Atlanta: grit and grits

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Growing up in 2000’s Los Angeles, I had become acquainted with popular images of the city: Coca-Cola, Delta, homegrown sub-genres of rap music specializing in exhibitionist behavior and, in general, an insatiable appetite for everything big; big rims, big SUVs, big TV’s, big churches, big butts, and big McMansions. A culture of excess, if you will. Then, of course, the national stereotypes, most of which were applied to every southern city: sprawling, backwards, ghetto, extreme rates of obesity, et al. Some of that was true, yes, but for the most part, it was nothing like I had imagined it to be.

Surprisingly, it didn’t strike me as being any different from most American cities. Atlanta has a cosmopolitan identity, and people followed the same trends and hold interests not unlike those held by Angelenos. Too, like LA, the city was multinodal and decentralized. Sure, it had a downtown, but it also had numerous secondary centers of money and influence (Midtown, Buckhead, and Perimeter). Buckhead – the Beverly Hills of the South – was especially very LA-ish, with its pretentious Hermès and Louis Vutton stores, luxury lodgings such as the W hotel, and numerous multimillion dollar properties. How it is laid out in a linear fashion along one street reminded me of how 50% of LA’s office space (among other things) is on Wilshire. Oh, and of course, I could never forget the obsessive and wide-ranging car culture; a car for every person.

Its transient nature meant that seemingly nobody was from Atlanta itself. Southern drawls and accents were heard far less than I expected, and when I did hear one, it seemed kind of out of place. Case in point: while riding a MARTA train, I chatted with a friend about Prop. 19, something of which caught a Californian’s attention; the man pulled out his medical marijuana card and a baggy of weed.

The exception to this was the city’s older, usually poorer black neighborhoods – places that have little to offer to potential new residents. Affluent transplants in Virginia-Highland and Inman Park could be seen eating at modern bistros, chatting on iPhones, and driving Prius hybrids. Really, it wasn’t too different from home, which saddened me, as I’ve always romanticized the image of the Old South: belles in white linen dresses and hats with bonnets serving mint juleps on plantation grounds. Luckily, it hasn’t changed enough to the point where two of my favorite dishes and beverage – grits for breakfast, and the still-ubiquitous iced tea – weren’t readily available.

Also, coming from Los Angeles, it’s just, so, unusual, to see and be around so many blacks – and this coming from a self-identifying (mixed) black man. It felt different to actually be in the racial majority, even if I’m a secular liberal who typically regards race as a mere afterthought. I was fascinated by the incredible diversity within the city’s large black population; hipsters, yuppies, thugs, rappers, janitors, lesbians, lawyers, African and Caribbean immigrants, politicians, and blue collar workers. Basically, there was a black counterpart for every cultural and interest group out there. Typically, blacks are stereotyped as belonging to a particular segment of society, but as mentioned above, Atlanta’s population defied such shameful stereotyping. Indeed very welcoming and heartwarming to see. Lastly, while that isn’t to say places like LA and NYC don’t offer diversity in their black populations, you certainly don’t find it in a small, contained area, like you do in Atlanta (even though blacks can be found throughout the metro area).

Most visible, though, were its gays. Atlanta gives even San Francisco a run for its money in the gay department. And that’s not even including Atlanta’s well-known “DL” population. Gays of any and every stripe were out and about in Atlanta. Midtown’s Piedmont Park – especially after dark – and Buckhead’s Lenox Square seemed to be the preferred hang-out spots. Rather progressive with regards to its LGBT population, from as far as I could tell.

In the urban discussion circles I tend to dwell in (which, ironically, tend to have many gay planners and enthusiasts), the city is derided for being auto centric and having excessive amounts of corresponding auto-oriented infrastructure and development. Yes, while that is indeed ever true, it is in no way limited or somehow unique to Atlanta, which is the picture painted. Chiding on and on about such would be, in essence, to rag on the overwhelming, vast majority of American cities, for they share similar, auto-centric qualities and development patterns (unfortunately, I might add). Though, of course, that doesn’t mean the city is perfect, or that it isn’t deserving of criticism; to say that, I’d be lying to both myself and you all.

I didn’t like how suburban areas – and even many Intown areas – had no sidewalks or sidewalks so small that they were nearly unusable. Many streets in the city were unnecessarily wide, something which discourages everyday pedestrian activity and basic things, like, crossing the street. As is the case with many American cities, freeways rip through inner-city neighborhoods and impose mental barriers and divisions. Most frustrating, though, was how in the majority of the metro area, if one doesn’t have a car, they’d be effectively handicapped, having severely limited access and personal mobility. More than anything, I hate to see when having a car viewed as a right, and not a luxury; seeing poor, indebted people stress out over unnecessary car payments, for fear of being thought of as low-class That’s no way to have a city!

For all of its faults, the situation on the ground is not nearly as bad as one –judging from the image bandied around in rap videos – would imagine. Visiting the cities many neighborhoods, I find heaps of cozy, village-like nabes and streetcar suburbs hidden beneath canopies of trees; plentiful post-industrial-chic areas, filled to the brim with new loft conversions; and an existing heavy-rail transit system. In general, there is a nice air of middle class prosperity, even if manifested in ostentatious opulence and overly-conspicuous, image-conscience spending. The majority of the areas appeared tidy and well-looked after, implying people take pride in their neighborhoods. These things almost overwhelm the over-the-top auto-centricity. Finally, an abundance of new, urbanist infill, along with pro-urban ordinances, streetscape and transit development developments signal a willingness to rectify the city’s current nature. I like Atlanta.

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