Atlanta is Changing Part II: How We Got Here

Part II of an ongoing series exploring gentrification, race relations, and class pushback in the greater Atlanta area. Contributors include Zaida J. and Christopher Kaluzienski.

Historical trends surrounding changing demographics in Atlanta have been the spine of anti-progressive arguments from rural and suburban lawmakers. Though they would never freely admit it, conservative-raised impediments have all focused on preventing the progress of Georgia’s urban core and most importantly on containing the values of Atlanta within the 285 loop.

Atlanta is hardly new to the cycle of gentrification.

The 1960s saw massive white flight from several iconic Atlanta neighborhoods. Fueled by unethical real-estate practices, white families let their homes go for subpar rates—these homes were then resold to new black residents at sky-high values. The sellers were convinced to let go of their homes because of collective prejudiced reactions to fabricated notions—birthed by real estate sharks—of a massive influx of black residents.

That was then.

Now, gentrification in Atlanta has a seemingly worldly tinge, as many residents now consider changing neighborhoods as the result of “rich vs. poor”—a more palatable narrative that eschews placing blame on the South’s tradition of drawing racial lines to boost reactionary policies. This is an understandably defensive argument aimed at preserving the modern and upwardly mobile Atlantan’s identity as a citizen of the the South and the world. However, while Atlantans try to escape an ugly Jim Crow legacy and focus on “race not class,” other gentrifying cities in the US illustrate that what is thought to be a Southern problem is really just an American problem.

Jackelyn Hwang of Harvard University researched the effects of gentrification on race relations in Chicago. She found that when Chicagoan neighborhoods gentrify, the process results in a more culturally and economically diverse demographic. She also found it to be rare that black Chicago neighborhoods experience redevelopment. Due to high rates of gang-related violence and prejudice catalyzed by other factors, predominantly black areas of the city attract no new residents, developers, or investment plans. Other neighborhoods, in particular those with large Asian and Latino populations, are usually where the seeds of development are placed.  Essentially, gentrification in the Midwest cultural hub—known for progressive social attitudes and a diverse populace—is motivated by prejudiced perceptions concerning people of color and helps to maintain elements of non-institutionalized segregation. Further, the rhythm of gentrification remains the same: when white residents move in, development becomes a priority.

However, while Atlantans try to escape an ugly Jim Crow legacy and focus on “race not class,” other gentrifying cities in the US illustrate that what is thought to be a Southern problem is really just an American problem.

Why don’t cities invest in communities of color? Is it the communities’ lack of collective resources, the lower levels of advanced education? Or is growth merely driven by subjective industry standards which recognize white presence as the true barometer of an area's potential?

What about Atlanta?

Atlanta has the dubious distinction of being both landlocked and “red”-locked. Rural lawmakers have long waged a culture war with the city by laying siege to its development and attempting to stifle its progressive policies by way of draconian tactics. The biggest frustration for fostering development in the city has been MARTA’s lack of state funding, and the pushback from the Georgia legislature and the surrounding counties on extending lines for the underdeveloped transit system. Since MARTA’s budget still must receive approval from the state legislature (despite not spending a state dime), it hasn’t experienced much growth during its forty-three-year history. Enter the Atlanta Beltline, which is funded by a multifaceted partnership (both public and private) that utilizes Atlanta’s pro-business, pro-growth, and pro-development policies to address a vital problem the state of Georgia has long sought to deprive of funding. The Beltline is a modern American city’s genius response to a highly vitriolic conservative political machine.

The Beltline is also a double-edged sword.

While Atlanta used smart politics and business savvy to attract investors and community support for what was supposed to be a brilliant example of American progress, developers have made attempts to exploit the boom and have effectively corrupted a revolution in urban planning. Mayor Reed’s office says they have policies meant to defend the city from the scourge of San Francisco high rents and New York exclusivity, but that has yet to be seen as mixed-use developments continue to expand inside the perimeter. 

In response to ever increasing rents, previously undesirable areas such as Peoplestown and West Atlanta have seen an increase in younger, predominately white residents  as they try to escape the price-markups reserved for the young professionals whose presence is meant to vindicate the roided-up development of Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and more.  In this respect, the Beltline has certainly lived up to its commercial and green-space ends of the bargain; Atlanta will hold its breath on whether its promise of effective public transit (which has yet to receive full funding, after a one-cent sales tax hike was voted down in 2010; a new plan to secure funding is already underway) will be realized.

In the next segment, we will explore resident reactions to and city hall's current policy on gentrification.