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Andisheh Nouraee

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At Porchfest, Oakhurst residents say, “Get on my lawn.”

Porchfest
The inaugural Oakhurst Porchfest offered residents more than 130 musical acts on porches and lawns scattered throughout the Decatur neighborhood. Here, a crowd gathers on Spring Street as the Soogs play on a back porch nearby.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Turning your front porch into a music venue isn’t difficult. You need a visible perch for the musicians, a yard (preferably a comfortable lawn) for the audience, an extension cord for amps and mics, and a trash can and recycling bin. Beverages (alcoholic or otherwise) are welcome but optional. Ditto food.

The only difficult aspects of this Lawn-a-palooza are booking the musicians and making sure there are enough toilets. That’s where Scott Doyon comes in.

A resident of Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood for 20 years, he founded Oakhurst Porchfest in 2015 as a weekend afternoon when local stoops can become music stages and neighbors can walk around, listen to music, and sip a beer.

Porchfest
The Space Giants perform al fresco during Oakhurst Porchfest in October 2015.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Porchfest returns Saturday, October 8, from noon to 6 p.m., with Doyon again matching people who’ve volunteered their porches with musicians who’ve volunteered their talent and time. And with an assist from the Decatur Arts Alliance, he’ll again make sure there are portable toilets at several pedestrian junctions, so porch hosts don’t need to let strangers into their homes. Scheduling and bathrooms, he says, are the organizational minimum. All other aspects of planning the event are up to the neighbors.

“You’re the manager of the patch of land in front of your house,” he says. “There’s not a team of volunteers that arrives to make it happen. You’re the festival organizer.”

Doyon got the idea for Porchfest in 2006 from a friend who’d started a similar event in Ithaca, New York. He thought it’d be perfect for Oakhurst, but the opportunity didn’t arise until 2015, when construction at Oakhurst’s Harmony Park forced the cancellation of the neighborhood’s annual arts festival.

“The Arts Alliance reached out to the community and asked if anyone had an arts-related project to support,” he says. “The goal was 30 porches because Ithaca had 25 the first year. I thought if we could beat that by five, we can call it a good year.”

As it turned out, Oakhurst had a somewhat better than good inaugural year, with more than 130 households, including mine, hosting musical acts on a Sunday last October. As showtime approached, about 30 people—many with blankets and coolers—landed on my lawn to see Dyla and Jan, an acoustic duo in their first public performance. I thought they were great and so did the people on my lawn, judging from the fact that they could have gotten up and gone to any of three dozen other gigs happening nearby.

Porchfest
Geisha Hit Squad, aka Eric Jennings, performs on a driveway on Fayetteville Road.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Prior to our hosting slot, I was in the audience for four other Porchfest shows. The event felt nothing like any music festival I’ve ever attended—more like a series of friendly backyard cookouts, if you replaced backyards with front yards and meat smoke with music. Other than the little boy I found in my daughter’s bedroom, playing with her doll house, everyone appeared to be well behaved. (And in the boy’s defense, our front door was open and the doll house is epic.)

My unscientific survey uncovered similarly happy experiences. Oakhurst resident Meg Watson said her only worry after signing up as a Porchfest host last year was that no one would show up. Soon after the early afternoon start time, however, her yard was full of neighbors and near-neighbors who’d come to watch the local band Oryx & Crake. Watson and her husband, Graham Kirkland, had no refreshments to offer, but someone from Avondale’s Wild Heaven brewery—fans of the band—showed up with a wagon of beer to share.

Porchfest
Neighbors converse while listening to the Soogs.

Photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

Ryan Peoples, the band’s singer, says the downside of playing Porchfest, or any unconventional venue, is sound quality. They wanted to be loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be inconsiderate to nearby residents. The upside is the spontaneity. Young children of two of the band members stood on the porch/stage with them during their set and played drums. “It’s magical when that stuff happens,” he says.

Doyon was in the audience for the Oryx & Crake show. I recall seeing him there with a look I can only describe as “blissed out.” I asked him recently how he felt at that moment.

“We dangled this in front of the neighborhood and said, ‘Make it great.’” he says. “Everyone around me made it happen. I wasn’t feeling kick-ass about creating something. I was elated about what other people had created.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.

Can Atlanta, a city built for cars, make room for bikes?

I’ve been riding to and from work several days per week since May. Everything they tell you about the benefits of cycle commuting is true: I’ve lost eleven pounds, my back and neck are no longer stiff at the end of the workday, my posture has improved, my resting heart rate has dropped, and I’m saving gas money. Oh, and chicks dig it. And by chicks, I mean my four- and one-year-old daughters, who cheer when they see me on a bike.

Photo Illustration by Kyle Burdg
Photo Illustration by Kyle Burdg

Although cycling adds about fifteen minutes each way to my six-mile commute, they’re some of the most pleasurable minutes of my day. I observe quirky and interesting buildings that I probably drove by hundreds of times without noticing. While I sometimes breathe car exhaust, I also smell trees in bloom and pizzas baking at Ammazza. I hear songbirds and watch hawks circling lazily over Coan Park (hunting rodents, I imagine, but can’t confirm).

If the number of cyclists here seems to be increasing, that’s because it is. Between 2000 and 2009, Atlanta (the city, not the metro area) registered the country’s highest increase in bike commuting. That statistical surge predates the opening of the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, which makes it possible for cyclists and pedestrians to get from the Old Fourth Ward/Inman Park to the edge of Morningside and Piedmont Heights while crossing only one car-trafficked intersection (Monroe Drive and Tenth Street).

The cycling boom seems likely to continue. More than 16,000 intown apartment units were proposed or already under construction in the first quarter of 2014, nearly double the number in 2013. The people shunning large homes in the suburbs for smaller spaces in town are often the ones trading in cars for walking, transit, and biking.

As more cyclists arrive, the city is trying to accommodate them. Speaking to the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s commuter breakfast in August, Jonathan Lewis of the city’s planning and transportation department said additional bike lanes are included in Atlanta’s comprehensive infrastructure bond issue that will face a referendum next year. While the total has not been finalized, the coalition is petitioning for $37 million in cycle-related improvements, which it claims could add an additional 100 miles of bike-friendly roadways.

One road that might get a bike lane is DeKalb Avenue. With its fast-moving, heavy traffic; abundant potholes; and reversible (aka “suicide”) lanes, this east-west artery is uniquely pedestrian- and bike-hostile, but connects some of Atlanta’s otherwise pedal-friendliest neighborhoods. Such lanes are often preferred by both drivers—who like not having to veer into oncoming traffic to pass a bicycle—and cyclists, who appreciate the lane lines as literal black-and-white reminders that drivers are required by law to share roads.

The lanes aren’t universally loved, though. Our ingrained cars-first attitude is laid bare when even cycling fans use the term road diet to refer to restriping existing roads to squeeze in space for bikes. “There are so many pebbles, loose dirt, and people opening their car doors,” says Hommood Alrowais, a Georgia Tech graduate student who cycles to campus from Adair Park.

Jennifer Kuzara, who bike commutes between her Downtown office and her home in Edgewood, says she tries to be an ambassador for cycling by stopping at signs and lights during her commute. She’s annoyed by cyclists she calls “dude bros”: people whose aggressive riding, disregard for the rules of the road, and confrontational attitude can turn drivers against all bike commuters. “I’m not interested in confrontation,” she says. “I just enjoy being out there.”

For Kuzara, though, biking is about more than fun; it’s about a public good. “What I hope drivers understand, even if they don’t ride bikes, is that people riding is good for them,” she says. “Every person on a bike is one less person in a car.”

Four ways to ride together

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This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue under the headline “Share the Road.”

If crime rates are so low, why am I so worried?

I’m driving home, just 150 yards from my house, when I see a white Chevy Tahoe in my driveway. According to social media and local news blogs, it’s the car a crew of burglars has been using for about a week to break into homes all around us—Oakhurst, Kirkwood, East Lake. The fifteen seconds it takes to get to my driveway are time enough for the following to occur:

• To feel my heart rate skyrocket.
• To say, “Oh, s–t.”
• To answer, “Nothing,” when my three-year-old daughter asks me what I just said.
• To see that the Tahoe is actually in my neighbor’s driveway.
• To see the Tahoe has a Florida tag, not the Georgia tag seen on the suspect vehicle.
• To remember my neighbors have out-of-town guests staying with them.
• To feel like a schmuck.

This is my brain on social media.

Neighbors had posted a BOLO (that’s “be on the lookout”) to Facebook, Twitter, local blogs, and my neighborhood Yahoo Group about a Burglarmobile. I had “liked” and retweeted the posts. My mind drifted into a state somewhere between vigilance and paranoia, hence my reaction when I saw one of the bestselling cars in America (in the most popular color!) appear in my neighbor’s driveway. When the Tahoe in question was eventually found and an alleged ringleader arrested, crime-related social media posts ceased. My resting heart rate returned to normal . . . until, of course, the next BOLO.

There is one factor notably absent in my hypervigilance: the actual prevalence of crime. I moved to Decatur in 2007. Since then, property crime and violent crime have dropped significantly. In 2007, 732 property crimes and 202 violent crimes were reported inside the city limits. Last year there were 690 and 128, respectively. In other words, the overall number of crimes has dropped more than 12 percent. When you consider Decatur’s population has grown by roughly 1 percent per year since 2007, the per capita crime rate is dropping even faster. And while there are ups and downs by year and by neighborhood, violent and property crimes have been trending down for years.

Collectively, metro Atlantans are safer today than we’ve ever been, but the ambient level of fear of crime, as expressed in the number of conversations we have about crime (and my blood pressure), remains stubbornly and perhaps irrationally high.

Are Mark Zuckerberg, et al., to blame for this apparent gap between the low rate of actual crime and high rate of anxiety about crime? Actually, yes. Social media is an amazingly powerful megaphone and echo chamber of neighborhood-level worries. Fifteen years ago you had to talk to your neighbors to hear about their fears. Today fear notifications are pushed to our smartphones. Instead of giving us a clearer picture of crime, this up-to-the-second stream of information is distorting our view. A Pew survey released in December shows 56 percent of Americans think gun crime is worse than it was twenty years ago. In fact, the gun homicide rate in the U.S. declined 49 percent from 1993 to 2010. The fear virus was already being transmitted through news at 11, so it makes sense that it’s being transmitted even more effectively through digital media platforms that exist to make thoughts and sentiments “go viral.”

Even if you had the yogic self-control required to remain unmoved by the impassioned worries of your neighbors, it wouldn’t be a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with being nudged to remember to lock your doors, remove your easily resold valuables from plain view, or call 911 when you see a car that matches the description of the one that’s been looting your neighbors’ houses. But if there’s a way to follow the steady stream of local social media chatter without going a little bonkers, it’s probably by taking a minute to consider the big picture. Crime rates may not be this low forever, so let’s try to enjoy it.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

Let’s give $200 mil to Spanx instead of the Falcons

Forbes magazine’s much-anticipated 2013 Swimsuit Issue list of the world’s billionaires was published yesterday. Mexican telecommunications giant and all-around biz whiz Carlos Slim tops the roster with an estimated $73 billion fortune. Like my dad always said, “You’ll know you’ve made it when your next $100,000,000 goes to the right of the decimal point.”

Eight Georgians appear on the list. Anne Cox Chambers and Jim Kennedy (both of Cox Communications) are Georgia’s richest people. Chambers has $12 billion, which makes her the 80th richest person on Earth (and probably the entire solar system), according to Forbes. Kennedy has $6 billion, which put him at 198 on the list of 1,426.

The other Georgia company with two representatives on the rich registry is Home Depot. Bernard Marcus’s $3.1 billion fortune puts him at the 437 spot. His Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank appears at No. 931 with $1.6. billion.

I have two questions. First, a question for Forbes: Since Blank seems guaranteed to be on the receiving end of $200 million in public money to build a new stadium for his football team, shouldn’t his fortune be listed at $1.8 billion? (That would put him even with Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, in case you’re curious.)

Second, a question for city and state lawmakers: If you’re going to insist on handing piles of public cash to Georgians who don’t need it based on a very flimsy definition of public good, why not go even flimsier and hand the cash to Georgia Girdle Goddess Sara Blakely (No. 1,342)?

Eight home games per year in a fancy new stadium is okay, but 365 days of looking slimmer and feeling more confident with the help of free, government-issued Spanx would be better. They even make Spanx for men now!

If lawmakers like guns so much, why can’t we take them to the Capitol?

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Creative Loafing reports state Sen. Vincent Fort will propose a ban on assault* weapons when lawmakers return to the Gold Dome in January. Fort says his proposal is a response to last Friday’s mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.

I’m neither Nostradamus nor Mayan calendar salesman, but I feel comfortable predicting Fort’s gun proposal will go nowhere in Georgia’s legislature. State lawmakers have been enthusiastic participants in the “more legal guns in more places” legislative trend that has swept the nation over the past decade. Our current batch of lawmakers seems more likely to increase the number of places it’s okay for Georgians to carry guns this year than to restrict them.

Georgia lawmakers have loosened state gun laws in part, they say, because of their belief that guns make people safer. But do they really believe that? The evidence says no. What evidence? While state lawmakers have recently removed restrictions banning guns on public transportation, in places serving alcohol and at public gatherings, they’ve declined to remove the long-standing ban on guns in government buildings like the state Capitol.

Instead of proposing legislation that isn’t going to pass and probably won’t get any more attention than it already has, Sen. Fort and like-minded lawmakers might want to consider another approach. I suggest Fort (or someone) propose the removing the ban on guns in government buildings. Call it the Georgia Goose Gander Alignment Act of 2013.

If you’re a legislator who sincerely believes the presence of guns makes everything better, you’ll vote yes. And when the bill fails (and it will because state lawmakers really don’t want people bringing guns to the Capitol) it could reset the terms of the gun law debate here. “Senator, you say private citizens with guns will make my workplace safer, yet you refuse to allow them in your workplace. Please explain.”

For what’s it’s worth (not much, I’m guessing), I’m a longtime gun-owner with a permit to carry in Georgia. I don’t oppose gun ownership. I oppose hypocritical lawmakers who keep selling out the public’s best interests to powerful corporations.

(*I’m using an asterisk here because “assault weapon” is a term of political art with  no solid definition.)

PPP on Georgia: Jason Carter

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Public Policy Polling released some new Georgia-centric data this week. A number and a name stood out to me.

37. That’s Gov. Nathan Deal’s and Sen. Johnny Isakson job approval rating.

If all you know about Georgia politics is what you read on local conservative political blogs, you’d think that Sen. Saxby Chambliss is the least popular Georgia Republican office holder. Turns out Chambliss’s job approval in the same poll is 45 percent. I’m not saying Chambliss is popular, but I’m surprised to see he’s more popular than Deal or Isakson.

The name that showed up in the PPP poll that stood out to me was Georgia State Sen. Jason Carter. PPP polled matched Gov. Deal and Sen. Chambliss against a small group of hypothetical Democratic challengers. Carter was in that small group along with Roy Barnes, Rep. John Barrow and Kasim Reed. Incidentally, no Democrat at the moment comes out ahead of Deal or Chambliss in the hypothetical match-up.

I have no clue what Sen. Carter’s intentions are, but in politics chatter begets chatter. The mere fact that his name shows up on a short list of Democrats who might run in a statewide election increases the likelihood he’ll show up on more such lists.

Georgia ranks fifth on Mother Jones list of worst state legislatures

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This morning Mother Jones published a funny and infuriating article on its web site titled “America’s 50 Worst State Legislatures: Because it’s never good when your state’s greatest legislative achievement is ‘WrestleMania Appreciation Week.'” 

True thing: I started reading it for the express purpose of finding out which state has a legislature ridiculous enough to waste time enacting a WrestleMania Appreciation Week.

Turns out, it’s us

The story also notes the Gold Dome’s recent nutso conspiracy-mongering, ongoing rampant misogyny and, of course, the one-man state-shaming machine called Don Balfour.

There’s a reason Creative Loafing calls its annual state legislative session review the Golden Sleaze Awards.

Georgia spends its money on what?

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Gov. Nathan Deal’s refusal to accept an expansion of Medicaid, or to set up a health insurance exchange in Georgia as required by the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) aren’t new news. Deal made it clear he’d reject an expansion of Medicaid not long after the Supreme Court‘s ACA ruling made it easier for states to decline. And Deal telegraphed his decision about exchanges for months before he made it official on November 16.

Some background: The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that if Georgia accepted the Medicaid expansion under the ACA, the state would pay $2.5 billion over a decade. In turn, D.C. would funnel an estimated $33 billion into health care in Georgia during the same period. The results: half a million otherwise uninsured Georgians would have health insurance, and roughly $33 billion in new economic activity in a state with higher-than-the-national-average unemployment. To put those numbers in perspective, the state government’s total budget for the current fiscal year is $19.3 billion.

Deal’s reason for rejecting the Medicaid expansion? He says the state can’t afford it. For the sake of not arguing the ACA yet again, let’s take Deal at his word and accept his assertion that the state can’t afford $250 million per year in expenses in return for insuring 500,000 people and an additional $3 billion or so annually in economic activity.

Okay? Fine.

Fast forward to Wednesday (which was actually two days ago, but you know what I mean).

WSB-TV:

In case you’re in a non-video mood, it’s a clip of Gov. Deal voicing his support for a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. The stadium would cost the state around $300 million.

You know those obnoxious jerks who judge poor people harshly for their perceived bad spending choices? Well, today I’m that obnoxious person. And Georgia is that guy who just bought a nice, new car to park in front of his run-down house.

Blacking out Broun’s opponent

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Did Rep. Paul Broun really get re-elected to his seat in Congress with 100 percent of the vote, or is there another side to this important story that isn’t being discussed?

On one side of the controversy, you have the Georgia Secretary of State’s election results web site. It says Broun ran unopposed and got 100 percent of the vote.

On the other side of this lively debate is the Athens Banner-Herald, which reports Charles Darwin (yes, that Charles Darwin) received nearly one-quarter of the votes in Athens-Clarke County, where Broun lives.

Despite this powerful evidence, the Georgia Secretary of State’s web site will not list Darwin in the final vote tally because of his severe dead-ness. I am outraged. It’s apparent to any honest observer that supporters of the controversial Theory That Broun Got 100 Percent Of The Vote are resorting to strong-arm tactics to suppress this important debate!

Is Broun the unanimous choice of his constituents, or a national embarrassment who lost 1/4 of the vote in his home county to a dead guy? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that if there’s one thing we’ve learned during Earth’s 9,000-year history is that people don’t supress debates unless they’re afraid of losing them.

I say teach the controversy.

Emory’s Drew Linzer and his Votamatic predict biggish Obama win

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I boldly predict a Harvard Law grad will win the Presidential election on November 6.

Maybe I should put that in boldface type to emphasize just how bold my boldness is.

I boldly predict a Harvard Law grad will win the Presidential election on November 6.

The problem, of course, is I’m not sure if the winner is going to be Romney (Class of ’75) or Obama (Class of ’91).

Political journalists and national public opinion polls say the race is too close to call a clear favorite. Mathematically inclined political analysts, however, disagree with the “too close to call” conventional wisdom. They say state-level polls show President Obama with enough of a lead in state polls to make him the clear frontrunner.

The most famous of the spreadsheet pundits is sports-stat junky turned political prognosticator Nate Silver of the New York Times. Using old polls and elections, he developed a computer model to analyze current polls. Right now, Silver predicts Obama will win 50.5 percent of the popular vote and 300 Electoral College votes. But Nate Silver’s not the only man with an interest in politics and Microsoft Excel.

Emory University Assistant Professor of Political Science Drew Linzer has his own computer model and analytical method. He calls it the Votamatic. Because he’s better known, Silver takes a lot of heat from critics who say he’s overstating Obama’s chances. But Linzer’s Votamatic model is actually a lot more bullish on Obama than Silver. Linzer’s model predicts Obama will win 332 Electoral College votes.

To be clear, neither man is saying Romney won’t win or can’t win. They’re saying the current polling data available to them points to an Obama win. On Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday, we’ll not only find out who’s going to be President for the next four years. We’ll also figure out if our spreadsheet pundit is better than New York’s spreadsheet pundit.

May the best nerd win.

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