Alright, so let’s review. The Braves are blowing town. GPB bought WRAS. Thunderbox is turning into condos. What the hell is going on?
Funny story. If you google the word “gentrification,” the second result that pops up—besides an entry on, well, gentrification—is “The Gentrification of Atlanta” (capitalized as though it were the Great Fire itself). I had no idea that our city bore this dubious distinction, and while Wikipedia articles and longtime residents may demur that this has been a decades-long trend and very much business as usual, it certainly doesn’t feel that way to those of us most recently in its crosshairs.
In this series of articles, gentrification will have its place. But we also have to be careful not to lump our collective woes under that umbrella. There’s still plenty of good old-fashioned getting-screwed-over to go around. Sometimes it’s done by people resembling corporate villains from 80s movies. Sometimes we do it to ourselves with weirdly worded referenda at the polls. But however you look at it, we’re often the ones getting done.
Sure, we have our occasional victories, albeit pyrrhic ones—silver linings, if not consolation prizes. The elegant, brilliant, so so sexy T-SPLOST got shot down Platoon-style in a hail of gunfire—but hey, we got the BeltLine, right? That’s right. You think traffic’s bad now? Within the next 25 years, our generation will see metropolitan Atlanta’s population go from 5 to 8 million. The City’s response? Get a bike. That, and a newfangled streetcar that makes the Supertrain from Singles look inspired. Oh, and quit makin’ so many babies, while you’re at it.
The Braves are finally following all the white people out to Cobb County—but hey, everybody got to keep their parking lots, right? To be fair, the Braves are only doing their part to help with the transportation problem, since most of the players live in Cobb County already and will probably all carpool to home games from now on, which is cool. Again (hang on, let me get my megaphone and scale the rafters real quick): Cobb. County. Cobb County?! Cobb County, that shot down MARTA in the first place, not to mention the T-SPLOST you all know I was so fond of. That Cobb? It’s taken a few decades, but one thing’s still clear, folks. The rich white folks are leaving, and they’re taking their ball with them. But fear not; there’s plenty more even younger rich white folks coming to take their place. More on that later.
Georgia Public Broadcasting and GSU President Mark Becker made a back-room deal to sell off, gut and otherwise cannibalize WRAS, “the 100,000-watt student voice of Georgia State University” and cultural flagship institution. Sorry, “traded for student opportunities”—opportunitues so irresistibly, mind-blowingly appealing that they didn’t even bother telling the students about them beforehand. Worst. Surprise party. Ever. That’s right: GPB. Public radio. And these are supposed to be the good guys. Seriously, when the villains in our city’s cultural narrative are a public radio station and a state university president, it’s a telltale sign that the pigs are indeed walking and our paradigm is circling the drain.
So what the hell are we doing? I’ll speak for myself. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I want to know. I want to know, for one thing, why we’re always having to play defense, locked into damage control. The answer is, of course, money—namely, that we don’t have as much of it as the other guys—but that’s nothing new. So what’s different?
We live in the same city that spawned—just fifty years ago, mind you—the most successful civil rights movement in American history. You know what, let’s not even get into that. How about the Roadbusters? Remember the Roadbusters? That group stopped an elevated highway from running straight through the neighborhoods of Intown Atlanta. They fought for decades, even took on a former U.S. president, and you know what? They won. Baby Boomers led that protest. So, what then? Did they simply know something we don’t? Did they have access to some secret reserve of political genius or civic wisdom? And, I’m afraid to ask, do we have it in us? Can the Millennial dissent?
Now I don’t want to get hung up on dates and distinctions like Generation X vs. Millennials vs. what have you. “Can the Gen Xer Dissent?” could’ve just as well been the title; it just didn’t have the same ring to it. I should probably call myself a “Xennial” (and would, if I could ever pronounce it). Point being, I don’t care if you were born in time for the magical 1982 cut-off, or in the 90s, or even the 70s for that matter. We’re inclusive here. My question concerns what sets us apart from the Baby Boomers when it comes to effecting change.
One obvious answer would be the past three decades of increasingly rampant income disparity—the kind that groups like the Occupiers have been rightly railing against. And of course there’s much more to it, but much of what we’re against is economic. By “we,” I mean the young people who are talented enough to make these neighborhoods attractive to live in but not moneyed enough to have a viable stake in living there. The frustration is palpable, and we’re far too savvy for the point to be lost on us.
As colleague Myke Johns recently put it, “ARTISTS: We have got to stop improving this city.” He said this half-jokingly, but it cuts to a larger truth. This is because so many of us scrimp and save to pay rent month to month, whether in our apartments or our rehearsal spaces, so we can make more of the art-stuff that’s important to this city. However, this is precisely what makes our neighborhoods more desirable to people richer than us, and we wake only to find that, surprise, our efforts price us out of the very places where we live—where we survive and create. Cultural capital’s great, but you can’t pay your rent with it.
This is class warfare 101. And we young artists definitely don’t even have it the worst. The people who have it the worst have been getting ousted from their homes and neighborhoods for decades now. This is just what’s next.
So no, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and writing these articles won’t help. That’s because articles like these are just another form of armchair quarterbacking and generally every bit as useless as the latest rash of hashtag activism, however well-intentioned. But I’m shouting into the old abyss anyway because I want to understand. I want to try to wrap my head around the powerlessness that’s so widely and deeply felt these days. Is this because I’m so sensitive? Well, no. It’s because we’re better than that. If the hits just keep on coming, let’s at least understand how we got where we are. That’s what this series is for.
To be clear, this isn’t life and death, but it’s still symptomatic of a general cavalier attitude that leads to displaced communities, homelessness, and all that brings with it. But it’s not a crime to “be symptomatic” of something, you say. Fair enough, but just as we had a “containment” policy to stop the “dominoes” of Communism from falling onto U.S. soil, so do we need some measure in place to limit this kind of Raw Dog, No-Lube Capitalism in our own backyards.
Of course, lest this all just sound like sour grapes from a would-be achiever turned also-ran who simply picked the wrong college major, let me clarify.
This is a civic issue. Despite all our conditioning to the contrary, we’re not consumers first. We are citizens. That is to say, we are people, living among other people. We’ve been doing this as a species for millennia now, so why are we Atlantans suddenly having such a time of it? This isn’t some abstract thing we get to sit back and sip lattes over. These are our neighborhoods. This is where we live our lives.
This is where I want to start, but there’s much more to say. There are plenty of moving parts to this, and each deserves to be examined in some depth. I’ll check back in shortly. Be good ’til then. ✊