Went to Atlanta for a bikes and cities panel that was different than the others I’ve done. This one was part of a New Urbanism conference. New Urbanism is a movement that developed at least a decade ago, and the goal is to advocate for less sprawl and a return to cities where pedestrians, drivers, cyclists and the rest all interact — where there is vibrant urban life, rather than the dead zones that many of the US downtowns have become. One branch has become associated with purpose-built towns, the most famous being Celebration, the Disney version of a small town — in all senses of the phrase.
It’s fakey in a way that makes me squirm, but it can’t be denied that it’s a valid alternative to the sprawl that has proliferated everywhere. My parents moved to one of these places — Columbia, Maryland — when I left for college, and it smelled of a managed tastefulness that was simply lifelessness to me. The town decides what colors you can paint your door, or your house, for example. However, there were little town centers within walking distance of most residents, so that was a big change from the typical suburban developments and malls that were taking over the farmland. There was no realistic public transport in and out of Columbia, so it was an island, and without (being able to drive) a car my parents are trapped there.
Not all the New Urbanists are about Disney towns; their interests range from retrofitting dead suburban malls to bike lanes, which is sort of where I come in.
As the taxi pulled up to the Atlanta Hilton, I was surrounded by smiling, handsome black men in a variety of doorman outfits. All charming, and all welcoming me effusively to Atlanta. Southern hospitality — what a change from New York! As I passed through the double doors into the massive lobby, suddenly all the people around me were white. Or at least that was the initial impression. It was like I’d gone through some magical portal — with one group left outside, and another inside. The black people of Atlanta have all the social service jobs and are largely kept separate — outside, if possible — from the white masters. I’m exaggerating, but this is the first impression one gets.
It’s horribly insulting, but it’s as if the masters have created live lawn jockeys, welcoming visitors to their property. Now, to be fair, Atlanta had Andrew Young as a mayor and has a whole slew of black universities, as well as quite a few major music artists of note; but, well, this was my perception.
Atlanta has the worst sprawl of almost anywhere in the country — the amount of time people spend commuting and driving (stuck in traffic actually) and parking is beyond belief. So having a conference here about more sustainable towns that foster a sense of urban life is a bit of a poke in the eye to this city.
In Atlanta, as in many other US cities, in the ’60s, white flight accelerated — fear of a black planet, as the Public Enemy record is titled, had taken hold in a big way. The cities were where you lived if you couldn’t afford to get out. John Portman, the architect and developer, began building massive, futuristic hotel complexes in the center of town. They were so big that once inside, one never had to leave. A fellow conference attendee compared the Marriott Hotel, one of Portman’s projects, to the extraordinary sets for the old sci-fi movie Things To Come, a film directed by William Cameron Menzies.
This shit is real! The future is here… and it’s white! (This is the interior of the Marriott that he built.)
The exteriors of these complexes are awe-inspiring and forbidding; they don’t relate to the street at all — no surprise there — but rather present from the outside a gleaming tower with “fortifications” at street level.
So the street life surrounding these complexes gets killed, as there are no stores, businesses or anything feeling out to the sidewalks. Everything takes place indoors, and it’s all self-sufficient, depending on what you call living. In subsequent decades what are now referred to as gerbil tubes were added to link adjacent complexes. These second floor aerial walkways connect the mega complexes, so that one doesn’t have to come in contact with the dreaded street — or the black people that might be lurking out there — even if one had to, for some strange reason, leave one mega building to enter another across the way. Stores then sprung up on the second floors to cater to these gerbils who never venture onto the streets. Obviously any folks who might have been on the streets, walking or strolling from here to there, were once excluded from those establishments. In fact, to them, those establishments were invisible.
As in LA, many of the entrances to shops and businesses are primarily through the parking lot. The entrances and facades turned away from the streets, and towards either an interior atrium or a parking structure. In Atlanta you can walk for blocks in the center of downtown and find no shops — not any visible ones anyway. There are some restaurants and bars, but no other establishments. There might be interior courts with drug stores, stationary stores, copy shops, newsstands or clothing stores, but access to these from the street isn’t possible.
Now one might say that this inward turning could be viewed in a less skeptical manner; that there might be a kind of civic life that could arise in the food courts and gerbil tubes — a kind of street equivalent — and that I am just being old school and prejudiced. However, it sure doesn’t seem like that is what has happened. People do get supplies at the drug store or gift shop, but the life has been drained out. Any risk of randomness has been eliminated. The reference to gerbils by the locals isn’t that accidental. It seems like an architecture of racism to me… everything is designed to facilitate avoidance of contact with the other.
Here is an early similar structure — the great walled city of Carcassonne in France. Within its walls only those vetted to be appropriate to that town were allowed in.
It’s claimed that when Napoleon III widened the streets of Paris with the help of Baron Haussmann, it was to enable troop movements and to make the avenues sufficiently wide that they couldn’t be barricaded as they were during the revolution. The straightening of these boulevards, it is also claimed, was to allow the troops a straight line of fire on any insurrectionists.
Before the renovation, various social classes lived on different floors of Parisian buildings, so there was a fair amount of mixing, though limited. Afterwards one result of the changes was that rents went up, and the poor were driven to live on the outskirts of town, where they still are today. In a sense segregation was effected that has been partially maintained ever since.
There were quite a few benefits to this urban renewal project too — benefits that significantly improved the lives of the poor — and in this respect, the project was surprisingly enlightened. Sewers were added and access to fresh drinking water (the Seine was long since too polluted to drink) was installed. The right of eminent domain was claimed as many large houses had to be eliminated in order to widen and straighten the boulevards.
There were aesthetic “improvements” as well — buildings next to one another had to have their floors the same height, and it was a rule that quarry stone had to be used on the facades, giving the center of Paris the uniform look we know it by today.
The wide sidewalks and ample air and light on these wide boulevards made sitting in the sidewalk cafes and restaurants pleasurable — and they proliferated, adding to the life of the city.
So, though there may have been some military principles behind the plan, it had its human side too.
Not so for a lot of contemporary government buildings and condos. I’d propose that almost all government buildings have a slight fuck you attitude — they’re meant to be inspiring, but that often comes off as imposing and intimidating. That attitude seems to carry over to luxury condos — maybe it’s the testosterone.
Here are some new condos in my neighborhood:
Here is what could be a dinky condo, but is actually the Chinese Embassy in NY. It used to be a Holiday Inn, with a revolving restaurant and a view of… the Circle Line.
Here is the proposal for new US embassy in London — a modern version of Carcassonne, complete with a moat! We’re back where we started. Every sort of direct approach from the street is blocked, and of course the relationship to the street, where people meet and mingle, is distant and suspicious.
I live in New York, and Manhattan in particular over the last decade or so has sadly moved further in this direction. Though thankfully there is still plenty of life left on most streets, it’s being chipped away at. How can places like Atlanta bring some life into their urban center? I think it’s a long haul, and they should…umm…think small. When I was there, I asked if there were some neighborhoods and communities that might become less car dependent and more people friendly. A couple, maybe, was the reply. I don’t know where they are, but in the center they are not. One could imagine that if there were little town centers outside of the towering urban hospitality zone that one might bike or walk from one’s home to a transportation hub that would then get you to a place of concentrated offices. You’d leave your bike at a parking shelter, like they have at Millennium Park in Chicago. Park and ride, only without the massive car parking. One could also take public transport in, and pick up your bike at a parking/storage place in town and ride to work from there. Or maybe even walk from that drop off point.
If those options or others aren’t available soon, I would suggest that Atlanta residents move to nearby Athens or Savannah if they want a more pleasant life.