Atlanta Is A Company Town

Atlanta is a company town, though Jon Hamm is only 1 for 4 of the companies actually in Atlanta.  From our corporate boards sprinkling money to stave off the class war in the city with the biggest income gap in the nation to our over-representation of community-involved boards, authorities, commissions, etc (BACEs) that don’t actually produce anything other than a rubber stamp for the city. The Cop City movement is one (large) part of that. The others center around this theme of Atlanta’s labor and placement in the South. Cop City plays into both of those as LEOs often constrain protests (Delta pilots’ protests come to mind) and keep the actual residents out of business interests such as building developments, filming on location, and whatnot. Some of this we’re ok with, others not so much. The occurrence of LEOs coming down so hard on citizens here to stymie any opposition and a recent caption I have seen shared with Bill Maher and Jon Hamm encapsulated this far better for me than anything else I’ve seen lately. Atlanta has long punched above our weight in the landing of the Olympics, the Superbowl, and now the World Cup, but the reality is these are the few times our city (or state) actually invests in the city without being under duress- we only do so to show off and make OTHERS feel welcome, not our taxpaying citizens who struggle to understand why we can afford a $67M mock city when parts of the IRL city don’t have sewer access, sidewalks, and adequate lighting all across it. Traditional media salivates at high-dollar projects, often rife for corruption, but the planning of our city has significantly lacked for generations, namely spurred in the Mayor Young years by passing through any and every development without much thought to how it impacts the city or the region around it. The displacement of humans is as much of an afterthought to the current administration as human trafficking was to Reed’s. Now those chickens are coming home to roost. In the midst, the community voices that have spoken up and advocated for better are bought off, appointed to some new source of unpaid work for the city as a reward, or, in the case of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund- jailed with baseless charges. While Atlanta likes to claim the ‘Black Mecca’ as its moniker, it is my opinion we have a lot more in common with Blair Mountain’s coal mining population in West Virginia. The city moves in different ways now though, often far less overt than the arrests we saw in tandem with the GBI and AG Carr. Those moves will have significant effects on the south and west sides of Atlanta very soon if this continues, and so too, will have lasting effects on our regional neighbors. 

The “Atlanta Way” has long been touted by the Old Guard. Here’s Axios’ latest discussion of it. You also shouldn’t miss Buzz’s piece, published earlier today. Its liberal and wealthy Black and white leaders have worked together to assuage the masses in our city, which have often been the most vulnerable, deeply poor, and more than not, Black and brown. They’ve done so by promising jobs and prosperity, the ‘opportunity’ most Americans want. The challenge is they leave out the part that they either married into, went to school with, or play golf with the folks who make those decisions in a web of uplifting them while shutting others out that is generally socially acceptable but creates such an in-group bias that actual biased processes can’t be held against anyone in a court of law. It’s baked into American culture in business and politics as a result of systematic oppression- first in the racial sense, secondarily in the aspect of class. It’s often led by people we hold as righteous leaders. The Carter Center was the force that negotiated Leader Abrams’ concession speech to Governor Kemp. We’ve had a “nice white parents” challenge far before the podcast was popular. And as I saw demonstrated in City Council Chambers last week, it’s an open secret that the Black leaders of our city are just as easily bought and paid for as their white counterparts, save the late Hosea Williams, whose echoes of “unbought, unbossed” I heard in the anti-Cop City voices in the crowd, maybe even as far as Forsyth County. 

In the podcast last week, Pye asked a great question: why now? 

If Atlanta has had these challenges, why are they boiling over at this time? I answered that folks are moving into the south and west sides of the city from either other parts of the state or (like myself) other parts of the city, and we know we don’t have to settle for what we’re getting. We have the luxury of time to go through the paper-pushing process the city throws at us, and attend all the “information” meetings to ask questions and follow up. We hold leaders accountable more than they have been before by our previously Boomer-dominated neighborhood associations and Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs). Probably also because of more affluence and we’ve got better tools. 

And we organize. We jump through allllllllll the hoops to make certain we remove all doubt that we are to be heard.

The amount of time it takes for regular people to keep up in Atlanta is a luxury- not something everyone has the capacity to do. I’m planning to give up not one but two entire Saturdays for the planning of the city this month, the latter meeting of which is specific to upcoming developments in the west side. (We’ll see if DCP will allow me to sit in one of the 25 coveted seats!) I wish the city made understanding its processes less burdensome, but what I’ve found is that it’s really more of a shell game to hide various hands of play in the game itself. I’ve also learned along the way (like many Boomers and Gen Xers who’ve gone before me) that comments get edited out by the City. And only when those comments are shared in groups, in public meetings, and in recorded spaces, is the needle possibly moved. Like the political system, though, organized groups show up in planning our city and (just like those canned emails legislators receive) our planning department receives canned emails from housing advocate groups that may far outnumber the residents who believe in the opportunity to just show up and speak out. Quantity has never equated to quality, although it hasn’t been clear whether the City of Atlanta has been able to handle either very well. 

As we’ve seen with Cop City, even engaging in the process doesn’t reliably help as the city will change its course, go dark, and in the city’s attempt to legitimize its process, they often undercut their own ethics to keep vocal dissent quiet. 

This isn’t hypothetical. Lily Ponitz’s name will forever live in my memory. I’ve added Tortuguita’s gun-powderless upraised hands to it now, along with the Solidarity Fund three, and wonder who is next? God help the powers that be if it’s a pretty blonde. These are violent. Blessedly, I find the City of Atlanta chooses different tactics for different groups.

In the process of speaking out about the changes happening within the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB) and Dept. of City Planning’s (DCP)’s encouragement of reducing our membership, I know three of DCP’s vocal critics were encouraged to interview for positions within the Dept. Thankfully, in the case of APAB, folks are promised jobs with the city, versus facing potential arrest- let’s be thankful for the mercies we receive, yes? One followed up on a verbal offer that wasn’t confirmed in writing, another had ideas stolen (remember the dueling APAB websites?), and the third has been promised to be employed. As I told the latter, I cannot blame the choice made. Everyone needs a job. I am choosing not to name who has received the job from DCP, but if you watch the changes at APAB, I’m sure you can put two and two together on who has secured their standing in preparation for having to shuffle chairs due to APAB’s bylaws. While I’m sorry for the loss to APAB, I cannot blame an individual for wanting a job.

I know DCP knows this too. As a matter of fact, each of these folks seemed to be well aware of this also. The APAB Financial Secretary, Jereme Sharpe, told me, “Basically, DCP wants to steal all the good ideas about technology because they don’t have a team that has the experience to do the things they should be doing…the Director of NPUs was tasked with getting the NPU System together but did/does not have the full skill set or team to do so. And so the small things like NPU University is what is done to cover for failures”. So instead of attracting and retaining talent, DCP exploits the brilliance of its citizens and passes the ideas off of their own. Not a bad deal for the city, right? This is consistent with the Commissioner’s own words here about lack of competitive pay, as are a heads up on what citizens can expect going forward in the form of the NPU realignment of NPU R that failed last year (they haven’t given up) and now Council Member Marci Overstreet’s signaling of hiring two new DCP staff members for “reimagining” the NPU system in its 50th year. Here’s the part where the Commissioner mentions the NPU realignment (19:24) here’s where Councilmember Overstreet refers to wanting a “totally new” approach to it (1:01:20). 

I’d bet money that the same lady who sold out her neighborhoods to Cop City will make the NPU realignment her swan song as Remy the rumor mill tells she is not planning to run for re-election. The question Buckhead and Midtown will have to ask is, how will the adjustments here affect their NPUs? How will the development changes in the south and west affect the City of South Fulton? Our other neighbors?

This is on top of the Comprehensive Development Plan that is following the first zoning rewrite in 40 years. In the DCP budget presentation to Council (14:52), Commissioner Prince identified she will be hosting a minimum of 50 public meetings on the CDP. My bet is, like how Council handles the Cop City comments, it won’t be worth citizens’ time other than to share later the videos of them making comments to document how much the City of Atlanta doesn’t listen to them. But, attend them, citizens should. Not engaging in the process, even though it is rife with flaws, is the greater sin. Make no mistake. And to be clear, this is the codified responsibility of APAB- to advise DCP on public engagement specifically in regards to the CDP. Essentially formed out of protest of the city, APAB is to advise the city- namely on the Comprehensive Development Plan, yet also on other citywide issues as well. This is in code.

  • Sec. 6-4003. – Functions.

The Atlanta Planning Advisory Board may:

(1) Prepare its own bylaws, not inconsistent with state law or city ordinance;

(2) Serve as an advisory board to the city on city-wide problems, issues, goals and objectives relative to the preparation and updating of the comprehensive development plan;

(3) Advise the city on matters relating to citizen organizations and participation in the planning process;

(4) Perform other functions required by federal law relative to citizen participation where federal law does not mandate assignment to a specific agency; and

(5) Perform other duties as assigned by the mayor or the council.

(Code 1977, § 6-4003; Ord. No. 2004-08, § 11, 2-10-04)

Instead, the Dept. seems far more interested in silencing rather than engaging the public, which, I fear, is consistent with Mayor Dickens and Council’s approach to Cop City. At this point, it’s difficult for me to see it otherwise. I’m generally not a fan of the “dear Leader” approach to governing.

But some are trying to bring some sunlight into those dark corners! On Tuesday of this week, this letter was sent to the Mayor and his cabinet.  

Here are the attachments. 

March 17, 2022

November 9, 2022

December 2022- January 2023

February 27, 2023

March 17, 2023

DCP Overreach Examples

Later in the week, this was sent to the APAB membership, or at least what we know of its membership, as currently DCP and the APAB President can’t figure out who is allowed in their club. As of March 20, 2023, neither did the BACE report from the Municipal Clerk’s office. Here’s the report from March 6, 2023, where, if you search for “APAB” there’s a listing of chair, delegates, and alternates. But then on March 20, 2023, search for “APAB” again, and *poof* only chairs exist! This is actually counter to the APAB voting members list on the City’s website. It makes me wonder which list is used to determine a quorum for any actions taken by the board. Funny enough, this was the same month yours truly and Mr. Sharpe were to be sworn in. As you can see from the attachments- the Municipal Clerk somehow has ample time to swear in others, but as Ms. Marshall’s email on March 16, 2023, she’s waiting to hear from the Director of NPUs and the APAB President before the Municipal Clerk will swear us in. Unfortunately, these words are not consistent with what she told me over the phone. I guess the Cop City referendum group shouldn’t be surprised about their interactions with the Municipal Clerk’s office. The attachments above also disclose the difference in approaches to seating voting members as well. And when questioned, the Director of NPUs promises DCP is ‘working on that’. As you can imagine, no update has been shared. 

What has happened though, is that DCP has effectively reduced the board that oversees them, in the midst of rewriting the code that zones the city, and IMHO, poorly engaging and informing the public in the midst of it all. But we got a $67M mock city for the APD and AFRD to play cops and robbers in, right?!! And, in case you missed it in my writing this year- the Assistant Director of NPUs got promoted to Director of NPUs. Today, the Municipal Clerk left at lunch and City Hall shut down with no prior notice. I know y’all think I’m making mountains out of mole hills, but I’m telling you it’s bonkers over here!

Do you understand better now why Atlantans are so angry? 

I want to make certain everyone knows that in my humble opinion, this is not only how the City of Atlanta conducts its business, but those who do their dirty work are celebrated and receive raises. So my bet is, for the shrewd who may be reading this, there are the City of Atlanta employees that you can easily influence or will cover tracks for people’s misdeeds. Maybe this is Dickens’ version of Reed’s (in)famous bonuses

Now, let’s put that into the greater potential context of the CDP, and the further development of the south and west sides of the city. It’s my hypothesis that you’ll be seeing more development here, which, in the context of getting sewer access, sidewalks, and better lighting, would be GRAND. The challenge I believe the patterns I’m seeing play out across Atlanta demonstrate that the City of Atlanta will neither care to listen to its citizens nor will it heed their warnings of displacement. My bet is Clayton, Douglas, Carroll, and Coweta need to prepare now for the overflow they’ll be experiencing in the years to come. 

If nothing else, at least City Council gave us a heads up that impact fees will be going up. You can thank Council Member Hillis for giving us that courtesy- he wants us to be clear HE isn’t raising them, more just that they haven’t been raised in a month of Sundays. He just asked for the permitting fee study to be done. It seems he would prefer we not shoot the messenger.

Funny enough though, the numbers not adding up was something our City Council recognized in the DCP budget presentations and both Councilmembers Hillis and Wan mentioned it. I guess DCP’s budget numbers aren’t completely shored up just yet either. Shame. I just hope those who have been promised a job receive it. Hopefully, the City doesn’t take one out of the Twitter playbook.

I remain convinced Atlanta is a company town. It projects itself as a strong economic engine but really makes its money off the exploitation of labor as exacerbated by its extreme income gap and perpetuated by the many folks who make margins off the system as is. Unfortunately, community leaders that SHOULD be voices for citizens are simply also on the take. 

The question I ponder is how this unfettered development will impact the citizens of Atlanta, and its regional neighbors, and how the inevitable displacement of folks will shift politics, budgets, and needs around the metro area. God knows it won’t improve traffic. My hope has always been that the city would listen to its people, and act upon their voices. But its pattern so far doesn’t demonstrate that. In fact, from what I can tell – every inch of the City of Atlanta is involved somehow in the shell game of keeping the public busy without actually listening to them, buying off dissent, and generally just not giving a crap. The question is, how long will the public tolerate this? Blair Mountain’s story was a sad one- people literally died fighting for their rights. Ironically, the first deaths were the very police officers who sided with labor. If you’re unfamiliar with the history here, it’s strikingly similar to Atlanta’s current situation of income inequality, greater violence and police presence, and insurmountable debt that made not fighting a class war, not an option. And while some might view the conflict as a loss, it made the rest of the country aware of the inexcusable circumstances inflicted upon the citizens by the company for which they worked. 

Dear reader, I leave you with this question: what metaphorical pitchforks will Atlanta’s citizens pick up when their petition is put down?

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