Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Atlanta, Obama and Urbanism

Dateline: 5:03 pm January 22, 2009 Filed under:

When I visited Atlanta on a rainy day last month after the Obama election, I had no idea I’d be visiting the Sweet Auburn district of the city. I was just up the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. He was born in Atlanta. I didn’t expect to be at the center of black history at the very moment when that history was being rewritten. It was quite humbling.

Sweet Auburn is in the shadow of downtown Atlanta. Auburn Avenue, the main commercial street running through Sweet Auburn, was once considered the richest African American street in the United States. Ironically, desegregation allowed African Americans to move their businesses throughout the city. A good thing, of course, but it left Sweet Auburn to decay. There are still churches and businesses there, but the condition of most buildings and the historical markers clearly tells the story that there has been very little investment there in the past 50 years.

Luckily that is changing. Development is occurring. The Integral Group is among those investing in the area, developing the first of several projects with Renaissance Walk, which adds condos and retail to Auburn Avenue. Hundereds of millions of dollars more are planned to be invested in development, as well as a future streetcar route.

It is a beautiful thing that now, as a new day in American history begins, that Sweet Auburn is also beginning a brand new day in its own history.

Let’s hope this is a new day in urban policy as well. I hope this clear-eyed view Obama seems to espouse is indeed put in to practice during his administration. Obama is idealistic, but indicates he will legislate based on fact, not belief. Luckily, there is plenty of evidence to continue some effective urban policies and start a few new ones.

First, we need to fully fund the US Census in 2010. We have to know where we’ve been to better understand and plan for where we’re going.

Second, we need transportation legislation for a competitive future. We need to put people to work immediately repairing existing roads and bridges. Preserve what we have. We then need to fund rail and transit investments within and between our cities that encourage smart growth, less automobile dependence and reduces congestion at our airports. This goes way beyond stimulus, and is rather a plan for passenger rail that rivals the interstate act, a decades-long plan.

Third, we need to encourage and lend towards smart real estate development in sustainable locations, not foolishly throw money at the next real estate bubble. We have a lot of recent studies and evidence that smart growth, for lack of a better term, is environmentally-friendly, a wise use of scarce tax dollars, keeps housing plus trasnportation costs lower, and is even healthier for people. Legislation needs to tie these things together.

Fourth, good policies that have a proven track record should be continued. HOPE VI and tax credits are two examples. Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits are good policies that make both sides of the aisle happy. Tax credits for affordable housing, for example, in addition to satisfying the social agenda of providing housing, are a free market mechanism and are therefore pretty efficient. It is too simplistic to say everybody is happy, but it is a good solution that satisfies many and doesn’t come across as a pure handout.

HOPE VI is a good way to leverage public and private investment, practice good urbanism and revitalize neighborhoods. The positive lessons of HOPE VI deserve to be continued.

A lot of good things have been happening to cities in recent years, including a simple market desire to live and work there. The example of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta reminds us how far we’ve come but how much more we need to do. Let’s continue the momentum.

While I was walking Auburn Avenue in the rain, reflecting on the history of the area and the magnitude of the Obama election, a man approached me and began to tell me of the rich history of the area. Impressive. Sam Cooke played just up the street at the Royal Peacock. A couple blocks away, he said, there is a mural showing Obama being sworn in by Martin Luther King Jr. How moving, I thought. I thought about looking for that mural, but it was raining, and I had other places to be. The man then asked for spare change. I gave him $5 and moved on.

Obama cannot do it alone. We need to all be at the table.

1 Comment

  1. […] the nation’s first African-American president. Today we have a post from Streetsblog Network member Joe Urban that makes more connections between King and Obama, by looking at King’s boyhood neighborhood, the […]

    Pingback by Streetsblog » A New Day for Atlanta — and for Urbanism? — January 23, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

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