in large parts of the city, a couple factors have really changed the demographics for us, such as taking down the Atlanta Housing Authority developments. We’re seeing lots of mobility and shifting. With the recession, people are losing their homes and their ability to live in the city. So we’re seeing sections of town where we’ve done school closings. That has a negative effect on a community when you close a school.
Fuster Atlanta is a larger city, it’s a younger city, but it’s also a more disengaged city. The numbers reflect it. [Voter turnout in the Atlanta mayoral general election was 72,000—just 30 percent of registered voters in the city.] I don’t think we can just blame lackluster candidates. There’s a lack of interest. I’ve asked questions about how we can energize these newcomers, all the singles who live in these apartments off Freedom Parkway. The campaign people say they’d be wasting resources. It’s pretty common—that sense that young people are too busy looking inward.
The other thing is a lack of interest in what has come before. There’s less of an interest in understanding how things are because of how they were. It’s a lack of context. And it’s one that’s expressed without regret. A reporter will ask me a question and I know he doesn’t have any idea of the context around the question. So I feel compelled to say, “Let me put this in context for you.” And right away I see this veil of lack of interest fall on his face. So that’s the issue—is it the public that is not interested, or is it that they don’t know to get interested?
That does a couple of things. It allows a small number of people to have a lot more influence than they should in everything. I’m not just talking about elections. I’m talking about building on the BeltLine. Those are the middle-aged folks who have been active for a while. I’ve been involved in a number of controversial issues and you see five people in the NPU voting for or against something. I’ve done a survey of a neighborhood. There are 20,000 people who would like to see it happen but the NPU voted against it and there were seven people who voted.
El-Amin When it comes to the mayor, we may have left the era of having leaders instead of managers. I don’t see the giants coming back anytime soon. There are no Maynard Jacksons or Andy Youngs on the horizon. I’m not sure we have the visionaries coming up anytime real soon. And that might be why some people haven’t been so motivated by the election.
Fennessy Scott, what’s happened to Fortune 500 companies here? They don’t relocate to Atlanta the way they used to.
Taylor Our neighboring states have been fairly aggressive in their economic incentives, such as North Carolina. Even Alabama has worked pretty hard. The next mayor is going to have to work very closely with the legislature, with the governor, looking at how we truly leverage the assets that we have. We need a state research park. And here’s something that hasn’t been talked a lot about in the election: This idea that there are two Georgias out there—Atlanta and the rest of the state. This has got to go away.
Bolling The Atlanta Regional Commission every year sponsors a trip of political and business leaders to go to another city. We went to Denver and learned about how they learned to vote regionally there. Fifteen years ago Denver was rolling up the sidewalks. But out of pain, out of tough times, they came together and said, “We’re going to survive together or we’re going to fail together.” We ought to be traveling throughout Georgia. We who consider ourselves leaders need to travel to towns and cities around the state and listen and share with them and invite them here. Because we have a lot more in common with folks in Valdosta or Albany or Moultrie—air, water, transportation, and economic development—than we do with another city out-of-state.
Fuster I’ve argued for years that we need to have a public relations plan to sell Atlanta to the rest of the state. One of the things that frustrates me about the water issue is that Atlanta is seen as the big bad bear. The city of Atlanta puts back into the Chattahoochee almost all of the water that it takes out—almost all of it. Atlanta does not contribute to the shortage of water; the surrounding counties do. They’re the ones who have the great lawns and septic tanks.
One of the real challenges for the next mayor is going to be to try to somehow break that history of perception and mistrust. Shirley tried. She had to undo Bill Campbell. Bill offended everyone around the metro area. And Maynard was not a particularly good metro Atlanta mayor. He’d been rebuffed too many times and said, “Screw that. Atlanta has 450,000 people and those are my people and I’m gonna fight for ’em.”
Fennessy We’ve mentioned Mayor Franklin a few times. Why did her momentum flag in her second term? There’s a perception that she checked out.
Ross We’re a tough city. We had sewer challenges. We were being fined astronomical amounts every day by the EPA. But she saved the King papers, which is a continuing recognition of the city’s legacy of leadership. I agree that the first and second terms were different. The first term is about getting to know the job. But I think she didn’t necessarily get handed over a great environment. I feel like if in your lifetime you step into a leadership position and you can touch one or two things that really last and make a difference, that’s not so bad. I think just having the sewer situation resolved is as important to the business community and our continuing ability to attract business as anything we’ve done.
Taylor We’re working on a project now in Cincinnati. It’s in between Great American Ball Park where the Reds play and Paul Brown Stadium where the Bengals play. It’s eighteen acres on the Ohio River, a vacant parcel of land that’s been there for thirty-plus years. It’s ripe for development, but it hadn’t been developed because of tension between the city and the county and the business community. Now we’re coming out of the ground with 330 apartment units, 100,000 square feet of retail, office towers, and a hotel to anchor this wonderful part of the city. But it didn’t happen until there was great unity among the business community, city, and county.
Fennessy Given that experience, what is your professional perspective on Turner Field and the land around it?
Taylor You could ask the same question about the Georgia Dome. People that own sports teams don’t make any money off the team itself, they make it off the facilities. And if you look at Cowboys Stadium, at the Patriots just outside Boston, they used the economic engine from a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars facility to revitalize areas. But it takes a significant amount of economic incentives in order to get those things off the ground. What these owners like to see is the commercial, the retail, the hospitality. It drives the game-day experience that allows the venue to thrive when the games aren’t there. Turner Field, I’d say yes, it will happen, but I don’t know when. But it will take some serious economic incentives to get it going.
Fennessy On a related economic development issue, let’s talk about the BeltLine. I’m still not sure I know what it is.
Gilgor I support it fully expecting that I’ll never, ever see mass transit on the BeltLine, for one basic reason. The way the money is allocated, it pays you to solve problems, not to create them. Basically the BeltLine is a problem we’re trying to create by bringing density to the area. That’s a good thing. But you add the business folks and the green folks in sort of a “Kumbaya” thing and they say, “Yeah, let’s do it!” And each have their own vision for it. The BeltLine is largely in the eye of the beholder.
Fuster This state doesn’t contribute one penny to mass transit and then they try to govern it and tell us how to do it. And they blame Atlanta for mismanagement of MARTA. Geez, look at the management of the state. It’s unbelievable. And I’m sorry, there are traditional divisions here. One is urban and rural. The other is black and white. There is that prejudiced perception of Atlanta that still lingers not just in the state but around Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton. It irks the bejesus out of me when I see a Cobb County bus driving in Downtown Atlanta. They don’t pay diddly-squat and they use our sidewalks, they use our streets, they use our stops, everything.
Fennessy Let me ask about a distinctly Atlanta phenomenon: panhandling. It’s as bad now as it’s been in years. What do we do?
Bolling There are two major issues we’ve got to address before we’ll ever address homelessness. One is mental health and the other is substance abuse. The state is mandated to provide services in both of those areas. Now the [U.S.] Department of Justice is in Georgia looking at our mental health system. People are dying there. We deinstitutionalized the mental hospitals in the sixties and didn’t build the community mental health system. And substance abuse treatment actually comes down to the county level. But there’s no money for that either. The reason I say that is the panhandlers for the most part are not the homeless. But they can mix in with the homeless. We’ve got thousands of people out there and you can’t sort ’em out. Shirley Franklin spent political capital on making homelessness a regional issue. First time we’ve ever had anyone do that. When we have those meetings every county in the region is there, for the first time. We used to call it Greyhound therapy. From Gwinnett or Cobb you put them on a Greyhound, send ’em to Birmingham. We don’t do that anymore.
Fuster The issues of mental health apply in every major city. But somehow we seem to have a greater problem than others. The question is, what do you do? When we were working on the redevelopment of Underground when Andy was mayor, that place was a barren, horrible, dilapidated area. We condemned a liquor store that had the largest volume of sales by the pint in the United States. We had to pay several million dollars to buy the lease on that thing. We went to close what was then called Wino Park. My friend, the Reverend Ed Loring, said we were taking away their jobs. He has a wonderful heart. But the fact is, he was an impediment to anything that happened in Downtown Atlanta. It’s the same thing with the [Peachtree-Pine] homeless shelter. God bless Anita Beaty [the executive director of Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless] and all those folks, but it has hampered any kind of change in that area, period. I know there are reasons for this, mental health and all that, but somehow we’ve got to find a way to do something that doesn’t push them away or hide them, but does something without trying to solve the whole issue. People say, “Well, that’s not dealing with the illness; it’s just putting a patch on it.” But sometimes you need to do that.
Bolling I don’t think so. We need to deal with the systemic issue. Every city thinks it has the worst homeless problem.
Fuster You’ve described the homeless and the panhandlers as a systemic issue that centers around the failures of the state to provide for mental health. But can a mayor afford to divert his attention and the city’s resources to deal with a systemic problem like that when he is dealing with less income to the city from taxes, less income from sales tax, when you’ve got crime on the streets?
Bolling I think it’s a false choice.
Fuster You think it’s a false choice, but if you’re mayor, you’ve got ten things you have to do. One is a systemic problem that involves the state and the metro region. Another one is a very local problem of managing your finances and increasing the efficiency of public works. Which do you choose? I’ve heard that as a criticism of Mayor Franklin. She’s trying to solve homelessness when she should be doing this other thing.
El-Amin The other option is to address it without dealing with the government. What about congregations, communities, businesses? Statistics say we have six or seven thousand homeless people. There are six thousand churches in metro Atlanta. It seems like it could be addressed another way. We have homeless people who are around the mosque. We have some wooded area we own. They have some tents there, but the understanding is you have to do some kind of work. So when I come to the mosque, they’ve already cleaned up the parking lot. We have to figure out ways to not just depend on government to do it all.
Ross To some extent we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Sure, these are important issues. But are they the critical issues that we need to solve to make sure jobs come, businesses come, quality of life stays? Those issues are clear. It’s education. Look at air quality. Who’s going to come here and operate a business if you can’t even pass the Clean Air Act? Look at water wars, with the federal courts looking to make that decision for us. Look at the lack of public transportation. Look at what’s happening in North Carolina. They are eating our lunch. And they have crime and they have homelessness. But you know what they also have? They have their sight on those short- and medium- and long-range targets that are going to make Charlotte and the state of North Carolina successful. We’ve lost sight of that.
Pitts We have this little doughnut, and we have this circle around it with all these counties who basically still negatively view us. People are invested in their perceptions and it takes a long time to change. That’s why the things that Mayor Franklin was doing were so important, saying we can’t be so isolationist. If our next mayor does not continue that, we’re never going to get those kinds of solutions. Never.
Taylor I agree, but if you look at public safety, you look at businesses coming to town and they don’t feel safe Downtown. Whether it’s perception or reality, it’s an issue we have to deal with.
Pitts I work in the heart of Downtown. After 5:30, boy, you walk Downtown there’s nobody basically down there. And I’m from Detroit! What some of those other cities you mentioned have in common is an area that’s vibrant. Now Georgia State University is bringing young people into this city, and it’s unbelievable. We have to capitalize on that. They bring a level of vibrancy.
Bolling It’s up to the leadership to put the incentives for the developers to repopulate the area.
Taylor Look at Centennial Olympic Park. It’s probably one of the safest places you’ll ever go to. It’s the Georgia World Congress Center Authority that polices that area. As a developer, you want that vibrancy. You don’t want the sidewalks to roll up at five o’clock. You want the students there. You want the senior citizens there. You want the single professionals to exercise in the park and go to the market and shop after work and go to the coffee shop and bars. But they’ve got to feel safe.
El-Amin The context is always interesting. Charlotte still had the police mentality that downtown was off-limits to poor people and black people, or you’re going to end up in jail. Our context is that when we got Maynard Jackson in, Downtown became open to poor people and black people. It’s like part of the Downtown is ours. Some of the other cities, that’s not the case.
Pitts I don’t know if it’s homeless or panhandlers, but it is an issue. It does thwart you from even walking to a bar or a restaurant. So you’ve got to get in your car because you’re afraid you’re going to get accosted on the way. Even if you’re not physically accosted, you’re going to be harassed. You can’t even go up to the Garnett Street MARTA station.
Fennessy How much of these issues come down to race? Atlanta is the thirty-third-biggest city in the country. It’s not a very big city; it’s the metro area that’s huge. The surrounding counties are, by and large, predominantly white, the city of Atlanta predominantly black.
Ross Look at the changing demographics. What does that say about the race card? Now the race issue in Atlanta is black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever. It’s a whole different ball game.
Bolling I think that’s true. Historically it has been race. Now it’s economics, between the haves and have-nots.
Gilgor Green is the color that matters.
Fuster But when you look at the suburbs and the rest of the state, I don’t think that green does it. I’m sorry, I think it’s racial. There’s a perception that black folks can’t run the city.
Pitts But a lot of it is class-based. Even in African American communities, there is still just really disturbing talk about not wanting our children to associate with poor children, not being in the schools with poor children, and that’s why we’re at Woodward [Academy, a private school in College Park]. It’s prevalent across the city. We see that in Buckhead, on Bankhead, down in Cascades. There is beginning to be in Atlanta a disturbing disdain for the poor. Maybe that’s a result of gentrification. But I do see that as a trend.
Ross Growing up in Cleveland, I went to public school my entire life. We were very much tied into the museum system, the art community, so that every child in the city of Cleveland attended a symphony once or twice a year. So there was a real link between the investment taxpayers made in the community—art and cultural—and the public school system. So you could come from a lower-income background and still be in a public school system and have quite a broad exposure.
The idea now is that it’s about just me and my kid. It’s not about the commitment we have to public education, even though that’s linked to the success of our country over a long time. This idea of, “Oh, it’s not my kid”—there’s something wrong with that. We’re bowling alone. Historically, we bowl together. That makes a big difference. I said to a group of friends of mine, “Raise your hand if all of you affluent people went to public school.” Every hand went up.
Fennessy As a city whose growth has been fueled by development, how do we sustain that growth when development has hit a wall?
El-Amin We have to see ourselves as an international city. Our most famous citizen is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We have to keep that idea that not only was he born and worked here, but that we have bought into his vision and idea, and that we represent that not only to the United States but to the world. The idea of us being a center for human rights is something that will continue to draw people to us.
Ross I don’t feel like the development community, which has been so much a part of our success, is necessarily going to change fundamentally. I think we’re going to do different things in different places. It’s a different footprint. We need to create tax incentives and public policies that let banks work with developers in cooperation with communities. What’s wrong with a model that makes sure development goes forward in nontraditional but meaningful ways? Midtown is showing everybody how you come in and have it done in a better way. I’m tremendously hopeful.
El-Amin And this time maybe we can be more realistic, so that two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in East Atlanta isn’t worth $300,000. We’ll do it the right way this time.