Politics

Atlanta and the Urban Future

There is going to be a hard-fought campaign for mayor of Atlanta next year, and to understand it better, you might pay a visit to...
by | June 30, 2008
 

There is going to be a hard-fought campaign for mayor of Atlanta next year, and to understand it better, you might pay a visit to the Lighting Loft on Edgewood Avenue, in the city's Old Fourth Ward. Not for any whispered political tips, but to look over the sleek and coolly sophisticated fixtures it sells: brushed-steel sconces, lamps in glass of the richest amber, cobalt blue pendants that could light a goat stall with hip urbanity.

What's arresting about all this high-end domicile candy is where it's located. A few minutes' walk away, on Auburn Avenue, is the modest home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born; another block and you're at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father preached. This is a nationally iconic black neighborhood, a fount of African-American culture and creativity through the middle third of the 20th century, but more recently an unsettling symbol of inner-city decay. You can still find small houses in need of repair, older black men hanging out on front porches, the occasional homeless addict wandering the streets. Yet they share space now with cafes, clothing galleries, expensively renovated homes and factories converted into upscale lofts. Almost any day of the week, one finds young white couples pushing baby strollers or checking out the progress of the new Japanese restaurant that's going in.

The Old Fourth Ward is changing at a stunning clip. It has not thrown aside its past, and it is home to plenty of African-American professionals and executives, but it also is filling up with white suburbanites who are tired of two-hour daily commutes and who like the idea of living next to downtown. Nor is the Old Fourth alone as a symbol of what seems to be Atlanta's almost day-by-day transformation. White newcomers are picking up houses and condos in Cabbagetown and Midtown, in Edgewood, Kirkwood and Castleberry Hill, up at the new Atlantic Station project and downtown in mixed-income developments that have replaced some of the most legendarily dysfunctional public housing in America. "It has become classy," says local political consultant Angelo Fuster, "to live in the city."

There is really only one way to put it: Atlanta is becoming whiter, and at a pace that outstrips the rest of the nation. The white share of the city's population, says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, grew faster between 2000 and 2006 than that of any other U.S. city. It increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2006, a numeric gain of 26,000, more than double the increase between 1990 and 2000. The trend seems to be gathering strength with each passing year. Only Washington, D.C., saw a comparable increase in white population share during those years, although several other big cities are starting to see it now.

This development is occurring at the same time that race and ethnicity are driving changes every bit as fundamental in Atlanta's suburbs. For if the city itself is growing whiter, the Atlanta region is growing less white. The Atlanta Regional Commission reports that in 2000, the white, non-Hispanic population of the 20-county Atlanta metro region formed 60 percent of the total population; by 2006, that had shrunk to 54 percent, not so much because whites were leaving -- although four counties did see absolute declines in white numbers -- but because of the arrival in the suburbs of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Africans and Caribbeans. Of the 10 counties in the nation with the largest declines in white percentage of the population from 2000 to 2006, six are in the suburbs of Atlanta.

Color and Power

The results of this are profound in many different ways, not least of them political. Atlanta residents are getting used to the idea that after more than three decades of African-American leadership, they may have a white mayor again before too long. "I don't know that a white candidate will be elected the next mayor," says Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "but a white person would be viable now. Race is disappearing as a qualifier." It's not that it has become unimportant, Bookman and others argue, but that the significance of race has changed. In Atlanta now, a citywide politician, black or white, can win only by talking to the electorate in all its current diversity. Winning requires the building of coalitions based on issues other than race.

In the suburbs as well, rapid changes in demographics are rendering pat assumptions about politics outdated. In Clayton County, where a working-class white population has given way to a large African-American majority over the past 15 years, suburbs that were lily-white and economically stable, if not especially affluent, are struggling with the effects of growing poverty and the replacement of a longstanding political structure by a new, less experienced one. Gwinnett County, once a white Republican bastion, captured fully a quarter of the metro area's non-white growth from 2000-06; there, a political structure that has only begun to reflect the population changes is being pressed to meet the quality-of-life demands of its new constituencies. Throughout the suburbs, a culture that was built on a single model -- cars and sprawl -- is caught between an exploding population that can't afford to sustain it and a state political leadership that resists making the investments needed to change it. The political consequences are certain to be far-reaching.

Rights, Business and Traffic

The reasons why Atlanta has moved further than other cities in demographic change have to do with two precedent-setting successes and one signal failure. The first success was the civil rights movement, which in Atlanta produced such giants as King, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, current U.S. Representative John Lewis, and the late Maynard Jackson -- the city's first black mayor -- but also pushed the white corporate and political leadership to see that its self-interest lay in breaking down barriers to black advancement. Without that pressure, it's doubtful that Hartsfield (now Hartsfield-Jackson) International Airport -- which was built in African-American neighborhoods, and which drove the region's economic expansion throughout the 1970s and '80s -- could have become what it is. "The civil rights era was a valve that managed all the repression and opened it up and spread it out so it was no longer as volatile," says Sam Zamarripa, a former state senator who now runs a private equity firm in Atlanta. "The environment became very constructive for companies and for an economic boom. The civil-rights-era guys made economic expansion plausible, acceptable and workable."

Indeed, Atlanta developed one of the country's strongest regional economies, underpinned these days by information technology and telecommunications, warehousing, transportation, health sciences, its prominent universities -- Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Emory, Morehouse, Spelman -- and the jobs in construction and services that come with growth. That is why the region expanded by more than a million people between 2000 and 2007. "Even now," says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, "the economy is less bad here than in most other places, and so it's still attracting a good number of people."

The other success was the effort by the Atlanta Housing Authority, starting before the 1996 Summer Olympics, to embrace a strategy of replacing public housing projects with mixed-income developments. Overall, the AHA has torn down 15 projects, affecting both the people who'd been living there and the neighborhoods surrounding them. The "deconcentration" of public housing seems not only to have shifted public-housing residents around the city and the region but their former neighbors as well; families that once lived in these neighborhoods have been forced to look for housing where it's cheapest, which these days is in the suburban counties south of the city.

The negative force that has been creating demographic change is traffic. Atlanta's traffic congestion problem is one of the most intractable in America; the city recently led Forbes magazine's list of worst cities for commuters. This dysfunctional mess has many roots, from the refusal of Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the 1970s to accept MARTA, the regional transit system; to the state's preference for funding roads over transit; to a sprawling development pattern in which most of the jobs are downtown or north of the city and most of the people who hold those jobs have to drive into the city or through it to get to work. The state still isn't providing much help; in this year's legislative session, lawmakers failed to pass a proposal that would have allowed metro Atlanta jurisdictions to add a penny to the regional sales tax to fund transit.

So Atlanta came earlier to a trend that other sprawled-out metropolitan areas, beset by soaring gasoline prices, are eventually going to see: Commuting distance has become inversely proportional to class, with those who can afford to do so moving closer to job centers, especially in the city. Indeed, you can't drive around Atlanta without coming across a new condo or apartment development, even in recently destitute neighborhoods that just a couple of years ago you'd have sworn would never again see a bulldozer or a hard hat. "Even Deep South Atlanta, which has been a backwater in terms of development, is seeing young black entrepreneurs who are not heavily capitalized looking for opportunities to go more upscale," says state Senator Nan Orrock, a white Democrat who represents some of the city's fastest-changing neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the outer suburbs now have a lot of cleared land sitting vacant. A recent study by a local real estate research firm found that developers in the northern half of the region have a five-year backlog of lots cleared and ready for building; in the southern half of the region, the backlog is seven years. Why? "Buying a house way out there is like buying a Hummer now in terms of what's it's going to cost you for gasoline," columnist Jay Bookman argues. "In January of 2007, when gas was $2.17 per gallon, metro Atlanta spent $14 million a day on gasoline. At $4, it's $26 million every day. That is an economic driver that will transform the region."

Conflict and Consensus

As with everything related to race, class and culture, the re-integration of Atlanta has had its rough patches. In the late 1990s, for instance, as the eastern-edge neighborhood of Kirkwood began to gentrify, a gay white couple that had won a lawsuit against black neighbors who allegedly ran a crack house got a death threat attached to a rock thrown through their car window; the next month, a local black minister urged Kirkwood residents to unite to "Save our neighborhood," as his flier read. "If you are concerned about the 'white takeover' of Kirkwood, come meet√Čto discuss how we can put an end to the homosexual takeover of our community."

These days, the tensions aren't quite as dramatic, but they can be keenly felt. In the Old Fourth Ward, for instance, a group of white friends from the suburbs bought up a corner house and those next to it, built a swimming pool on their adjoining lots, and then fenced the whole thing off -- making it clear to a neighborhood long accustomed to the casual intimacies of close-knit living that they wanted nothing to do with it. "What I've seen is a lot of wanting to be exclusive," says Joan Garner, who runs the Historic District Development Corp., an early mover in the Old Fourth Ward's rejuvenation. "They want 'my private piece of the pie' in a place where that is not the culture." These differences, of course, are exacerbated in neighborhoods where longtime residents are worried that the forces of progress -- especially higher property tax bills -- will eventually force them out of their homes or change the neighborhood in ways that make them uncomfortable.

"Old-timers are hopeful about what change means, because for the first time they've got a grocery store within walking distance and don't have to take a bus five miles to get food," says state Representative Stacey Abrams, a young African-American Democrat who represents a racially mixed -- and gentrifying -- district that includes Kirkwood. "On the other hand, when white folks come and start talking about how bad things are and how we have to fix them, it seems patronizing."

But if disagreements are inevitable when you bring together whites and blacks, old-timers and newcomers, poor and prosperous, suburbanite and urbanite, what is just as striking is an emerging Atlanta in which those distinctions are being set aside in favor of addressing basic concerns about quality of life. After a period of racial division, for instance, the Kirkwood homeowners' association has coalesced around the issues of public safety and improving the neighborhood's public schools. In the Old Fourth Ward, a master-planning process has brought together hundreds of residents to talk about the neighborhood's future. "We've had a couple hundred people to come out to each one of the planning meetings: young folks, old folks, black, white, gay, straight, and they sit next to each other and don't know how much they have in common," says Kwanza Hall, who represents the area on the city council. "So I say, 'John and Lisa, you got to meet!' and they say, 'Why?' and I say, 'The same kind of development you want to do on your property, she wants to do on hers.' And the next day, you see them together at a bar."

Another prime example is in Castleberry Hill, a loft district south of the downtown Georgia Dome that has emerged as the new center of the city's nightlife -- first to the delight, more recently to the dismay of its mix of white and black residents, who have grown tired of cars and noise at all hours, and the parking troubles and trash pileups that go along with living in a hip neighborhood. "It's an example of a bunch of folks, both white and black, one group likes to hang out in one way, the other in another way," says Ceasar Mitchell, an African-American city councilman who is considering a run for mayor. "But at the end of the day, those two groups come together over an incursion of what they see as too much nightlife." Indeed, he says, the process of rubbing elbows as neighbors has begun to defuse the tensions that differences of color, age and sexual preference introduced. "We still struggle with the issue of race in this community," he says, "but before you jump the gun and say something is racism or homophobia, let's deal with all the other issues in our face -- like the perception of too much nightlife -- and when you do, you sometimes find out that all the issues of race are either non-existent, or they go away."

None of this is to say that Atlantans all resonate to the same concerns now, or think about them in the same way. But it does mean that no candidate can succeed citywide by appealing only to low-income residents' fear of displacement or upper-income residents' concerns about the business environment. He or she has to be able to talk about both, to both races.

You can see this in the early manuevering to succeed Mayor Shirley Franklin, the popular two-term incumbent who will be term-limited out of office next year. Hardly anyone predicts at this point that a white candidate will win, but the contest may include some serious white contenders. That has not been the case since Atlanta's last white mayor, Sam Massell, left office in the early 1970s.

Currently, the two leading candidates to replace Franklin are both African-American: the president of the city council, Lisa Borders, a former executive with the development giant Cousins Properties; and Kasim Reed, a state senator who ran Franklin's 2001 mayoral campaign. Both move easily among different constituencies; in the local vernacular, they can talk business development with the white elite in Buckhead and economic security and physical safety in the low-income black enclave of Bankhead. "You can't look at a black candidate and think that candidate is going to vote on this party line, or at a white candidate and know with certainty how he or she is going to vote," says Stacey Abrams. "The traditional metrics people use, like race or gender, are breaking down."

Uncertain Suburbia

If it is unsettling to some to see the neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. preached becoming whiter and wealthier, it's equally disorienting for others to drive through many of Atlanta's suburbs. In Clayton County, the faces you see on political billboards or smiling out from Realtors' signs along Tara Boulevard -- the fictional "Gone with the Wind" plantation was set in this county -- are black. Along Buford Highway in northern DeKalb County and on into Gwinnett County, the strip shopping centers for mile after mile feature signs in Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean. At the DeKalb Farmers' Market, where many in the Atlanta metropolitan region come to shop for food, it feels as though much of Africa, Asia and Latin America is jostling to order halal goat meat, scoop up forearm-sized yautia root, or test a rainbow of Mexican hot peppers for freshness.

This breathtaking diversification of the Atlanta suburbs is too new to have produced the same political dynamic as in the city itself. Black political power is still fresh in Clayton and DeKalb counties; it's unlikely that a white candidate could win right now in DeKalb, and it's inconceivable in Clayton. Similarly, it's going to be some time before a Mexican-American becomes Gwinnett County executive or an African-American wins that role in Cobb County -- although Gwinnett does have two Latino state legislators, one a Democrat and the other a Republican.

Yet if race and ethnicity remain important lenses through which voters and elected officials in the suburbs view politics, these places are evolving so quickly that skin color and background are becoming less useful as political markers. In Clayton County, for instance, an inexperienced school board has so badly micro-managed the system that the county's schools are threatened with losing their accreditation, leading middle-class families of all colors to leave the county. Inevitably, sheer competence has replaced race as the salient issue over which enraged white and black parents call for school-board members to resign.

Meanwhile, in once-staid Gwinnett, the emergence of a substantial non-white and less affluent population has led to a marked shift in county leaders' attitudes. "The folks that were here for generations were a little bit ruffled by the growth of outsiders moving in," says Emory Morsberger, one of the county's leading developers. "That's why Gwinnett County didn't support MARTA coming in -- they wanted to be isolated. But the racial thing I think is now pretty well done. People aren't as worried about different races and religions being in their area, and are much more willing to work together with whoever is willing to work to make progress."

So it is that the county's voters now appear ready to join MARTA and an electorate that was once solidly Republican is shifting -- not so much because of its racial and ethnic makeup but because the GOP-run legislature has made little progress in addressing its concerns. "Suburban Republican legislators whose constituents desperately need solutions, but whose party ideology is 'no taxation,' they're trapped," says Jay Bookman. "If they can't find a way to fund more transportation options, they're going to accelerate the transition to the Democratic Party."

If any one thing is clear, it's that the politics of metropolitan Atlanta has entered an extraordinarily fluid phase, in which this year's given can turn into next year's outdated assumption. Some 500 people a day are moving to the metro Atlanta region. The city itself will continue to gentrify as wealthier people settle there and poorer ones are forced to the suburbs. The suburbs will continue to diversify in pretty much every way imaginable. Sam Zamarripa, the former state senator, says it calls to mind a video art installation he saw recently, one that showed a group of black kids playing basketball, while on the same court Hispanic kids played soccer. "That's what's going on here," he says. "There are multiple games being played on the same stage, with different rules, different winners and losers, different ways of scoring and different uniforms." How it will all end up is anyone's guess.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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