Atlanta May 22, 2010

As I take more of the tours provided by the New Urbanism conference I am attending, I get to find out some of the attractive and interesting things about Atlanta.  It’s easy to dismiss:

  • “Sprawlanta”
  • When people from here want to see a really urban environment, they go visit LA
  • Phoenix, Arizona, without Arizona
  • Washington DC without L’Enfant, the Government, the Smithsonian, or the Potomac (actually, “DC without the government or French master planners” may be the attraction!)

It is true that Metropolitan Atlanta comprises more counties than any other metropolitan area in the country. It is also an interesting fact that the Eastern Continental Divide, which divides the watersheds of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, runs right through the middle of the city.  And it also runs through the heart of several Gwinnett County suburbs northeast of the city.

But yesterday I was able to see some of the nicer parts of Midtown and Piedmont Park on a bicycle tour.  The so called Peachtree Corridor is somewhat like the Wilshire Corridor of Los Angeles, except that it runs north south instead of east west.  There are the old and new downtown areas at the south end, Buckhead, which resembles an overgrown Century City, at the other, and in between is midtown, where the major arts instiutions are located.  Also a very nice park laid out by disciples of Olmsted called Piedmont Park.  In it there is, under separate management, a large Botanical Garden with the US’s only Australian style canopy skywalk through the trees.  The trees themselves are not tingles or eucalypti, but whatever grows in the area.  And things grow fast.  We were told that there was a lot of cotton farming in the area.  But wherever was not built on is covered with rain forest – if land is neither cultivated nor urbanized, it reverts to rain forest within a decade.  The Botanic Garden attracts the hip crowds by periodically decorating its gardens with theme sculptures, like those of Dale Chihuly, and having events.  One strange feature of upper downtown is the 1980s era tubes that connect the major hotels and shopping malls.  This is something you would expect in a much colder climate, such as Minneapolis.  The Metro system was also designed in the 70s and 80s and resembles the one  in Washington DC of the same era.

The day before yesterday I had the privilege of touring four embedded towns in Gwinnett County:  Norcross, Duluth, Suwannee, and Lawrenceville.  They have been experimenting with green spaces and town centers in an attempt to maintain their identity in the loose sprawl that surrounds them.  Three of them are on a rail line, but it is so heavily used for freight that it may be ten years before they get a light rail to connect themselves to the Metro.  By the way, I said to someone that I knew the name of that county from Newt Gingrich, and he promptly corrected me; Gingrich’s power base was Cobb County, on the other side of not only downtown but of the Chattahoochee River, a place I have not yet seen.

As far as I can tell, Atlanta’s success seems to be based on cheap land, economic opportunity, and being the “City too busy to hate” (or love?).  Interestingly enough, I was told that in 1897 there was a major fair called the Cotton States Exposition in Piedmont Park, and that Jim Crow was not in effect at that particular fair!  I came here with sentiments on the order of, “Where is General Sherman now that we need him?”  I will now hold my tongue.  There’s a lot of retrofitting that needs to be done, especially in the suburbs.  This town is a “work in progress,” pun intended.

hschlossberg 05/22/2010

I note that you’re reconsidering your old view of Sprawlanta. You may be interested in some reflections from more than half a century ago. I was stationed at Ft. Benning, near Columbus, for two short periods in 1953-54 and 1954-55 and often spent weekends in Atlanta. I had grown up in Brooklyn and Atlanta seemed to me like a small town that had gotten big but was still a small town. I went back for several visits in the mid-1980s and it had become more or less what it is now (I think). Quite unrecognizable.

What’s your general thinking on the trajectory of American cities? I read Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of the Great American Cities back in the late 1960s and found it fascinating and convincing. I have the impression there’s a kind of renaissance going on, perhaps partly due to her writings, but haven’t been doing any reading on the subject. What’s your opinion on that?

Herb Schlossberg

James "Walkie" Ray 05/22/2010

Howard, great non-traditional introduction to Atlanta, home of Emory University where our younger daughter obtained her MPH. If you’re still in the Atlanta area, I suggest you visit the puppet museum. “Corny”, you’re probably thinking. Not so. Not only does it have a fascination collection of puppets, but also a large variety of puppet shows, all very interesting, some very adult in content. Also the Coca Cola museum (it’s only a few years old). Too bad Underground Atlanta has not been kept up – It used to be interesting as well. Keep it up. Walkie

James "Walkie" Ray 05/22/2010

Howard, one more suggestion. You might read “A Man in Full” by Tom Wolfe, a fictional account of an Atlanta real estate developer, whose views I think you will share. Walkie

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