Posted on Dec. 11, 2016 by Matthew Garbett
James Baldwin once referred to urban renewal as “negro removal.”
And nowhere was this more evident than in Atlanta. Entire African-American communities, from Summerhill to Buttermilk Bottoms to Lightning, were displaced for stadiums, civic centers, and highways.
Even public transportation got in on the act. Once a thriving, lower income business district serving predominantly African-Americans, the area around Five Points (much of which we now call Underground) was intentionally displaced: “This was no accident. In the minds of business leaders and city planners, rapid-rail would energize downtown redevelopment by eradicating a highly visible black working-class shopping district which, they believed, was a deterrent to upscale consumerism.”
Now the businesses are gone. And many of the buildings have been demolished, replaced by parking lots. We are the Pensacola Parking Syndrome writ large, but without the alliteration: “The Pensacola Parking Syndrome is a term of the trade used to describe a city that tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot.”
A sea of asphalt, and destined to remain one if this rendering from WRS is a portent of the future. A castle of parking surrounded by a moat of parking decks. People do not visit because there is no there there. Just dead space.
Yet it is not the lack of “thereness” we blame for this area’s failure. It’s who’s there.
It’s these black faces. Leaving MARTA. Waiting for the bus. Going to work. Going to shop.
When the mayor says the developer wants “to control who has right of entry to their campus”, when Kwanza Hall says “Public access will not be exactly the same as it is today, but it will be cleaner, safer,” when comments sections are full of “Clear them all out,” who are they referring to except who is there now?
Instead of a vision for Downtown, we’re haunted by visions of who’s there. We’re not building a neighborhood as much as deciding who our neighbors are. Not in our homes, but on our very sidewalks.
Urban renewal remains negro removal. Now from our very streets, our public spaces themselves. I may not be able to afford Tiffany’s, but at least I have the right to use the city sidewalks of New York to walk past it. Not in the heart of the new Atlanta Downtown.
Urban renewal remains negro removal. And we need to call it by its name.
Be concerned, but do not be distracted, by the lack of public involvement that was specifically waived by this legislation. Injustice would not be less injust because the public knew.
Do not believe the false dichotomy that this was necessary for the deal and no one else was interested. We know plenty of people are waiting in the wings. And even if they weren’t, is this a price we’re willing to pay for investment? What does that say about our city? Our citizens? Our leaders?
Do not be confused by the developer’s insistence that they are not closing the streets to pedestrians. Of course they are not. But now they get to decide which pedestrians are there. The heart of Downtown, the connection between our largest mass transit hub and the center of our city and state governments… is now a gated community. That black hole that connects MARTA users to the city around it is now off limits.
Do not accept the bizarre claims about a city bridge and financing and opening and closing offered by Councilmen Hall. That we cannot close a street for repairs that the developer will close for a pedestrian plaza. The street cannot be closed before they open. So they can close it later. Or not. No one knows. That we cannot afford to repair the streets while dedicating millions to sports stadiums. Or that the developer will not ask for city financing for whatever street plan they come up with.
If that doesn’t make sense to you… don’t worry. It doesn’t make sense. Period.
The fundamental public space of a city is its streets and sidewalks. Even more than parks, this is the space that belongs to all of us. From the basic human need to get from point A to point B, to our rights to assemble and be in public space… these take place on our streets and sidewalks.
No private development is worth that forfeiture.
The council’s egregious legislation merely authorizes the mayor to transfer the streets. Let him know that this is not Atlanta. That this is not who we are.