On Atlanta's traffic issues and the dismal hope of a better future: In which I present a scathing criticism of the state and the metro counties

I know the Atlanta/Metro Area Transportation Referendum is old news; the vote was July 31, 2012, and it went down in a blaze of glory. Citizens again voted against solutions to our clogged traffic and lack of alternative transportation options. The plan was not perfect, and in fact still included for many surrounding metro counties, plans for more roadways as part of the new options. (Sorry, say what? What??? There was really nothing better you guys could dream up? It's 2012.) But it still makes me really sad for this city, and mad as a citizen who loves it, that we have doomed ourselves to upwards of fifty more years in the traffic quagmire, while our population is expected to increase by about 3 million more people by 2040. Sounds awesome, guys. Can't wait for the daily connector traffic with those extra people beside me, too! But I did feel some hope when I read my August 2012 issue of Atlanta Magazine, which was their inaugural "Big Ideas" issue, including what the editors dubbed their "Groundbreakers," the big things Atlantans and local planners and companies are doing to make this city amazing. I think this is a great city; it has imaginative people, a colorful and quite distinct history, a pretty awesome climate (all things considered), and it's arguably the hub of business and culture in the southeastern United States. That's a big deal; this is where companies set up shop if they want to have access to the burgeoning southern region, which has finally risen--for the most part--out of its difficult historical economic and social stagnation, which plagued the South from the inception of the United States until roughly the end of the Jim Crow era.

And yet we still had to screw up further potential by a fissure that has long cursed Georgia: the legislative relationship between the state (and often, the rural communities throughout the state) and the city of Atlanta. Harkening back to the days of the County Unit System (a topic for many blogs and many books, indeed), those outside the city--and the lawmakers who represent them--are often hesitant to spend time and money doing much that could improve its largest economic asset. That is exactly what has happened historically with the budding and dying and budding and dying of transportation options and alternatives in Atlanta since the 1960s, when cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco were also planning their subways and rapid transit systems. So, we all know where DC and SF stand today, right? And Atlanta, too.

Learning this particular comparison was a revelation, that all three of these transit systems were conceived and planned in the same era; I've used D.C.'s subways and they're wonderful. I can't vouch for San Francisco. But I certainly have an opinion about Atlanta's. And it turns out, the anemic rail lines we have today are a direct result of politics, and people disagreeing, and counties (counties who are part of the metro area, and have a responsibility to the city they depend on and the people who live in the counties) bailing on what once would have been a cohesive plan for a second viable commute option.

I'm looking at you, Cobb County. As my home for five years, I resent the choices your representatives and citizens made long ago, in a little mess that culminated in the Transit Compromise of 1971. It diminishes our entire reputation as a city; I want to believe this city can be even greater, but this is a bit of an important black mark on our future. I might sound a little bitter, but it's nothing compared to the scathing little article assessing the situation in Atlanta Magazine:

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta's past lapses in judgement haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn't just a one-time blunder--it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region's transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there's no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl [!!!!!!!] is key to the metro area's potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future-type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we'd settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical "undo" key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

I read this whole article and scribbled all over in the margins my own notes (as I do in practically every piece of literature I read, of any kind). Next to this whole intro, I wrote simply, "Ouch!" And then I felt excited. Yes, Atlanta Magazine, please harshly rip this apart. Represent those of us most disgruntled and angry and seeking options that do not exist because of the decisions made by voters and politicians decades ago, representing a far different Atlanta than exists today. Thank you, most seriously, for publishing this article.

The original plan for public transit, MARTA, was to include five metropolitan counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. After several failing votes, the final plan would be for only two of these counties, Fulton and DeKalb--the two the constitute the city of Atlanta. Already, really it was set up for anemic failure. The article explains the issues:

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

The compromise in 1971, that we finally got state legislators to agree on, was that MARTA would never be able to spend more than 50 percent of its sales revenue on operating costs, meaning it could never improve infrastructure and expand without finding money elsewhere--namely, in raising the fares and going into a lot of debt. The Atlanta Magazine article goes into the background and explains it all phenomenally. Please read it. There is a lot of politics involved. Basically, this compromise came out of state legislators bullying the city leaders into this, threatening that this whole thing would be dead on arrival, never happen at all, if they did not agree to this condition.

As an aside, this agreement doesn't even make clear sense to me. I mean, I don't see how this limit benefits anyone at all; it looks to only have been a mechanism with which to threaten, bully, and corner Atlanta leaders and lawmakers, a way to say, we'll do what we want and you, Atlanta, you'll have no say in this matter. Stop trying to be the big man on campus in this state. The problem is, Atlanta is the big man, and its potential--economic and social and otherwise--is probably permanently stunted as a result of the state's behavior towards it.

Am I being too harsh? Oh, I'm not done yet.

We had a couple of problems back in the 1960s and '70s. First, we loved the automobile, we were in the middle of a long-term love affair with our guzzling mobiles. Also, white people flocking to the suburbs really, really wanted to remain, steadfastly, separate from the city. That was precisely why they were leaving. Give me my oasis of picket fences, far away from that old wooden ship, diversity. I mean, yuck, right? But as the city has grown and become more diverse, and race relations have improved many degrees from the era of desegregation, the suburbs are also enclaves of multicultural communities. And now, none of us have any other way of getting from the suburbs to the city besides our cars. As the article succinctly and sardonically points out:

"This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation," says historian Kevin Kruse (who wrote this great book on white flight and Atlanta). "As a result, they have been in their cars on [interstates] 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. Their just not moving anywhere."

YES!

The 1960 Census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city--Atlanta's white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kruse [a Princeton professor]. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta's slogan should have been "The City Too Busy Moving To Hate." [Atlanta touted itself for much of the 20th century as the City Too Busy To Hate.] "Racial concerns trumped everything else," Kruse says. "The more you think about it, Atlanta's transportation system was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together."

In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham David observed, "The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood."

Also, we could not help ourselves from building enormous highways, bingeing on federal grants to help us build them

The alluring of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA was up and running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and ill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn't afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working class blacks.

...

David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says the road-building binge that lead to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta--some of the widest in the world--diminished MARTA's potential. "It's not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one mistake -- the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways," says Goldberg, now communications director for the Washington-based Transportation for America. "We were too damn successful--it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it."

...

The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA--until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. "The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use," Goldberg says. "The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion--the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin." He refers to neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

I feel strongly that what we delivered to ourselves on July 31 was at least fifty more years of the troubles that have plagued us for the last fifty. This time it might not  be race that's guiding our decision; this time maybe it was economic recession, I don't know. But I agree, once again, with the assessment of Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute and a source for this same article:

The July 31 vote is "an Olympic moment" [here meaning, one of those seminal, deciding moments, like when we were awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics 1996 Games]. "If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area."

Harsh, and probably true. I really, really hope not. I am invested in this city, and I love it. And I hate to see its future decided by the disagreements of the counties that compose its metro area. But I can't understand how this is not of the utmost importance in the state senate--this is, after all, the future of the biggest economic center in our state, and one of the biggest and most important in the southeast region. This is a big deal. I am inclined to blame the same idiotic political issues that have plagued the city folk versus the rural folk for a century in Georgia. Let's not have them define a second century, please.

Little Boxes... made of ticky-tacky

... and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.

This little ditty was the opening theme song for the television show Weeds, whose primary theme for the first three seasons was a critique of the suburban culture, lifestyle, vanities, and contradictions. Housewives and business professionals are smoking dope far more often than you might assume (but then again, this is the southern California version of the suburbs we are talking about, in the show).

But the theme song has always been the great, obvious reminder of the writers' criticism of the suburbs as somehow more safe, with less vice, and the fledgling perception that it is somehow filled with more wholesome people. Most obviously, it points out that all the "little boxes on the hillside," while they might be green, yellow, and blue, are all the same. Little cookie cutters set up for a life of Jonesing (by which I mean, keeping up with them).

One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art on our recent visit was an exploration of the city, the suburb, and our relationship to these different kinds of spaces. It revolved around the Buell Hypothesis, which is brilliantly simple at its core: change the dream and you change the city.

This deeply resonated with me; because, yes, I have taken a class on the history of the U.S. city and its development, the fallacies we have believed about them, and the many mistakes we have made in expanding them. We have had some victories too, and I think we are in an era now where we are becoming better equipped at adjusting the errs. Urban sprawl, the desire for the suburban "space"--which is, having a little yard next to your neighbor's little yard--the single-family house, the two-cars-and-garage, the desire for this "American Dream" has resulted in enormous masses of Metropolitan Statistical Areas--giant areas that now constitute the urban area of a city, and with tragically awful commutes for the people living an hour outside, as the only transportation system to accomodate the two-car dream is the interstate highway.

The Metro Statistical Area of Atlanta includes 28 counties, including the city of Athens, more than an hour east of the center. I think MSAs are fascinating beasts, and I've written about my thoughts on the cityscape before. Atlanta is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, the expansion of low-density development that saps the previously natural and open spaces that once surrounded a city, and replaces them with strip malls, big-box stores, retail centers, and many series of little rows of houses surrounding a singular winding street.

Plenty of people get really angry about sprawl, including the guy who wrote this book about it. In an article I talk about about here, the environmental benefits of reversing sprawl are explored: people in cities are using way less energy per capita to survive, period. The thing is, it is so hard to stop, to reverse, because we have not yet worked to redefine "the dream," as the Buell Hypothesis so simple stated. It was like a lightning bolt struck me. Of course. When we redefine what it means to be successful in this United States of the 21st Century, where, ahem, we are no longer the powerhouse leader of the universe and we better get over it fast, we can begin to properly analyze, repair, and improve the lives of so many living in our urban areas--as far out as they have spread. We can change our own perceptions of the kinds of spaces in which we live, work, play, thrive, towards more sustainable living in the population-seven-billion world of today. And it all, fundamentally, comes down to one uncomplicated sentence. Change the dream and you change the city.

Plus, it was just very fun to browse the theoretical models for housing systems of the future, when cities are a much larger part of the dream, and the family dwelling space for the majority of urban/suburban people might look quite different. So exciting. But I love cities. You already knew that. 

 

A city, not a blank slate. More like "an empty and brightly lit stage with lots of directors, scripts, auditions, designers, audiences, and reviewers."

I haven't written recently, but it has not been for lack of compelling ideas and discussion in my classes and reading. It has been in fact because of too much of it, alongside a new, second job that I have taken on, and the regularly hefty amount of school work. But I just finished another book for class, that has again drawn me into contemplating a few other compelling books and themes, and alas, this is the place where I can put those thoughts concretely.

Historian Alison Isenberg's 2004 book Downtown America: A history of the place and the people who made it is in fact a testament to the people, more than anything, who are responsible for the good and bad and the complicated personality of U.S. cities today. Oftentimes the city holds a nostalgic identity for people, a loss of something bygone, a sort of deflated self that holds some sort of hard-to-define sadness. Isenberg reminds us however, that in considering our efforts today at defining our downtown economic areas and "Main Streets," we must recognize that "the democratic, melting-pot downtown has been an evolving ideal, not a past accomplished reality from which Americans have strayed." Certainly there was never a democratic reality in the segregated shopping districts of the early and mid twentieth century, yet it is oftentimes portrayed or revered in memoriam as having been a free-wheeling, glorious environment. That may have been so, but for a very selective group of individuals; for everyone else, it has a much more complex definition, a much less rosy spot in memory.

She also sheds light on the criticism of some of today's shopping centers that hark back to historic facades or utilize (some might say exploit) nostalgia in the creation of their urban commercial centers. This is not a new desire, this image of a tidy, historical ideal. In the early twentieth century, there was an entire industry around artists' renditions of American cities, which the book's images show to be very much tidy clean-ups of what the actual cityscapes looked like.

This is not a criticism of either the 1920s-50s, nor of the most recent efforts, either by Isenberg or myself. Rather it is part of her argument that it has been and will continue to be the people who construct the cityscape, both literally in physical development, and ideally in how they invision their city and its image.

It got me thinking of another study on the American city, or one in particular--the public history project that has resulted Lowell, Massachusetts as the subject of an entire National Park, and the recent book on its history. One of the questions at the core of Cathy Stanton's whole study of the city is whether or not economic development and interest is compatible with public historians' goals of preserving and interpreting a city's past and its meaning in American history. Both sides can be argued, I am not here to answer this, but this same thought came back many times while I read about the larger developments of the economy of "downtown America" over the years, and the many vested interests that laid at the heart of each decision within a city's planning. Most often, it was businessmen, investors, retailers, and real estate appraisers who were making the biggest decisions, but in the wake of urban renewal projects and other controversial methods of "cleaning up the downtown," historians and preservationists had their say as well, spanning much of the city's recent past (1980s to the present).

Most compelling to me is the way in which every vested party uses the past to their own ends, and how many of the symbols of the past appear very differently depending on who is looking at them. This was most explicit in Isenberg's description of the 1997-98 exhibit "Main Street Five-and-Dimes," which was on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Building Museum. The exhibit's interpretation says nothing about the enormous effects of integration of the downtown, and how many of the department stores had not been serving African American urban citizens. She uses the comment book to show just how much people really did want to talk about the effects of a separated society on the downtown, even if the curators only wanted to show nostalgic "thingamabobs" and enlist positive images of the way things used to be.

Some of those are truly thought-provoking, so much so that I will post the entire excerpt a little later on. But it reminded me again of how much specific images and symbols from the past are used to many different ends. To investors and retailers, symbols of the past utilize memories, or perceived memories, to add significance to their project. To some white citizens, like this guestbook commentators, it was a vision of a "happier, kinder world," while to other less-than-subtle commentators, it was a positive memory of "'whites only' drinking fountains--the way it should be." To black visitors, it was that "some change is good," and that these old department store must be considered in the wider context of the times they were in, including the fact that while they no longer exist, life itself has in fact gotten better for many people who live around the same places the stores were located. One guest book writer agreed that yes, it was a look back on a simpler time. "Simpler perhaps but was it better?" Indeed, a more complex interpretation that gives us more to consider.

Surely I have gone past making a concise point. But my intention was just to unite the discussion in the Lowell Experiment about what history means to certain people while having wholly different definitions to others, and trying to reconcile every group and perspective when your goal is to consider the larger narrative of an entire community, or city, or even a larger metro area. In Lowell as well, part of the complicated story was often the notion of history on an upward ride, that we have surely improved our lives from those of our grandparents, that we no longer suffer in factories. And in the case of Lowell, residents could tout its more recent past as having also given this same improvement to new immigrant groups. One of the corkscrews thrown into its cohesive interpretive plan has been that complicated truth that this reality has really only moved to another part of the world, and that there are people in other countries who would like this to someday be their story too. That is something that Lowell has recently included in their story, making it altogether more complicated and global, but also reflecting much more accurately the world we live in, as one that is connected to the past, rather than separate and removed from it.

This trajectory is indeed a labyrinth of complicated stories, controversies, diverse groups with specific vested interests both in their past and present lives or portrayals, and when it comes down to it, questionable whether it truly is an upward climb of improvement at all points in time. Almost certainly it is not.

But that doesn't get Isenberg down. "It remains to be seen which constellation of values and participants will chart the course of downtown real estate and urban commerce in the twenty-first century," she says, bringing it back around to her book's economic focus. But, during the twentieth century, "Main Street [was] a place to teach, debate, exclude, fantasize, argue,  include, make new dreams, and visit old ones." Maybe we start there to find the best way to write inclusive, thoughtful histories of our city spaces, and of the communities that live in them. Lowell is certainly one prickly example of this, are there will surely be more.

(The colorful quotation that is the title of this post is by Isenberg, found on page 313 of her book.)