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Thomas Wheatley


Kasim Reed launches comeback campaign for Atlanta mayor

Kasim Reed launches comeback campaign for Atlanta mayor
Kasim Reed speaks at an event at the High Museum of Art during his mayoral term in 2015.

Photograph by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Four years ago, Kasim Reed said goodbye to the job he’d wanted since he was 13 years old: being the mayor of Atlanta. This November, the cutthroat politician who used raw power and the bully pulpit to lead the city out of the Great Recession and into its most recent boom, will try to win his dream job back.

On Monday Reed filed paperwork to launch his bid for a third term as Atlanta mayor and intends to officially announce his decision during his 52nd birthday party on Thursday, according to two sources with direct knowledge of his campaign plans. By doing so, Reed immediately becomes a formidable candidate in a packed race to lead the city.

On Saturday, prominent Democrats, local business leaders, and other allies started receiving invitations to Reed’s party. The event’s address would be provided upon RSVP, the invite said, and though it did not explicitly bill the event—which is “PAID FOR BY KASIM REED FOR ATLANTA, INC.”—as a campaign kick-off, the details were quite clear: Guests would have to pay at least $1,000 to attend and contributions can’t exceed $4,300, the statutory limit for municipal campaigns. [Editor’s note 6/11/21: Reed did indeed announce his mayoral bid during this party, which was held at actor Tyrese Gibson’s mansion in Buckhead.]

Reed (who declined to comment for this story) joins a ballot that includes: Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Andre Dickens, both of whom served during Reed’s mayoral terms; Antonio Brown, the first-term city councilman who says Reed encouraged his bid; and Sharon Gay, a Dentons attorney with strong ties to the city’s legal and business community and onetime deputy chief of staff to former mayor Bill Campbell. Qualifying ends in August, and other people are said to be considering runs, including Tharon Johnson, a veteran Democratic strategist and businessman.

On the agenda between now and November are questions about how Atlanta will recover from the pandemic, chip away at systemic and sharp income inequality, and, like many other cities, turn around a sharp increase in crime. In addition, the next mayor will have to thwart ongoing efforts by state lawmakers to take over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and address anger over public safety in Buckhead, which is threatening to secede and take nearly half of the city’s tax revenue with it. On top of that is the complex business of running a growing city with a roughly $700 million budget and thousands of employees.

Reed will be quick to point to his on-the-job experience, including in public safety; Reed won the 2009 election with a campaign promise of beefing up the Atlanta Police Department’s ranks to 2,000 officers and overhauling the force’s top brass. However, he will also open himself to questions about his two terms as mayor, from whether he did enough to offset displacement caused by the city’s development boom to how he missed a City Hall bribery scandal that erupted in 2015 and ensnared his former procurement chief, a top adviser, and city contractors. Reed, who is the first Atlanta mayor to seek a third term since Maynard Jackson successfully ran in 1991, has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

In an interview with WSB-TV last month, Reed apologized for the corruption scandal and said history would not repeat itself if he became mayor again. Federal prosecutors working under then President Barack Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, “looked into every aspect of my life for more than three years and took no action.”

After Trump’s victory in 2016, Reed’s potential path to a White House cabinet position under Hillary Clinton vanished, and in the years since leaving City Hall, he’s worked in venture capital, backing startups like Jetdoc and serving as an adviser to popular restaurant companies including Slutty Vegan. When Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Reed’s hand-picked candidate in 2017, stunned allies and political observers and announced she would not seek a second term, speculation that Reed would jump into the contest became more credible.

A charismatic and combative figure, Reed’s time in office focused on shoring up the city’s finances by reforming the employee pension system, selling off public land, and positioning the city to capitalize on a return to intown living. A boxing fan, Reed along the way often sparred with local journalists, politicians, and others who dared cross him.

Overcoming the perception of being asleep at the wheel during a corruption scandal could be too much of a political mountain for Reed to climb, says William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, who jousted with Reed about public funding to help build Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the airport’s lucrative contracting system. That perception, Perry says, could make fundraising more difficult and discourage some political, civic, and business leaders from publicly backing him.

Name recognition is quite an advantage, however, and Reed—a former state representative, state senator, and mayor—has more than anyone else in the race, says Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science associate professor. In addition, she says, Reed can point to his record on reducing crime at a time when many Atlantans are “clamoring for increased public safety”—as well as his past success at putting Atlanta on a bigger stage by boosting tech, music, and film industries, and drawing large events like the Super Bowl. Also working in his favor: Reed’s focus on improving the relationship between the city and state, which under his predecessor Shirley Franklin had dwindled to nonexistent.

Times are different. Reed brokered a peace deal with then Governor Nathan Deal, says Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus of the Andrew Young School for Policy Studies at Georgia State University; politics weren’t nearly as polarized, divisive, and caustic as they are today. Governor Brian Kemp and Mayor Bottoms have quarreled over Black Lives Matter protests, street racing, and even Covid-19 mask ordinances. The approaches to improving public safety in the early 2010s won’t necessarily apply during an era when police-citizen relations have been fractured by the high-profile police shootings of Black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. “Just because you did it 12 years ago when you got elected doesn’t mean you can do it now,” Newman says.

Ultimately, Gillespie says, “This race is a test of Kasim Reed’s staying power and his potential for a comeback.”

MARTA has 400 buses that carry roughly 500,000 people every week. The transit agency wants to know how to carry more.

MARTA busBuses are the workhorses of transit—not as flashy as rail but just as impactful, if not more so. Every week, more than 400 MARTA buses shuttle roughly 500,000 passengers across Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties. The vehicles play a key role in metro Atlanta’s overall transit network, yet they receive nowhere near as much attention from the public. Late last year, MARTA hired Jarrett Walker and Associates, a well-regarded transit planning firm based out of Portland, Oregon, to re-imagine the system’s entire bus network. Led by Jarrett Walker, a bonafide booster of buses and one of transportation planning’s sharpest minds, Human Transit will spend a year speaking with riders, residents, businesses, and others about what they want the bus system to do for them and their communities. The firm will then present a proposed overhaul to Jeff Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, and its board. Do they want buses to come more frequently, or do they want to see buses to serve more people? Both options have trade-offs. Atlanta magazine spoke with Walker and Parker to learn more about the project. This conservation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why pursue this initiative? Why now, and why choose Jarrett and his team?

Jeff Parker: I share your sentiment, that buses here in Atlanta have been historically a bit of an overlooked resource. And to some degree, our bus network here in Atlanta has been unchanged probably since post-World War II. We’ve made a lot of incremental changes along the way, [but ultimately] there wasn’t an overall objective to what we were trying to do. In the MARTA organization, the bus system was treated a bit like a second-class citizen. It didn’t feel to me like we’ve used the heavy rail and our bus system as equally important assets.

While Collie Greenwood [MARTA’s deputy general manager] worked on rebuilding the bus system and improving customer service, the City of Atlanta created its department of transportation to align with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s One Atlanta plan, which laid out a roadmap and goals for transportation in the city. One of those areas of focus was increasing access to frequent transit service. Conversations around this led to the notion of redesigning bus service.

Jarrett’s team and the success that he’s had in other parts of the country, it just seemed like a really strong fit. Initially we looked at just the City of Atlanta network. Roughly a year ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had a charrette, and what I think became apparent to us was that we struggled with being able to separate out a redesign for Atlanta versus a redesign for the system. We had a decision to make about where we are with service today and where we need to go with service. It makes a whole lot of sense that we’re focusing on the entire network.

Jarrett, can you explain the process that you use and your thinking?

Jarrett Walker: People have a whole bunch of different things that they want transit to do. Because MARTA is a public agency, every resident, every taxpayer also has a valid opinion. Decision leaders also want transit to do things for the city and the community—helping with emissions, helping with economic development, helping with correcting historic patterns of racial injustice, and other goals. Before I’m going to draw a line on the map, we need to have a conversation about how we’re going to prioritize all those expectations. The key to it is to recognize that these different goals really belong to two categories based on the kind of networks that would implement them.

So, if you were to tell me to go design a network for maximum ridership, then there’s a particular kind of network I’d draw. It would run very good service in places where there are lots of people and lots of jobs. And it would run no service at all in places where there aren’t very many people or very many jobs, or people are further apart or harder to get to, for whatever reason. And that ridership-maximizing network would deliver on certain policy outcomes that people value. It tells the agency how it can get the most revenue from fares, how you deliver on all of the environmental benefits, reducing emissions, and benefits of managing congestion by replacing vehicle trips.

On the other hand, if you want the transit system to go everywhere, and that’s your top priority, then I’m going to draw what’s called a coverage network. But by spreading it out, I’m spreading it thin, so there’s less frequency. If I spread it out over a larger area, that means on each route, the bus is going to come less often. It’s less likely to run on Sundays. If you run a very low frequency, the buses come only when people need it, [and] then not many people use it, and as a result, the ridership is predictably low. That’s the trade-off.

There are good reasons to support both goals. It’s very easy to say, “leave nobody behind.” It’s very easy to say, “access for everyone.” But as soon as you say, “everyone,” you’ve said, “everywhere.” And when we go everywhere, there’s going to be a limit to our ability to provide a useful service anywhere.

I don’t have a point of view about this. My job has been to help communities think about how they want to balance those competing network types with their competing benefits. What I will do, and what we will all be doing, is helping people understand why you really do have to think about it this way.

We are also here to help people understand what the consequences are going to be one way or the other, or doing more of one type of network as opposed to the others. Our process is built around making sure that the community, ultimately speaking to officials on the MARTA board, makes that decision rather than us having any role in that decision. We’re going to be sketching out two contrasting possible network maps, one of which shows what the network would look like if the goal were primarily ridership, and the other which shows what the network would look like if the goal were primarily coverage. People will get to see actually how this affects different areas, and they’ll also be able to see how the total impact of the network and what the network achieves is different depending on which of these things you prioritize.

How do you factor equity in there?

Walker: Here’s the challenge about equity. If you mean improving average access to opportunity for say, the average low-income person, a high-ridership network will do that. But if you mean providing some service to every last [member] of the public, then you want a coverage network. There is a question here to be asked of everyone who is thinking particularly about equity or racial justice. It depends which of those things you want to accomplish.

Keep in mind, a high-ridership network will serve a certain percent of the population. We don’t know the exact percentage yet, but a lot of people will be on it because that population lives in places that are relatively dense and walkable. Those people will benefit enormously from a ridership network. And I’m quite sure that access to opportunity for the [average low-income person] tends to be much better in the ridership concept.

Parker: One way we will strive to build an equitable network will be through public participation. So if we were to, as Jarrett describes, just implement something in a vacuum that we thought was best. Built into this process is a significant amount of public outreach, public participation, and public influence in answering Jarrett’s question. He’s asking the question; he’s not answering it for MARTA. So that’s been the key to this process. And then the other piece of it: Whenever we design changes to a bus network, we have to make some analysis to make sure that there isn’t some bias in terms of how the system serves different populations. It’s a very clear-cut process to measure that.

Parker: The important piece of that public participation is trying to articulate so people can understand those trade-offs. The trade-offs exist because of limited funds, right? We have only so many resources to apply here. Let’s build a bus network that equitably meets the goals that the policymakers are going to challenge us to build.

Jarrett, you talk often about grids. When you look at MARTA’s service map, are you seeing opportunities?

Walker: It’s not just the grid shape of the street network. There are parts of Atlanta where you have continuous density and high walkability to the point that I’d expect there to be a high-frequency grid in that area. A high-frequency grid is distinct from the street network grid. Frequent means that the next bus is coming soon and that the routes cross each other in such a way that if you come in on this bus, it’s easy to change onto [another] bus because that bus is also coming soon. And it is the way that the lines connect with each other through frequency—that’s how you put together an effective network. If you’re only running a line every 30 or 60 minutes, and it crosses another line that runs every 30 or 60 minutes, it’s a little bit like two roads flying over each other without an interchange. They are physically on the same GPS coordinates but you can’t actually get from one to the other very easily. I always emphasize not just frequency, but frequent lines that are perpendicular so that there are lots of useful trips you can make by connecting from one to the other. The rail system is an immense part of the frequent network, but there’s a lot more that could be done to build a frequent network here in Atlanta.

Parker: The convenience of transferring from a bus to a bus is sometimes so much greater than transferring to a rail system. I think we sometimes in Atlanta view the bus network as a bunch of disconnected routes that connect you into a rail network. I suspect some of Jarrett’s work is going to help build that fabric that’s more than just bringing people to a frequent and high-capacity, heavy rail system. We’re blessed to have [rail] but the bus-to-bus network is important as well.

Walker: When we draw a map of existing high-frequency services in the metro Atlanta area, they are not mostly the gridded services that are running across the line. I think that the network already shows strong signs of having been built with the idea of “the buses are feeders to rails.” When bus lines get to rail stations, that’s where their use ends in the current network, as opposed to being part of some larger system where the rail is all supported.

It seems like what’s being proposed here—or what’s about to be studied—is that not only can this make the bus network stand strong on its own, but it will coexist and benefit the rail network at the same time. It’s almost like couples counseling for the rail and bus system. It’s going to get them to work together much better.

Walker: You’ll find us trying to not use the terms “bus network” and “rail network” because there is one network. It has bus and rail. And yes, the goal is for them to work together much more, but also to maximize all the ways that the buses work better for themselves. Say somebody in Bankhead or Vine City wants to go to Ponce City Market. A short [bus] trip that happens to run perpendicular to the rail line shouldn’t be that difficult. But then you look at it in terms of, No, the bus is going to end at the rail line, when you have the potential to keep the bus going in the other direction. I think there are real things we can work on there.

During a work session with the MARTA board, you said that process was going to be controversial. It seems like there’s a special kind of anger about changes to bus routes.

Walker: There are a number of reasons why changes to bus routes are very controversial. One is because you’ve got a significant part of the population who feels they have absolutely no alternative. You can refer to MARTA’s own experience with some of the major service changes they made in response to Covid of retreating to a smaller number of more frequent lines, and basically no longer serving a lot of places. And the [negative] reaction to that is always understandable.

There’s also just a broader resistance to change that happens all the time. This is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of doing big service changes. When we go big—like we’re proposing to do here—and propose to redesign the whole network at once, it becomes very clear that we’re aiming for a big benefit that is measurable across the whole city, as opposed to just doing one little thing in one area that has some benefits but are too small to measure.

Parker: Every time you make a small incremental change, you’re adding something here and you’re taking away something there. That’s simply all you’re doing. You’re fine-tuning the engine. You’re not articulating that the network is better; you’re articulating that there’s people over here that need more service and there’s people over there that I’m going to take away to give to them. And that’s how we do service changes.

This process may lead to certain areas of coverage being eliminated. That’s something that we’re hiring Jarrett’s team to consider. There’s still potential controversy here. But what we’ll be creating inside the overall network is so much more efficient.

How has Covid changed our cityscape? How are you factoring not just the future of density, but the future of Atlanta into this? Those unknowables?

Walker: Basically, nobody knows very much about how Covid is going to affect the shape of cities. By all means, let’s bring people to the table and have them compare their crystal balls. We need to be able to tell a story about why the network that we’re developing is resilient in the face of a number of different possible futures. One of the things we know is that lots of people still want to live in places where they can walk to things, walk to jobs, have things close by. Lots of people still want cities. If more people work at home from now on, there may be some exodus from cities. But I think we can take the baseline assumption that Atlanta’s not going to drop, dry up, and blow away. If a lot of nine-to-five jobs either stay at home permanently or, more likely, start coming in two or three days a week, you’re going to have a decline in rush-hour commuters. This has pros and cons. One of the potentially good things about it is that rush hour can be very expensive to serve. And in terms of the efficiency with which you can put out an hour of bus service, it’s cheaper to do it if you’re doing it all day than to pull out a bus just for a couple of hours.

I think that the other thing we’ve learned [during] Covid is where ridership hasn’t fallen. Ridership has not fallen among the people who are getting everyone’s food on the shelves at the grocery store, and at the jobs that have been essential for civilization in the last year. Folks who have jobs that they cannot do online and who also travel all over the clock, not just during nine-to-five—they’re a big part of the market that transit can serve in the most effective way and for whom transit can be economically liberating. When you bring this back to equity, it is important to talk about racial and social justice as a criteria. But it’s also important to recognize that as we invest generally in all-day, all-evening, and all-weekend patterns of service, we are also moving in that direction. Not just for ridership reasons, but also because lower income and minority people are most likely to need to travel seven-days-a-week and at all times of day. If [the aftermath of the pandemic] allows for some rebalancing away from a lot of one-way, rush-hour trips and over toward more consistent patterns, that can be a win-win on several levels. We have to build resilience into the plan [so it] can adapt to whatever the market turns out to be. Because [right now,] nobody knows.

Jeff, you seem excited about this. What do you see coming out of this? How can it add to MARTA?

Parker: What excites me is that, first and foremost, this is a city in a region that is growing incredibly fast. And I think that the importance of investment in public transportation is critically important. You look at Microsoft making a decision to invest substantially next to Bankhead Station. Public transit is also connecting less-affluent and Black and Brown neighborhoods to jobs across the city, including higher-paying jobs that tend to be on the northern side of Atlanta.

Public transportation can play a big role in [helping people access those opportunities]. And I truly believe that the most impactful way that we can do that is to efficiently and effectively use what we have. We’re going to build [bus-rapid transit] corridors, like in Summerhill, and we’re going to build light rail in this city. BRT is planned between the Bankhead station and Ponce City Market. Those projects are going to take, in some cases, years. Other projects are going to take decades to build, and some will probably never get built. You can’t build roads quickly, and you can’t build heavy-rail extensions quickly. But in relative terms, we can make some really hugely impactful things with buses.

Correction 6/3/21: An earlier version of this story and headline stated that MARTA buses carried more than 400,000 people per day. The agency’s buses carry about 500,000 people per week.

Why do private, profitable companies get public funds?

Why do private, profitable companies get public funds?For decades, local development authorities and state economic officials have handed out hundreds of millions of dollars to help build high-rises, subsidize warehouses, and woo out-of-state businesses. Why should private companies and well-financed property developers get a cut of public funds?

How do incentives work?
Incentives can range from years-long exemptions on property taxes to straight-up cash grants to companies that relocate into the city. The authority to award these perks belongs to city, county, and state economic development officials. The most active in the metro region are Invest Atlanta and the Development Authority of Fulton County. Agency staff vet the requests from developers and businesses, and a board of directors—which includes elected officials from that jurisdiction—has the final say on approving or rejecting applications.

Are incentives necessary?
Development authorities and the companies who benefit from the perks (obviously) say yes. Some projects need extra funding to make infrastructure improvements on projects that benefit communities, like road widenings, sewer repairs, and other fixes. Michel Turpeau, the chairman of the DAFC, says the agency’s support for a residential development in Peoplestown led to the replacement of a 100-year-old sewer line, which helped alleviate flooding issues for the neighborhood. Incentives can cover the cost of expensive land or help the developer obtain financing. Over the long run, they argue, the new properties eventually increase the overall tax base, which means more revenue for local governments. There are other perks, as well: Under one Invest Atlanta program, for example, developers of residential properties must market at least 20 percent of their units for people making less than $29,000, for a set period of time.

How much in incentives are we talking about here?
According to Julian Bene, a former Invest Atlanta board member and critic of incentives, Atlanta last year forwent roughly $32 million in tax revenue—money that could’ve helped pay for schools, public safety, and street improvements. The number is expected to rise as more property tax breaks take effect. Critics call the practice corporate welfare and a race to the bottom, with cities and counties leapfrogging each other for deals. “The fundamental question to ask is whether this project would have happened without the incentive,” Bene says. “Fancy buildings in Midtown, Buckhead, and around the BeltLine? The answer is yes.”

Can we scrap them?
The genie isn’t going back into the bottle. For all the talk about “leveling the playing field,” incentives are now de rigueur across the country. A city and county could take the moral high ground, but truly competitive deals and projects simply would go elsewhere. The smarter idea, argues Nate Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas and an expert on incentives, is for cities and counties to shorten the amount of time for tax exemptions, or to peg assistance to clear goals that would encourage equity. Invest Atlanta recently started gearing more of its relocation incentives toward companies that would create more middle-wage jobs or commit to hiring from parts of the city with a higher percentage of people living on lower incomes. In other words, they want the incentives to create a clear public benefit.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announces she will not seek re-election

Keisha Lance Bottoms won't seek re-election Atlanta mayor
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at a press conference on March 17, addressing the spa shootings.

Photograph by Megan Varner/Getty Images

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will not seek re-election in November, a surprising move by the popular though politically vulnerable incumbent that opens wide the race to lead Atlanta.

“As [my husband] Derek and I have given thoughtful prayer and consideration to the season now before us, it is with deep emotions that I hold my head high, and choose not to seek another term as Mayor,” Bottoms wrote in a letter and video posted to a website, dearatl.com, seemingly built for the announcement. In the letter, she ran down a list of her accomplishments and was adamant she could be a formidable candidate if she were to run for a second term.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday night first reported the news, citing two sources who attended a virtual meeting where Bottoms announced the news to top supporters.

Bottoms has scheduled a 10 a.m. press conference at City Hall on Friday. A spokesperson directed us to the mayor’s letter.

The move sparks new speculation about who will join the race. Names include former Mayor Kasim Reed, former Councilwoman and two-time mayoral candidate Mary Norwood, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, and Doug Shipman, the former head of the Woodruff Arts Center. Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Sharon Gay, a well-known lawyer and former city attorney, have announced their campaigns.

60 Voices: Jim Galloway and Greg Bluestein on covering Georgia politics

Jim Galloway began at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1979 working in North Fulton and Cobb counties, the launch pad for the political careers of Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson, and Paul Coverdell. In 2002 he began writing the Political Insider column, providing context to the intrigue, infighting, and ideas at the Georgia Capitol. He retired from the AJC in 2021.

Greg Bluestein is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (and Georgia’s, really) chief political reporter. Bluestein previously covered Hurricane Katrina, executions, and politics in the Southeast for the Associated Press.

JG: Without Atlanta, Georgia is Alabama or South Carolina. Truly. Metro Atlanta is the economic melting pot. Charles Bullock wrote something late last year, arguing that we have long divided up the South into Deep South and Border States—Civil War holdover stuff. He argued that we have to drop that. Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia are now in a single camp. The difference is economic growth and importation of new residents, whether they’re foreign or domestic. That’s the big difference, I think.

GB: We’ve also got these national superstars. We have these transcendent figures who can snap their fingers and get on national TV. And we’ve added to that core group of people in the past few months. You think back to 2014. Jason Carter could make a sweeping policy proposal and barely crack local front pages. Now, Stacey Abrams could be on Meet the Press and every Sunday talk show every weekend if she wanted. Brian Kemp, Brad Raffensperger, Geoff Duncan, Gabriel Sterling. We’ve got a core of superstars, from both parties, who are getting unbelievable attention because of what happened in the past few months. No other state of Georgia’s size seems to be this sort of nexus of superstars.

JG: And the thing is, they’re young, mostly. Raffensperger and I are the same age, so exclude us. Kemp is in his 50s, Warnock and Duncan are in their 40s; so is Abrams. Ossoff and Bee Nguyen are in their 30s. These next two decades are going to be just incredible to watch.

GB: The elections in November and January reinforced that [theory that Georgia is now purple]. I think it’s unfair to say “Georgia is two states—Atlanta and everyone else.” It used to be. Today, it’s probably four or five different states. You look at the Black Belt and that area in southwest Georgia voting Democrat. Northwest Georgia rural voters are voting in different patterns than South Georgia rural voters. You got metro Atlanta and the dynamic suburban transformation. We’re wrestling with our past all the time. You saw the results in November and January, but the Democrats were able to build that coalition that could be enduring and could go the way of Virginia. We will probably be like Florida. Not necessarily being Republican, but being more competitive—1 or 2 percentage points. We’re at a crossroads where we could become solidly blue like Virginia if Republicans don’t play their cards right. As you’re heading into 2022, Democrats are just loaded. They’re looking to sweep. They’ve got a ticket that will probably be led by Warnock and Abrams. There’s already talk about all sorts of down-ticket candidates. And they look like a juggernaut going in. And Republicans are still divided over yesterday’s problems.

JG: In 2018, in September, October, Brian Kemp was doing the Sonny Perdue/David Perdue trek through South Georgia trying to gin up that vote. Sometime in October, he was in some fish fry place. Right behind him was a Confederate battle flag. Didn’t bother him at all. Shift to 2020. Biden has made it down to Warm Springs. Governor Brian Kemp was at a protest in Manchester, Georgia, just down the road. There was a guy with the Confederate flag. He was booted out. Just shunted away. It was, to me, one of those inflection moments when Republicans understand that they can’t run the way that they have been for the last dozen years or so.

GB: Georgia is the nexus now. We are the premier and newest battleground state in the nation. We were the centerpiece and battleground for the misinformation wars and President Trump’s interventions. Now, we’re the focal point for elections legislation and the criminal prosecution against Trump. We’ve kind of got it all still going for us.

JG: In some ways, we’re kind of like high school sports reporters. We see the talent before it gets to where it’s gonna go. You could be in the Senate chamber and watch Tom Price and know there was a congressman there. It wasn’t quite as obvious with Phil Gingrey. But the first time I sat down and talked with Stacey Abrams, I was stunned. She is so astute and has got such a great political head on her.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

60 Voices: Sam Massell and Andre Dickens on city government

During his term as Atlanta mayor from 1970 to 1974, the city’s first Jewish mayor, Sam Massell, oversaw the campaign to create MARTA; began construction of the Omni, the city’s first enclosed sports coliseum; increased contracting opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses; and appointed the first woman member of the Atlanta City Council. After losing reelection to Maynard Jackson, the city’s first Black mayor, the real-estate executive led the Buckhead Coalition, a business group, until 2019. Now 93, Massell lives in Buckhead with his wife, Sandra.

Since defeating a three-term incumbent to join the Atlanta City Council in 2013, Andre Dickens has become one of the legislative body’s most vocal champions of affordable housing, transit improvement, and equity. Born and raised in southwest Atlanta, he is chief development officer for TechBridge, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits use technology.

SM: Since I started serving in the 1960s, the city and city politics have dramatically changed—and mostly for the good, in my opinion. For eight years, before I became mayor in 1971, I was president of what was called, at the time, the Board of Alderman. It is now called the Atlanta City Council. At the time, Black people were not able to vote or hold office. Put that in perspective to the image of our city today and its reputation. You realize how much we’ve come forward in tapping the talents of people who were not participating before.

In the old days, the only primary in town was decided by a group called the White Democratic Executive Committee. They selected their candidates, and then, they appeared on the general election ballot. The committee members were all white, they were all Democrats, and the only names that they put on the ballot were white men. They were bankers and lawyers and heads of department stores and other major businesses who were members of that executive committee. A.T. Walden, a prominent African American attorney, and Miles Amos, a very successful African American businessman and druggist, qualified to run for their seats on the White Democratic Executive Committee. The committee turned them down, Walden and Amos went to court and won, and, in 1954, Walden and Amos became the committee’s first Black members.

So, when I became mayor, we had African Americans running for office and winning. An all-white power structure changed during this time. We were successful in Atlanta in making major changes in how we operated and doing it peacefully, very quickly. Andre will appreciate this: We always said the important way to solve problems was with a conference call, not with confrontation. Blacks and whites together, business and civic leaders of both races.

The age group of the leadership in our city during that time has helped allow it to become such a hub for Black political leadership. They were young people, they were in their 30s, they were taking the lead in our city, and they were more progressive. I remember watching television 60 years ago and, at the time, seeing all these white men barking on the news about some issue in Birmingham. It was such a contrast to the young Turks in Atlanta, both white and Black—John Portman, Charlie Loudermilk, Tom Cousins, Andy Young, John Lewis, Jesse Hill—working together.

AD: I’m a native Atlantan, and in my entire life, I’ve only had African American mayors. From a racial point of view, we have seen a big shift and pivot a little bit more as the city is closer to 50 percent Black, as opposed to almost 70 percent Black in the 1970s and ’80s. But solving problems with conference calls, not confrontation? That remains a goal today. We have done a good job of settling our differences through communication and meetings. We may take a long way to get there, but we will settle it that way.

Atlanta is a city of neighborhoods, to me, and so, the power in Atlanta still resides in the neighborhood and in the neighbors. Folks in Atlanta generally talk about things in terms of neighborhood. You meet someone and they say, Yeah, I live in Collier Heights, or Castleberry Hill, or Kirkwood. You have so many different strong leaders and neighborhoods and so much more access to information—legislation, live public meetings, social-media groups—at their fingertips.

When talking about Buckhead and the growth across the city, I want to give Sam a lot of credit for one of his major accomplishments while in office: transit. Sam got the 15 cent bus fare, sat on the MARTA board, got the sales tax on the ballot. You pushed for minority and women appointments to prominent positions. That was progressive for that time; it’s still progressive today. You talk to business folks, and community folks, they want to be near transit.

SM: In 1971, I called on the state legislature to change the sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent in the Atlanta MARTA service area. For Atlanta, the Sin City, according to the state legislature, to come forward and ask for this additional tax was just, my gosh. It’s amazing that we were able to get it passed, for whatever reason, be it God or [the late influential Black state senator and MARTA advocate] Leroy Johnson. Then, we had to convince the voters to support the measure. I was in a helicopter over rush-hour traffic, shouting in a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes.” People thought God was talking to them. Transportation is man’s fifth freedom. Without it, you are imprisoned within your own neighborhood. You have no access to jobs, parks, schools, shopping. Keep pushing on transportation. It is the most important part of government.

AD: We have so many things we’re trying to do, in regards to infrastructure. You were able to galvanize that support that was needed for a MARTA referendum. If you were to do the same thing today, what elements are essential to make it successful? You wanted a multimodal center downtown. We still want that to happen. How do you win public support for big visions when people are really just thinking about their day-to-day, most days?

SM: Each city-changing project stands on its own. Georgia 400 connected Buckhead to the rest of the world, allowing people to go to the airport without a stoplight. But when the proposal came to add tolls in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it took us several years before the neighborhoods would speak to me. We did everything you could think: We took the city council members one by one in a helicopter over the proposed route; we showed them where trees would come down. We ran full-page ads in the daily newspapers, ran door-to-door canvassing, conducted polls. We built a campaign of 400 people for 400, and so forth. The road has had a tremendous impact, but the coalition suffered as an organization because of it. But we just felt it was that important. Just like MARTA—it was my duty. I felt it was my job to pass a referendum for a major public initiative. You have to market it. You have to believe it matters.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

When the going gets tough, these Buckhead residents get secession fever

Buckhead secessionIn March, a group of Buckhead residents plotting together under the cloak of Zoom had seen enough: After spending a year studying whether the wealthy and predominantly (more than 70 percent) white northern swath of the city could split from Atlanta, they were moving forward, damn the torpedoes. Called the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, the organization hired a lobbyist, informed Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council that it would start reaching out to neighbors, and promised to push for a referendum within the next 24 months. Decades of resentment had crystallized into an actual movement—one that opponents say could bankrupt Atlanta and send a cold message during a time of renewed focus on equity and race relations.

In 1952, then Mayor William Hartsfield added 100,000 people to Atlanta’s population by annexing bucolic Buckhead and parts of the west and south sides into the city limits—a desperate effort to keep the city’s demographics and political power majority white and the last great expansion of Atlanta’s borders. As Atlanta and Buckhead grew, property and sales taxes from the affluent neighborhoods and its fast-growing commercial districts and shopping centers bolstered the city’s financial footing. Whenever residents grew frustrated with crime, lagging schools, City Hall corruption, zoning disputes, you name it, Buckhead neighborhoods paid closer attention to pursuing cityhood, says Harvey Newman, professor emeritus of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Talk of secession didn’t extend much further than dinner parties and business lunches until 2008, when the citizen-activism group Fulton County Taxpayer Foundation hired attorney Glenn Delk to study the feasibility of incorporating Buckhead. The effort was justified, Delk argued: City Hall and Atlanta Public Schools repeatedly had failed the communities, which, according to his estimates, made up roughly 15 percent of the city’s population but contributed nearly 50 percent of its revenues. Breaking off into a city of approximately 70,000 people was not only financially possible, Delk said, but would give Buckhead residents control of their own destiny.

Then mayor Shirley Franklin and City Council, plus Buckhead’s influential civic and business groups, opposed the idea, Delk says. The Great Recession forced Buckhead—which was taking out Wall Street Journal ads to fill vacant office towers—to focus on staying afloat rather than starting anew. According to some estimates, Buckhead today makes up roughly a quarter of the city’s population and now contributes approximately 50 percent of its revenues. But the song remains the same: High-profile crimes like the killing of a seven-year-old girl hit by stray gunfire while riding in a vehicle near Phipps Plaza, carjackings, and robberies have left some residents on edge; potholes are punishing Porsches; and trash pick-ups are inconsistent. “We looked at what was currently being done for Buckhead versus the costs levied on our residents,” Sam Lenaeus, a real estate agent and member of the BEC’s executive board, said in an email. “We quickly concluded that even after paying a lot in taxes, we were still expected to solve our own problems and pour more private money into them . . . The time has come for the citizens of Buckhead to help by taking action ourselves.” (Other than its four officers, the volunteer organization does not name its members or say how large it is.)

Like Delk before them, BEC claims race plays no role in its cityhood efforts and the group acknowledges race’s roots in Atlanta’s annexation of Buckhead in the first place. “The city has turned a deaf ear to Buckhead’s issues,” Lenaeus says. Activists also say increases in property values in east side neighborhoods Morningside and Inman Park would help offset the loss in tax revenue if they pull out.

BuckheadRegardless, Tim Crimmins, a Georgia State University professor and Atlanta historian, says a majority-white community pulling out of a majority-Black city—one of ATL’s calling cards—during a time when cities across the country are having a reckoning on racial relations would cripple the city and pour salt on a wound that’s never really healed. City council member Howard Shook, who represents part of Buckhead and supports residents studying the issue, says he hopes secessionists keep in mind that the new city would still rely on Fulton County’s judicial system, tax assessors, and elections officials. “Zoning and land use designations that are in place are vested property rights,” he says. “That’s a lot right there. Those are problems that will not go away.” Buckhead could create its own police force, he says, but that doesn’t mean crime would stop.

Cities are creatures of the state, and pro-Buckhead residents would have to take their case to the Gold Dome. In the final hours of the 2021 legislative session, two Republican state lawmakers—Rep. Todd Jones and Sen. Brandon Beach of North Fulton, neither of whom represent Buckhead—introduced bills to create the city. If state lawmakers approve the proposal, residents in the proposed city then would likely have to vote on the proposal. Lenaeus says the municipality’s working name is Buckhead City, so as not to step on the toes of the existing Town of Buckhead in Morgan County (est. population 183).

Delk thinks a majority of residents of the potential city would support the measure. But some of the “institutional forces” that Delk considered the biggest obstacles to pursuing cityhood—namely, Buckhead’s influential business community and civic groups like the Buckhead Coalition, Livable Buckhead, and the Buckhead Community Improvement District—still think the neighborhood’s problems with City Hall could be solved through the existing political process. “I think it would be a mistake both for Buckhead and the City of Atlanta,” says Sam Massell, the former Atlanta mayor who, as head of the Buckhead Coalition, long has opposed the concept. “It’s short-sighted. Today, crime is the number-one issue in our city [and metro region]. That can’t be solved by running from it. We need to face up to it.”

The answer, Crimmins says, is not to build a wall. “Elect a mayor who’s going to do something about it,” he says. “Crime affects a person living in Buckhead just like it affects someone who lives in Virginia-Highland or Cascade Heights. It’s all the same problem. It’s affecting the city. To say you’re going to take your money and go home and leave the rest of the city to its own designs—that just isn’t a good thing.”

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

Renaissance van: An Atlanta company transforms ordinary vans into a stylish way to see the country

Wyatt Roscoe Inner Space Ships
Wyatt Roscoe uses drawers and cabinets to maximize space.

Photograph by Gianna Keiko Photography

In the summer of 2018, Wyatt Roscoe customized his van while taking a break from his design and project-management job in the solar industry. He posted it online for sale, and, over the next two months, he inked deals to convert eight vans. Sensing a market, Roscoe started Inner Space Ships. Based in a former neon warehouse along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail, Roscoe and his four-person staff have since converted nearly 30 vans into efficient and stylish ways to explore the country and save on Airbnb bills.

• Inner Space uses two vans for roughly 90 percent of its conversions: the Ram ProMaster, which is relatively affordable and wide enough for a person to sleep perpendicular; and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, considered the “gold standard” of vans.

• Why’s a compost toilet ideal? “It’s really nice to not wake up your partner in the middle of the night, open the door, step on the cold snow or whatever it is wherever you are camping, to use the restroom,” Roscoe says.

• How much will a van cost? Normally, the customer will finance or buy the van—the cheapest “van shell” runs roughly $41,000—and leave it with Inner Space. A full buildout starts just under $30,000, but the Inner Space team recently delivered a $75,000 conversion.

• The pandemic inspired people to embrace the outdoors (and, for some lucky ones, allowed them to work from anywhere). Interest in the company’s models and custom builds has more than tripled, Roscoe says.

• Earlier this year, the team was tasked with building a van that could comfortably accommodate a family of six—adding four captain-style chairs and two bunk beds in the back.

• To save space, a table pulls out from underneath the bed, and a kitchen island can hide a compost toilet. Water tanks are molded to fit over wheel wells. The team can also add an outdoor shower, roof racks, and other amenities.

• Though most customers opt for one of Inner Space’s two main models—the two-person Millennial Falcon and four-person Obi Wan Vanobi—the company does entertain special requests. One client earlier this year asked them to research bulletproof materials.

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.

Atlanta is a bicycling town. No, really.

The old adage of “you have to own a car if you live in metro Atlanta” overlooks the fact that you’d be a lot happier (and healthier) if you instead regularly hopped on a bicycle. Controversial as it might be, we’ll go further: Despite its autocentric layout and mindset, Atlanta is arguably one of the country’s great cycling cities—slightly more rugged than pleasant (and pleasantly flat) Austin and less cutthroat than New York City. Stretching out into the metro, suburban cities have seen what projects like the BeltLine can do for communities and invested in their own bike lanes and paths, helping to create safe routes and a larger network that will one day make it possible to pedal from Grant Park to the Chattahoochee River.

From South Fulton to North Georgia, the city streets, paved paths, and mountain-biking trails offer bicyclists of all skill levels a place to exercise, enjoy a ride with friends, or get dirty. Though the pandemic pressed pause on some group rides across the metro, bicycling boasts a vibrant and thriving community, making the sport, long known as a predominantly white activity, more inclusive for people of color—and they’re having a lot of fun doing it. Startup companies exploring the possibilities of e-bikes are churning out sleek battery-powered models that make it easy to pedal up those hills.

What’s beautiful is that Atlanta, the great cycling city, is only getting better, with more trails, more bike lanes, and more riders, and, in the process, proving that old car-dependent adage doesn’t have to last forever. Tune-up your old bike, join the hunt for a new one, and get outside on two wheels.

—Edited by Thomas Wheatley

Seven great bicycling routes in metro Atlanta

Seven great bicycling routes in metro Atlanta you need to tryBy Thomas Wheatley
When you outgrow riding in your neighborhood and on the well-trodden BeltLine, metro Atlanta presents a wealth of places to explore (or just get lost) on two wheels. Whether you want to get out of the city and breathe in South Fulton air or feel the pride of walking your bike through Stone Mountain’s front gate (and enjoying free admission), there are plenty of options for all skill levels to enjoy. Keep reading

Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my life

Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my lifeBy Thomas Wheatley
On an overcast day in May 2020, still in the early days of the pandemic, I woke up on my back on a service road circling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with my friend Jake dragging his knuckles along my sternum—an EMS trick he knew to rouse someone from unconsciousness. After biking to the international terminal with my friends to gawk at what the world’s busiest airport looks and sounds like during a pandemic, my bike and I rounded a hill too fast and encountered Atlanta’s official mascot: a craggy pothole so deep you could fit your foot inside it. I flipped over my handlebars, landed on my head, and knocked myself out for a few minutes. When I came to, I could remember my name, my address, and my birthdate, but I couldn’t recount the minutes leading up to the accident. Keep reading

Black cycling clubs are cranking Atlanta’s two-wheeled revolution

Black cycling clubs are cranking Atlanta’s two-wheeled revolutionBy Ryan Lee
Like all cyclists in Atlanta, Black folks who ride bicycles are accustomed to irate car horns and hurled expletives. But it’s also not uncommon for them to receive a surprisingly warm reception—an encouraging gratitude that even the United States’ first cycling world champion, a Black man named Marshall “Major” Taylor, was denied during the height of his career at the turn of the 20th century. Keep reading

Great Georgia routes and rides for beginner, mountain, gravel, and road cyclists

Where to bike in Atlanta and in Georgia

By Thomas Wheatley
From easy rides to heart-stopping climbs, metro Atlanta and beyond have plenty of places to get lost on two wheels. Keep reading

How to teach your kids to ride bikes safely in a city built for cars

Teaching kids to ride a bike in AtlantaBy Josh Green
Intent to combine two passions of mine—urban bicycling and fatherhood—I latched my two daughters to my Trek hybrid bicycle when they were tots, beginning nine years ago with the eldest. They started as passengers in a little green carrier on the handlebars, then graduated to a trailer-bike behind, charming the spandex off joggers as they sang the choruses of “Lean On Me” and “Let It Go.” More importantly, they learned Atlanta with an intimacy that driving rarely affords, marveling at Krog Street muralists, the BeltLine’s vibrancy, and wafting hickory smoke from their favorite barbecue joints. But then, they got bigger and earned their own bikes. Which posed vexing questions: Can you ever feel comfortable letting children bike solo around a city with countless hills and roaring cars, one that’s still recovering from generations of autocentric planning? Is that traditional rite-of-passage still safe? Keep reading

For local bike shops, the pandemic was a lesson in supply and demand

For local bike shops, the pandemic was a lesson in supply and demandBy Thomas Wheatley
Early last March, Earl Serafica was rearranging his store for the busiest period of the year. Earl’s Bike Shop, his three-year-old bicycle store on the Westside, typically sees its inventory fly off the shelves in the spring. But when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Georgia, Serafica entered the most hectic time of his career. Keep reading

The e-bike revolution has arrived in Atlanta

Atlanta’s battery-powered bike companiesBy Josh Green
McKenzie Wren, a 56-year-old equity facilitator and consultant, had long relied on a bicycle to get around Atlanta. However, as traffic delays worsened, she grew weary of showing up to client meetings sweating like an ultramarathon runner in July. Fortunately, a little over four years ago, she discovered Edison, then a brand new Kirkwood-based company that’s still Atlanta’s only electric motor–assisted bike builder. Keep reading

Where are we pedaling next?

Westside Connector TrailBy Thomas Wheatley
What’s the best way to get more people on bikes? Make it easier and safer to bike by building world-class bike lanes, off-road paths, and mountain-biking trails. Here’s what to expect in the coming year. Keep reading

These articles appear in our March 2021 issue.

Seven great bicycling routes in metro Atlanta you need to try

Seven great bicycling routes in metro Atlanta you need to try
A favorite of gravel bike riders, Dirty Sheets near Serenbe offers a rustic (and messy) workout.

Photograph by Growl

When you outgrow riding in your neighborhood and on the well-trodden BeltLine, metro Atlanta presents a wealth of places to explore (or just get lost) on two wheels. Whether you want to get out of the city and breathe in South Fulton air or feel the pride of walking your bike through Stone Mountain’s front gate (and enjoying free admission), there are plenty of options for all skill levels to enjoy. Many of the routes listed here can be pared back or rerouted to increase the number of miles. Google Maps and GPS programs like Ride With GPS can also help you pick routes with bike lanes and off-road paths, along with more direct (and less hilly) rides. Wear a helmet, use your lights, and ride safe.

The Greenways
All levels
You’re over the crowds of the Atlanta BeltLine and parts of the Silver Comet. How about paths snaking through dense nature preserves, wildlife areas filled with deer and heron, and boardwalks along gentle creeks? Save for a roughly two-mile gap, the Big Creek Greenway spans 20 total miles in Forsyth County and North Fulton and will eventually connect the two segments. In DeKalb, the South Peachtree Creek trail is a path-and-boardwalk hybrid trail traveling through trees and over Lullwater Creek and offers opportunities to hook up with Emory University trails. Last year, Brookhaven and the PATH Foundation cut the ribbon on the first mile of a planned 12-mile greenway along North Peachtree Creek that will link Doraville to the BeltLine’s northern segment.

Sope Creek trail
7 miles
The demand for mountain-biking trails—official trails, at least—in Atlanta exceeds the supply, much to the chagrin of bicyclists who enjoy jumping stumps and carving muddy corners. One of the standouts, Sope Creek’s seven-mile track, is one of the most popular draws in the South. Located in the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, the figure-8 trail whips and winds through the forest and is best suited for more experienced riders.

Silk Sheets
25 miles
Gently rolling hills, cow pastures, and silky smooth concrete make this 25-mile or so route on the rural highways surrounding Serenbe one of the metro region’s most popular routes for the spandex-warrior crowd. Pay the $5 parking fee at Cochran Mill Park and race your friends to Serenbe’s Blue Eyed Daisy, a tempting diversion from the main route.

Dirty Sheets
20 miles
If Silk Sheets is the golden child of South Fulton’s bicycling routes, Dirty Sheets is the younger brother who relishes getting into trouble. A favorite of gravel cyclists from across the metro region, this roughly 20-mile route starting from Cochran Mill Park steers bicyclists toward dusty, rocky, country dirt roads—some of which are closed to vehicular traffic—and ends with you washing your bike at home. Wait a few days or a week after rains, as the gravel roads can get quite muddy.

Mash to Trash
29.1 miles
The best part about bicycling in Atlanta: discovering new places, even the less glamorous ones. The counterpart to “Mash to Brash,” a popular morning prepandemic group ride, this 30-mile tour through mellow southeast Atlanta and its industrial sites remind you the city isn’t all bungalows and skyscrapers—and makes you wonder what comes next for the communities. The route includes heavy trucks and hilly roads, so enjoy the sights and smells with friends during the daytime.

Silver Comet
14.5 miles (Rambo Nursery to Rockmart)
All levels
The Silver Comet boasts plenty of charms along its 60 miles from Vinings to the Alabama border, but the 14.5-mile stretch between Rambo Nursery in Dallas and Rockmart just might pack in the most memorable sights and spots. Shortly after pushing off at the trailhead parking lot next to the family-owned nursery, cyclists travel over the Pumpkinvine Trestle overlooking nearby pines and residential neighborhoods, through the 300-foot-long Brushy Mountain Tunnel, and end in Rockmart’s quaint downtown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stone Mountain
34 miles
All levels
The bad news: The trip from downtown to the largest piece of exposed granite (and a testament to the Confederacy) and back totals roughly 35 miles. The good news: The vast majority of the ride is spent on the PATH Foundation’s off-street path. In addition, the route passes enough spots to relax and recharge outside—for example, Arepa Mia in Avondale Estates and Refuge Coffee in Clarkston—that you’ll be forgiven if you stop short. Getting the first glimpse of the monadnock and soaking up the park’s beauty, however, is worth the push.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

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