A wonk down memory lane

23 Nov

There are days and weeks when we literally cannot remember why we live in Atlanta other than because all our stuff is already here. Only a force as powerful as the History Twins can nurse us back from full-on fatigue to just dull listlessness.

Hey, snap out of it, you! This is truly one of the most amusing, ineffable episodes of them all. Especially if you like grand sweeping staircases and the letters “DOT” flying in your face. Oh, and more visuals with FOOD. You’ll see soon enough.

Here’s how the third-to-last episode of The Making of Modern Atlanta starts:

WHOA WHOA WHOA!! What is this? Clearly we are impeding on some sort of fancy dinner and similarly fancy conversation…

Dr. White: “…Maybe when we’re shooting The Making of the Modern Riviera.” [Inhales goblet deeply.]
“Mmm, delicate fragrance. Fine taste. Robust but not ill-mannered. Ah, what’s the vintage?”

“1992 Chattahoochee, by way of Buford Dam and the Atlanta Waterworks.”
Who controls the water? Has it always been this way? Who else controls our lives in this metropolitan region – without us even realizing it? That’s what this program is going to tell us.

These puppetmasters are the “alphabet agencies” that may or may not have any real power. But for the sake of this episode, let’s pretend like they do!
“In this program, we’ll look at how and why this alphabet soup of agencies came into being and what their roles have been in the often bitter controversies that Atlanta experience as it emerged from a city into a region.”

To get anywhere, we have to go back in time. In the 1940s, the city did everything – water, roads, trash. By the ’50s and ’60s, as the city expanded beyond its boundaries, the counties started stepping in and doing more. Eventually, the state started exerting some influence in the urban areas, building roads (DOT) and creating agencies that crossed municipal boundaries (ARC, MARTA).

Even further back, in the ’20s, the city hired its first planner and in 1924 hired John Beeler to create what would become just another holy grail to Atlanta transportation planning nerds, the Beeler Plan. Beeler invented the viaducts in an effort to raise car traffic above the railroads and relieve some congestion. “A by-product of that stroke of genius was Underground Atlanta.” The plan also had electric railway cars going as far as Marietta and Stone Mountain – “thus creating a framework for a regional city.”

The problem was the other cities! It always is!
Sidenote: One of the great injustices of post-modern Atlanta is that these “Welcome to Atlanta” and “Leaving Atlanta” signs on Ponce aren’t more iconic; they really should be replicated ad nauseum at craft booths at neighborhood festivals.

Opulent staircase number one: City Hall.
The Lochner Report comes out, ARC is invented, but Mayor Hartsfield resists and just tries to annex everything to the City of Atlanta.
“Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town…” [sinister organ music plays]
“Here in what was then the DeKalb County Courthouse sat Hartsfield’s wily nemesis, Commissioner Scott Candler.” He built up the state’s first urban county through the deeply unsexy work of water plants and sewage treatment. You know what you can’t do without water and sewers, though? GROW! And expanding and developing after WWII was all anyone in the south could think about. “He put the water pipes and the sewer pipes in and made it possible for us then to politically turn it from a cow county to a big thriving urban government with every power that a city has except one or two.”
Dr. White takes us into his secret chamber – his Emory University office.
Here’s some gossip: He’s currently retiring and slowly emptying his library, giving away some special books to special students! If anyone can snag a signed (by him) National Geographic (he has so many!) I’ll be forever grateful.

The whole reason he invites us into his office is to show off yet another plan for the city’s growth – the first regional comprehensive plan, Up Ahead. Booooooring?
Except that Mayor Hartsfield wanted the plan to plan, as plans are wont to do, for the expansion of black neighborhoods. “Up Ahead was damned as too liberal for recommending negro neighborhoods in all parts of the suburbs and too conservative for bowing to segregation. Up Ahead went up in smoke.

Now the city is just 20% of the population of the 19-county region and it matters even less what the mayor wants…but enough of this policy administered by underpaid poor dressers, I want glitz and glamor! No, glamour! With a U! The History Twins sense this impatience and whisk me away to a romantic dinner at the Commerce Club, to a simpler time when “Atlanta ran things,” to “a place where even Dana White wears a tie.” Finally, we’re back to the luxury-oriented mood that the episode started with.

You guys, it is going to feel so good to have our lives back when The Making of Modern Atlanta is finally over. But for now, these are the cards we have been dealt and we have to get through this – together. We have to keep moving here and not focus on details like in the last episode. If you signed up for the email list (You: “What email list??!!” FIGURE IT OUT.) then we can talk about details later. Just know that this happened: Why not?
Then they go to the Georgian Club, just to prove that there was more than one exclusive institution for fancy white men who worked for Coca-Cola or banks to hang out and eat cottage cheese and boiled salmon.
The point in all of this is, “Today, there are many more players in the field and their spheres of influence are much smaller.” (IT’S LIKE THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT ATLANTA INTERNET!!!!)

Cruelly, the next shot after Dr. White makes his point about small spheres of influence is “unofficial mayor of Buckhead” Sam Massell sitting nearly alone at a board room table covered in ashtrays.

TMOMA then launches us into a montage of people pointing to maps and models of the city because THAT IS THEIR JOB.

CAP (Central Atlanta Progress):

APC (Atlanta Preservation Center):
(Obviously these are the “artsy” bureaucrats – because that one guy looking at the map is wearing a black turtleneck.)

Another day, another marble staircase. (R.I.P. City Grill.)
Enough about these provincial losers at BC, CAP, and APC, let’s talk about the real map lookers of the region, ARC and DOT.“DOT’s plans for I-485, the Presidential Parkway, Georgia 400, and an outer perimeter have caused more strife than any other realm of public policy during the last quarter century of Atlanta history.”

“Just after World War II we had this what I think’s a wonderful innovation called the freeway, a highway that allowed travel without interruption. And the freeways, it seemed to me, then served as a formative element.”

“We continue, unlike almost any other city in America, to build expressways inside the city which will continue to have the same devastating effect. Georgia 400 is the latest example of pulling development out of the city to the suburbs.”

“I think 400 was a terrible precedent. The kind of quote ‘progress’ or ‘expansion’ that will gut a city’s heart for the automobile is an absolutely terrifying precedent.”

This was 1991? when the following things were discussed. Maybe 1992 at best:
“But we will become dramatically more balanced during this time in history than has been the case from ’74 up until today. We’ve got to spend more energies on rail.”

“We’re looking, as you know, at establishing commuter rail service into the city. We need to talk about inter-city rail service within the state. Amtrak service should and can be expanded. We drastically and desperately need to find a way to get MARTA out of its two-county shell.”

“We must truly earn the title ‘Department of Transportation.’”

Okay, we know there’s perpetually this drama over roads in metro Atlanta, but the real life-or-death issue is water. Chattahoochee River, etc., etc. Dr. White pronounces “resources” (as in DNR) “reh-zources“. “Nobody at ARC carries a badge and a gun.” That’s why local governments have to enforce regional policies – and some local governments don’t want to play along. WHICH COUNTY COULD THIS BE?

To set the stage for this historic conflict between neighbors and an attempt at secession, there’s some weird Civil War re-enactment as a metaphor. This should also be your first clue. “A temporary truce is established. Soldiers return to camp…As Atlanta’s first architect of urban renewal noted, ‘War is hell.’”

We can’t even bear to go through some of the big picture ideas that a few people throw in at the end here. What was supposed to be a fun frolic through a quirky 20-year-old GPB series has become a reminder of every prominent failure of Atlanta to live up to much. Can the History Twins lighten things up a bit for us here, at the end, in our hour of need?

Dr. White: “If we Atlantans want a say in Atlanta’s future development, we’ll have to come to terms with the alphabet agencies.” “Will we find an ARC, a DNR, or a DOT in our soup?” We were seriously laughing for a full week after seeing this image:
“Or will we be forever in hot water?”

Dr. Crimmins’ thoughts always bring us a little closer to tears, but maybe he’ll get to sum up some heavy ideas in the next episode. Forgive us our apathy this episode – maybe when we’ve all had time to reflect on blessings for which we’re most thankful we’ll have a little more vigor to bring to the table.

Next: Part Seven – “Cultured Pearls in a Sea of Grits”

Previously: History Twins, will you mayor-y me?

2 Responses to “A wonk down memory lane”

  1. zed Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    I’m sorry, because I know you have fielded this question before— but where can one view “the making of modern atlanta” in toto?

    • pecanne log Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

      I think Emory has a copy but it’s probably checked out for the semester!

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