It’s become a common phenomenon in major urban cities like Atlanta to witness the avaricious transfer of public wealth to private hands under the guise of “development”. These thefts are branded as public goods, when in reality, they are only good for a select few who can afford to live and shop in the gentrified zones anchored to projects like the Beltline. Displacement is the name of the game for working class black residents who are not part of the vision crafted by and for white economic elites and black political elites.
The Organization for Human Rights and Democracy (OHRD) believes there needs to be a critical intervention into the ways in which so called “urban renewal” projects are conceived and implemented. The public at large, and especially young minds who may someday be involved in reshaping our cities, should be equipped with an alternative to the hegemonic view that suggests that concepts like democracy, equity, justice, and human rights can’t be central to how cities unfold. More emphatically put, ideas rooted in intersectional human rights must be at the core of our thinking if an inclusive, cooperative, and loving rebirth of our communities and cities is to occur.
This is the reason we agreed to participate in the recent Architecturally Speaking panel discussion which took place on October 17, 2015, at the Kennesaw State University (KSU) campus in Marietta, Georgia. When event organizer William Lentjes invited us, we immediately understood this to be an opportunity to share a perspective that students most likely wouldn’t be exposed to elsewhere. We’re grateful to William for affording us the chance to engage KSU. I, Terence Courtney, represented ORHD’s perspective. I shared the panel with Professor Michael Dobbins—a long time progressive urban planner, along with Ryan Gravel and Lee Harrop—designers and supporters of the Beltline. Professor Ermal Shpuza of KSU served as the panel moderator.
In sum, Gravel and Harrop tried to paint the Beltline as a glowing success. They told the audience that “the people of Atlanta fell in love with the Beltline” and that the project has created jobs and affordable housing. And to be fair, the Beltline has created a trail used by thousands. It has created a handful of jobs and a sprinkling of affordable housing. But saying that people “fell in love” with the Beltline is disingenuous since we’ve never had a public referendum on the project before or since its implementation. Moreover, the public relations smoke screen for the Beltline obscures the fact that the life of the average working class Black Atlantan has not been improved by the millions of dollars in public wealth that have been siphoned away from the Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County Government, and the City of Atlanta to fund the scheme. A running trail utilized mostly by middle- and upper-class white gentry can’t make up for public schools that have been closed in Black neighborhoods due to a lack of revenue in the school system. A thimble full of jobs does little to meet the need in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. And touting single digit percentages for affordable housing is laughable in a city with such the widest gap between rich and poor in the country.
I shared these contradictions with the audience, and informed them about the Beltline’s flagrant refusal to repay its debt to black students at APS. Event participants learned that the Beltline was passed undemocratically by the City Council of Atlanta—essentially in secret—without any meaningful public debate and discussion. We exposed the Beltline’s broken promises of tens of thousands of permanent jobs and added transportation options. To our assertions, the Beltline supporters responded that “equity can’t happen everywhere all at once.”
It seems their definition of equity is to reward those who already have a lot now, and maybe get to have-nots later.
It’s this kind of thinking that must change if we are to have not just “development”, but democracy. People of good conscience cannot continue to tolerate the transfer of public wealth to undeserving elites. The need is simply too great for working people and the poor to continue with neoliberal shell games.
What Atlanta needs is a more just view of development, which will support the existing integrity of a given neighborhood first, and help it strengthen its capacity and leadership through the self-revitalization of their own environment.