When office workers return after the pandemic, they might not recognize Atlanta. While they were away, the city’s development engine didn’t just hum, it roared. From mid-March to mid-December, city officials issued construction permits for nearly 5,000 projects and inspected roughly 45,000 job sites. Construction workers swung hammers and poured concrete to build apartments on the Westside, construct office buildings in Midtown, and renovate a historic school in Old Fourth Ward. Here are eight of the most notable additions to the cityscape during the pandemic.
In late January 2014, just under three inches of snow—and, more specifically, the ice that followed—crippled metro Atlanta, shutting down the region’s economy and forcing people to sleep in stranded cars, stores, and community centers. What if history repeats itself?
What was the total damage from the so-called Snowpocalypse?
Two deaths in Georgia were attributed to the storm, and police reported more than 800 traffic accidents during the multiday shutdown. For City Hall, the cost of overtime, rental equipment, and supplies totaled $12.5 million. The PR hit from nightly newscasts leading with aerial shots of a winter wasteland and jabs from Saturday Night Live? Priceless.
How have Atlanta and the state prepared?
After 2014’s storm, government officials adopted a mantra of “better safe than embarrassed.” The Georgia Department of Transportation today has roughly 55,000 tons of salt on standby throughout the state, more than double the amount on hand in 2014. Nearly 2,000 employees stand ready to operate 450 dump trucks and pickups to move snow and spread brine on the nearly 50,000 miles of roads and interstates. Josh Rowan, the city’s transportation commissioner, says Atlanta has 6,000 tons of salt and brine solution to spread first on major arterial roads and routes to hospitals—well before temperatures drop below freezing and snow starts falling. Those materials and various pieces of equipment are on standby at the city’s North Avenue facility near Grove Park.
Officials in 2014 weren’t just criticized for not having enough salt.
As former Atlanta editor Rebecca Burns noted after the storm, the balkanized nature of the metro region—more than five counties and roughly 50 cities, all with their own emergency plans and priorities—contributed to the delayed and dysfunctional response. Following the 2014 storm, then Governor Nathan Deal created a task force that drafted emergency plans for all extreme-weather events, including delegation of responsibilities among different local governments and agencies, when employees should be sent home, and when schools should close. The plans are reviewed and updated after every weather event, says Natalie Dale, GDOT’s communications director. Before the pandemic, Rowan says, the city held regular “dry-run” simulations of winter storms and has revised plans so crews can safely social distance while clearing roads or fallen utility poles.
Say we get another arctic blast—do we have everything we need? Rowan’s confident the city is well prepared and says it has relationships with suppliers and equipment-rental companies if salt piles run low or its fleet needs backup. And once the threat of a Snowpocalypse subsides, Rowan and other officials can focus on tornado and hurricane season. “It’s not like you get through winter and you’re done worrying about storms,” Rowan says. “You’re just finished worrying about a certain type of storm.”
Gallons of brine on reserve 2014: 70,500 2020: 1,105,000
58: number of GDOT’s remote stations around the state that gauge weather and road conditions
18: number of GDOT teams tasked with spraying major interstates during winter storm events, stopping only to refill
Her name is Whisker. No “s.” About a year ago, I met somebody in Piedmont Park near the entrance at 12th Street, where I was waiting on friends so we could ride bikes. I saw somebody with this cat crawling around on their shoulder. I’d never known a cat to do that before so I went up to the person. I’ve been deaf since birth, so when I communicate with someone who doesn’t know ASL, I type out my words. He appeared to be homeless or on hard times. He said the cat was a stray, and that he had been taking care of it.
Later, the guy saw me in the park, grabbed me on the shoulder, and showed me a text that said, I’ll sell the cat to you for $100. I went to Wells Fargo, got the money out of the ATM, and brought her home. He was happy, and I was happy. She was so cute, so teeny at the time. She might have been three months old.
For several months, she would chase a light I shined around my Buckhead apartment. Then, I thought, Let me give the cat some style, so I got her the bandanna. Wait a minute. Why don’t I try getting on my bike with Whisker on my shoulder? I put the cat on my shoulder and went out riding on the street. Whisker was scared at first. My goal was to train her to sit on my shoulder; it took about two weeks.
It’s been a year, and now, she just stays on my shoulder. No more moving up and down. She’s totally used to it. Can you imagine? This is crazy. Then, I got an idea from my girlfriend, who’s also deaf. She rollerblades on the BeltLine with cat ears on her helmet. So, I got some cat ears from Amazon. Now, we go on the BeltLine any chance we can.
I joined the marches and protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks because I knew that could happen to me. Why is this happening over and over? We’re sick of that shit happening over and over; it’s just so unfair. I’m just tired of this racism. We need to work together in this world. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, it doesn’t matter. We are all humans.
No one has ever asked if I was hurting Whisker. They’re always like, Wow, I’ve never seen that. I don’t know if it is the breed of the cat or her individual personality. Now, we ride all over Atlanta, and people are trying to copy me! I don’t care what people think. I like to do something different for style. People love to see us too. They want to take a photo or video with me, and I do the claw hands. We’ve become a little famous locally.
The bike is made by Coco City. It’s a chopper. I wanted something that nobody else had, and I wanted electric. It’s got a battery motor, so it can go pretty fast, like 50 mph, and it’s comfortable with this handlebar. It kind of makes me look rad. I can’t hear the music I play from the speaker, but I can feel it. As long as it has a beat that I can feel and it’s loud, it doesn’t really matter who the artist is or the lyrics.
People see the cat and they see me on the bike, and they get happy. It makes me feel like I have some influence in my life with other people to make them feel happy and maybe even feel a little bit of peace, rather than just negativity. And if people want to take a picture with me or selfie with me then they’ll have a happy memory to say, Oh, I met the BeltLine Cat Guy. It makes me feel good that they think of something happy when they see me and Whisker, me and my tiny ears on my helmet. It gives me peace in my heart. It does. It makes me feel good.
Sweetwater Creek State Park
Rock hop near the famous mill ruins, then head left in the opposite direction of the crowds toward the less popular Yellow Trail. A small (and overlooked) beach next to the steel bridge spanning the creek provides a quiet place to spread out on a blanket and listen to the flow of the mild rapids.
Monastery of the Holy Spirit
A quiet sense of calm and contemplation pervades the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. Though the impressive abbey and museum are temporarily closed to the public due to Covid-19, its 2,300-acre grounds and gardens adjacent to Arabia Mountain are open for meditative walks for people of all faiths—or no faith. Settle on a bench overlooking the quiet lake for a moment of soulful reflection. trappist.net
Island Ford at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Avoid the crowds hiking around East Palisades and Paces Mill and head to Sandy Springs, where the flows of the Chattahoochee are flat—perfect not just for fly fishers and herons but also for stretching out in the sun on one of the many rocks along the park’s banks. nps.gov/chat
Cascade Springs Nature Preserve
Once the site of a resort built around natural springs thought to have healing properties, this preserve can still be a place to recharge. In the 120 acres of wild forest, spot wildlife like deer, turtles, and hawks, plus a waterfall, quiet springs, an old mossy stone springhouse, and a cluster of boulders on the Utoy Creek trail that make a perfect perch for meditating.
Silver Comet Trail
If you ohm best while pedaling toward the horizon, haul your bike to Tara Drummond Trailhead in Dallas, 30 miles northwest of the city. Head 17 miles west over trestles and through tunnels toward Rockmart along the former railbed that winds all the way to Alabama. It’s a relatively flat and smooth ride, so it’s easy to lose track of time and troubles while you coast and pump along.
On her first day of school in August, also her first as Atlanta Public Schools superintendent, Lisa Herring visited the David T. Howard School in Old Fourth Ward, where Martin Luther King Jr., Walt Frazier, and Vernon Jordan attended elementary school. APS had just invested more than $50 million to renovate the facility. By the end of the same day, she was helping hand out free groceries to parents of students in need. A Macon native and Spelman College graduate, Herring left her job leading Birmingham, Alabama schools and “ended up where she started” in Atlanta, where she succeeds Meria Carstarphen, the energetic superintendent whose contract was not renewed late last year, despite politicking and lobbying efforts by supporters such as Shirley Franklin and John Lewis. It’s hard enough starting a new job. Try doing it during a pandemic.
The first day of classes of this new school year was completely online. How did it go? After visiting David T. Howard, I virtually “dropped by” a class taking introductory Chinese. The students were highly engaged, and one asked a very good clarifying question, [acknowledging] she felt overwhelmed. With online learning, the older they are, the more finesse they have with navigating the technology. The students can express themselves. They even shared their fears. So did some of the teachers. But there’s also this camaraderie and this authentic sense of We’re in this together. I also “popped into” a kindergarten. I thought, Woo, yeah, this is kindergarten. It tugs at your head and your heart at the same time. Even though I was involved as far back as 2008 in developing “anywhere, anytime” learning environments, I never thought one day it would be the sole form of teacher-student interaction. After that, I got an email from Zoom saying there was a nationwide outage. I almost threw that phone out the window [laughs]. But I was in constant communication with the principals, supervisors, staff, and the board. We made it.
Roughly 63 percent of third graders in APS aren’t proficient in English/Language Arts. How do you change that? We need the right interventions, the right practices executed with fidelity, the right teacher professional development, and, to be quite honest, [for] principals as well. We’ve got to get some individuals who are certified in the science of reading, not just generalists in early education. The other part: We’re trying to do that in a pandemic. I can’t stand over young Lisa’s shoulder or have a high level of assurance that a virtual assessment of her reading skills is being done with fidelity. On top of summer learning loss, now we have Covid learning loss. How do we make up months of this type of disruption?
City government and the school system, though independent of each other, have to be partners. What advice did Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms give you? The educators and leaders who’ve been here longer than both [the mayor and me] have a voice. They have raised their hands and lifted their heads. [We] have to respect and honor that. And I’ve tried to be responsive and respectful of that insight, and it’s benefited me as a result. I get requests from all pockets of the community that they want to talk with the superintendent, they want to have a sense of where I’m going. If I want to have a sense of where I’d like to take us, I need to honor a bit of what’s been behind us.
Your first day seemed like a crash course in the disparities facing APS, viewed through the pandemic. Your day ended with a grocery giveaway. What are your plans on using APS to address those issues? Or can you? Certainly, I think about where our disparities and our inequities are. The work that is in front of me as the new superintendent is vividly clear. Upon arrival, I created a chief equity and social justice officer position—someone who can keep all of us accountable, including me.
At town hall meetings, one parent asks about International Baccalaureate, and the next asks where the grocery giveaway is. How do we balance those needs? The pandemic has pushed these inequities in front of us. [In some circumstances,] families may have hired an instruction facilitator with other neighbors to help manage their children’s online learning. [In other situations,] there could be what I also saw in a virtual classroom: a kindergartner flipping back and forth across the bed. When I interviewed with the board, we discussed the five-year strategic plan around equity. As a board member said to me: “We need you to be bold.” And I said I will.
Equity includes [looking at our curriculum]. Maybe we omitted many cultures [in our history classes]. Those are courageous conversations. Social justice has become, just like this pandemic, a question of life and death. Lives are being lost. What role does public education play? Any superintendent could argue that this isn’t the thing we need to be talking about right now. Quite the contrary: I believe this is exactly what we need to be talking about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Voter roll purges, long lines at some precincts, late results. Will the Fulton County and state officials who oversee voter registration and the polls redeem themselves on November 3?
Okay, first off: Why is Fulton always late returning its results? Fulton often doesn’t learn the winners of races until well after midnight, long after other counties have counted ballots, and the June primary was no different. Blame it on Fulton’s size—75 miles from north to south—and the task of serving a total of 787,000 voters, says Richard Barron, the county’s elections director. After poll workers break down hundreds of polling locations, they deliver cards with results to five “check-in” centers located around Fulton. Cards then are driven to the election division headquarters to be counted. In June, faulty machines and COVID-19 resulted in understaffed polls, thus the long lines—particularly in predominantly Black areas.
How will November 3 be different? Barron says the failure of thousands of voters this summer to receive the mail-in absentee ballot they requested—he blames a convoluted email submission process and workers contracting COVID-19—has been addressed thanks to help from a $6.3 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a Chicago-based nonprofit. By late September, his team had already processed more than 170,000 applications. Barron hopes mail-in ballots and early votes will make up 80 percent of the vote, which should help control lines on Election Day. (If you didn’t mail your absentee ballot in time, bring it to one of the 20 secure dropboxes that county election officials have placed around Fulton.) The county also bought two mobile-voting buses for $700,000 with nine voting stations. Eight hundred additional poll workers will be at more than 250 polling places.
And if I didn’t receive my absentee ballot? Check your MyVoterPage online to find your polling place. (Poll locations have changed for roughly 170,000 Fulton voters.) Signs will indicate where you can cancel that ballot from the system and vote on site.
What role does Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger play? Counties manage elections, but the secretary of state maintains voter rolls, oversees the election process, and certifies the results. Last year, Raffensperger removed roughly 310,000 voters from the rolls who had moved, died, or hadn’t cast a vote in recent elections. FairFight Action, the voter advocacy group organized by Stacey Abrams, responded with a federal lawsuit. A recent investigation by the Palast Investigative Fund found nearly 200,000 of those voters were still eligible to vote. (The lawsuit prompted the state last year to add 22,000 names back to the rolls.) He also signed off on new electronic voting machines, which are opposed by some fair-elections advocates like Marilyn Marks. She has sued the state to instead use handmarked paper ballots, which she calls “the gold standard.”
How can I be sure my vote gets counted? Marks tells people, if they’re comfortable doing so during the pandemic, to request a mail-in absentee ballot and drop it off at a secure dropbox. Barron seems confident the process will run smoothly. Fingers crossed.
For years, Georgia has been near the top of states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS cases. In parts of Atlanta and the metro region, rates are as much as eight times the national average, and researchers say they rival levels found in some developing countries.
How did metro Atlanta become an epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
Blame poverty, lack of health insurance, inadequate sex education, and stigma—particularly for young LGBTQ+ people who are shunned by their families and end up on the street. These problems exist in many urban areas; however, Atlanta is also majority Black, and the virus is disproportionately affecting Black people—especially young Black men who have sex with men. According to AIDSvu, a database produced in partnership with Emory University, the rate of Black men living with HIV in Atlanta is five times that of white men. For Black women, it’s 15 times greater.
Why is there such a disparity in infection rates?
According to a 2014 Emory University study that focused on metro Atlanta, young Black and young Hispanic men who have sex with men don’t have more sexual partners and don’t engage in riskier sex. However, they are more likely to live in poverty, have poor health literacy, not have health insurance, and lack access to condoms or medication that can prevent the onset of infection after possible exposure to HIV. “When you see something that’s persistent for this long, it’s not about individuals,” says Aaron Siegler, an associate professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “It’s about the system.”
What can be done?
To prevent new cases, Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties offer routine HIV testing at health clinic locations and encourage clients to begin preexposure prophylaxis. Commonly called PrEP, the daily pill regimen reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 99 percent when used correctly. According to a recent study conducted by Siegler and his colleagues, states that expanded Medicaid and provide financial assistance for PrEP had a 90 percent higher participation rate than those that didn’t. Georgia Republicans, however, have thus far resisted extending the federal healthcare program to more people living on low incomes.
I’ve heard PrEP is successful, especially in other cities like San Francisco.
According to several studies, more than half of gay and bisexual men in San Francisco take PrEP, and between 2013 (the year after the medicine was approved for use) and 2016, new infections dropped by 43 percent. But that’s partly because San Francisco has made PrEP a fundamental part of its HIV strategy and showed support by funding “navigators” who connect people with low- or no-cost assistance or even offer funding assistance themselves. AID Atlanta and county health departments offer navigation services, but the more resources local governments and nonprofits can provide—not to mention leadership in ending the stigma around seeking care—the better. “We have the tools at our disposal,” says Siegler. “And the question is, do we have the will to bring them to bear?
In 2001, the NAMES Project, the nonprofit that maintains the iconic AIDS Memorial Quilt, announced that the 50,000-panel memorial that had been displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. several times, and also for the Pope in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro district, was leaving its San Francisco home and headed for Atlanta. With the loss of its lease in the California city, its chief curator moving to Atlanta, and potential collaborations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Atlanta nonprofits, the organization felt the move made sense.
Inspired by community quilting bees aimed at rallying people over a common cause, activist Cleve Jones decided the quilt he made to honor his best friend in his San Francisco backyard could, and should, keep growing. What began with a group of strangers in a San Francisco storefront with little sewing equipment today weighs a total of 55 tons and contains more than 100,000 names. Friends, family, lovers, and strangers stitched colorful, personal, and heartfelt tribute panels measuring three feet by six feet—the approximate measurements of a grave, Jones says—that when stitched together create a 1.3 million square foot symbol as iconic as the red ribbon worn to raise awareness about the disease.
The quilt’s move to Atlanta angered many San Franciscans; one activist told the San Francisco Chronicle she and others considered this “stealing” their panels. In the 4,500 square-foot warehouse in Tucker, where the bulk of the panels were stored, panels were carefully folded and stacked on 75-foot-long shelves. Over the years, the quilt’s panels—10 percent of which were always traveling around the country—were separated, with some of them stored in Midtown and later near the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the bulk remaining in Tucker.
Even that space was not enough to hold the still-growing collection, and late last year, the NAMES Project announced the organization and the quilt were moving back to San Francisco, with the group’s archive of 200,000 letters, mementos, and photos heading to the Library of Congress. Much like when the quilt left San Francisco 18 years prior, 50 panels will remain in Atlanta to commemorate its presence in a city so greatly affected by a virus and disease we still fight.
I didn’t start to feel like a woman at a certain age—I started to feel like a girl. I was five years old, growing up in Arizona, and I prayed to God to turn me into a girl. You can’t tell me that this is a choice. What does a child in 1956, who’s five years old and can’t read, know about being a different gender? The only thing I knew was that, being raised as a Catholic, you pray to God for things that you want and he’s supposed to deliver, like Amazon. It wasn’t an overnight or same-day delivery because it took 41 years.
In the Navy, I was a nuclear-trained machinist mate. I worked on the mechanical stuff dealing with the submarine’s reactor: pumps, turbines, steam pipes, air conditioning. If I had been caught crossdressing, I would have been in big trouble. The scariest moment was in Vallejo, California, when I got transferred to the U.S.S. Flasher. One afternoon, [I was alone in my room and] I thought it would be cool to put on a bra and panties. I did, and then, I heard a knock. I heard a key going in the lock, and I jumped in my bed and pretended I was sleeping. It was the submarine’s executive officer and chief of the boat. They saw that I was sleeping and left. I was beyond scared. All during that time, from childhood and during my time in the Navy, I never had anyone to confide in or tell.
In the early 1980s, I thought I was a heterosexual crossdresser. I was married, and I liked women. In 1987, a friend of mine and I were with a group of other crossdressers in San Francisco on what was called a “holiday in femme.” We’d go to cities for one weekend once a year. My friend told me why she was starting to transition, and I [recognized] all the same reasons in my head. She put together the puzzle, and I realized I needed to do the same. My father was ill with diabetes and Alzheimer’s at the time, and my mother would not let me see him once I told her I was transgender. I started taking hormones in 1992. My kids were young, three and five. In 1997, I started living as a woman. The following year, my marriage ended. My mother decided I could come home when my father passed away. Today, I talk to my sons often. They became more and more comfortable. The process made me realize that kids come first.
In 2000, I moved to Atlanta. It was one of the best and worst decisions in my life. When my father passed away in Phoenix, I wasn’t nearby. I didn’t get to see my sons graduate high school or watch my oldest go into the Army. The good: I was close to D.C., so I could travel to advocate for trans people. And, of course, I met Darlene, my wife, here, at a contra dance. Six months later, she moved into my house in Marietta. We’re on a hill, in a cul-de-sac. Cobb was once considered a conservative county. Now, we’ve got a Democrat, Lucy McBath, in Congress. There are a lot of LGBTQ people living here. We have gone to all kinds of places, rural areas, and people treat us well. We were on a path to progress before Donald Trump was elected president. That changed when he took office. He banned trans people from the military, told doctors and landlords they could discriminate against trans people. If he wins another term, Darlene and I will likely leave the country.
In the 1990s, Mike Page, the person who created the bisexual Pride flag, encouraged me to make a flag for the trans community. One day, I woke up with the idea for the colors—the traditional color, light blue, for boys, pink for girls, and a single white stripe for those who are transitioning, gender neutral, or intersex. I took it to protests, marches, funerals, transgender days of remembrance. In 2013, I started seeing [my] trans Pride flags flying in other countries. On August 19, 2014, the anniversary of the day I created the flag, the Smithsonian accepted my donation of the original flag.
Our work has saved lives. What made me the proudest, even more than being the first trans delegate from Georgia at the Democratic National Convention [in 2004], was when the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs issued a directive showing how to treat trans veterans in the VA [in 2013]. Two days after the directive came out, we got emails from trans people saying our nearly nine years of advocacy worked. It’s amazing to be told you’re saving lives.
In 2012, Thom Baker and Don Purcell, his partner of 14 years, found a novel way to counter the anti-gay protesters who situate themselves at 10th and Peachtree streets to spit hateful chants at Atlanta Pride revelers: The couple made out, for roughly two hours, in front of them. The following year, Baker, Purcell, and their friends wanted to go bigger and stuck large cardboard pansies—a symbol of resilience, Baker told the Georgia Voice at the time—on poles that just so happened to be big enough to block the protesters’ signs. The Pansy Patrol was born and, for every following year’s parade, its members and supporters have come armed with supersized flowers and noisemakers to stymie and frustrate the anti-gay contingent. And love, the Pansy Patrol says, always wins.
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