A “Broader Look at Atlanta” in the NYT

Last week I wrote about the Atlanta Braves’ surprise decision to leave Turner Field–their home since the city converted the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Stadium for their use–for a new facility in suburban Cobb County they hope to open in 2017. I suggested that a large part of the motive for the switch was the Braves’ effort to accommodate the preferences of their affluent and largely white fan base to avoid downtown Atlanta and the African American neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field.

Now, although I think the racial politics of the move are quite evident, if subsumed in discussions of transportation access, the geographical distribution of Braves’ ticket buyers, and economic development, that doesn’t mean that the decision is one that’s necessarily bad for the city of Atlanta, or the region as a whole. It’s worth thinking about what it means for the city to let the Braves walk away from a lease, and for the Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville neighborhoods to transition out of the era of stadium-based land use and development models that have dominated the area since the late 1960s.

This is what Kim Severson set out to do in the Sunday New York TimesWhile Severson makes some good points, I think that it’s also worth pointing out where this analysis falls short.

In the big picture, Severson speculates that the Braves’ decision might herald a renewed discussion of regionalism in metro Atlanta.

But now, as the team makes plans to head a dozen miles northwest to a new $672 million baseball stadium in Cobb County, a regional civic conversation has begun: Is the move a blow to a city beginning to enjoy a post-recession urban renaissance, or is it a signal of a new era in which traditional assumptions about the divide between city and suburb no longer apply?

Part of Severson’s problem is that her principal evidence for this claim doesn’t come from a rigorous political-economic analysis of the impact of the move but from asking politicians about it (in fairness, she’s working her side of the street and I’m working mine). To be sure, the move might end up being a net positive to the city of Atlanta, which could benefit from the displacement to the suburbs of entertainment economy activities. If other people and communities take some of the brunt of negative externalities like traffic, air pollution, litter, and the Tomahawk Chop, that’s actually a nice example of regionalism in action.

However, Severson gives far too much credit to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s brush-off of the Braves’ move.

“We’ve got to make a decision — either we’re going to be a region or we’re not,” he said at a packed news briefing the day after the Braves’ announcement. “It bothers me that we have not come far enough as a community that people feel that a team moving 12 miles is a loss to the city of Atlanta.”

This regionalist equanimity might carry considerably more weight if Reed had not, as Severson acknowledges, just put his reelection at risk by brokering a deal for the construction of a $1.2 billion stadium for the NFL Falcons near downtown Atlanta. The deal involved committing the city to revenue bonds and reallocating a state pool of hotel taxes collected in Atlanta that could bring the public share of the cost to a billion dollars over 30 years.

Why was all of this spending necessary? In part because Falcons spokespersons persuaded Reed and allies like Chief Financial Officer Duriya Farooqui that the team would move to Clayton County or some other suburb if the city didn’t support a new stadium. It’s worth noting that these suburbs allegedly lining up to steal the Falcons from Atlanta weren’t even offering to build principal owner Arthur Blank a new stadium. Reed’s rhetorical nod to regionalism after letting the Braves walk shouldn’t be considered outside of his aggressive and probably foolish localism on behalf of the Falcons.

It is interesting that suburban Cobb County taxpayers will foot so much of the bill, both in direct allocations and in the extension of existing property tax surcharges that will be redirected from parks and other uses toward the stadium instead of expiring. As Neil deMause notes at Field of Schemes, the math doesn’t add up to profits for Cobb County, which will reallocate $8.7 billion in property taxes toward bond payments while plausibly reaping about $8 million annually in sales taxes from the stadium and nowhere near the $12 million annually in property tax revenues created by higher valuations to make up the rest of the county’s obligation. In sum,

Cobb County would certainly steal some revenues from Atlanta by virtue of hosting the Braves, which would offset its costs somewhat — but Cobb taxpayers would still likely be looking at a loss in the $100-200 million range. And that’s not accounting for the opportunity cost of taking 15 acres of land and handing it to the Braves tax-free for their stadium, removing the possibility of future development there that might actually pay taxes. Or the opportunity cost of what else the county might do with its $300 million that could increase economic activity (and tax receipts) some other way. It’s not the worst stadium deal ever — that’s going to be a tough record to break — but it still looks like an awfully high price for Cobb taxpayers to pay for a slightly shorter drive to the ballgame.

Regionalists have long argued that cities subsidized the construction of the suburbs (taxpayers in built-up areas financed extending infrastructure outward) and continue to subsidize their operation by hosting governmental facilities, public hospitals, jails and other regional infrastructure, and artistic, cultural, and sports venues. This is all  real estate dedicated to regional uses but supported by local municipal services and frequently exempt from the local tax rolls. The Cobb County play for the Braves is a historical turnaround, in that fans from Cherokee, Forsyth, Gwinnett and north Fulton Counties (and I suppose even some from Atlanta) will use the facilities while Cobb foots the bill, hoping to capture economic development impacts–hopes that, in general, end in disappointment. We could call this by a lot of names, and Cobb County getting fleeced seems like a good place to start, but I don’t think regionalism fits just because the suburbs have begun making some of the moves that cities have historically made in the game of competitive localism.

The story gets weirder still when Severson starts quoting politicians about the racial and demographic divisions of the region. Of course, like everywhere else in the United States, suburban Atlanta is growing more diverse. And the city’s population is becoming whiter and more affluent with gentrification and redevelopment, to the point where the city’s black majority is shrinking and white mayoral candidates have made serious noise in recent campaigns. The city limits are not the racial boundaries the were in the 1970s, and the region’s racial dynamics today aren’t captured by the trope of white flight.

But that doesn’t mean that the divisions among metropolitan places don’t matter, as some of Severson’s subjects argue.

Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who became Atlanta’s mayor in 1982, said the geographic boundaries that once divided the 10-county region are as much a part of history as its once-deep racial divisions.

“One of the things I learned when I was mayor is that nobody pays any attention to jurisdictions but elected officials,” he said, adding that one of the region’s problems is that it has always segregated the city from the outer communities.

“The truth of it is,” he said, “it’s one big economic unit.”

The circumstances of the stadium deal alone belie Young’s argument; Cobb County is offering to foot a huge part of the bill for a new stadium in the belief that the resulting economic benefits of baseball will redound to Cobb County alone. If the region is one big economic unit, somebody forgot to tell the Cobb County Commission (and Kasim Reed for that matter).

Indeed, in metro Atlanta today there’s a profound concern for jurisdictions because of the ways that those kinds of boundaries structure the social and fiscal conflicts of metropolitan life, facilitate resource hoarding, and divide communities of opportunity. We’ve seen incorporation movements in north Fulton County spread to DeKalb, and though leading state House Republican Jan Jones has grudgingly acknowledged that the movement she leads to split Fulton County is at a political stalemate, it’s not going away and there’s no reason to suppose that if Fulton County splits legislators from DeKalb or any other internally diverse metro county won’t push to follow suit. The politics of race are deeply woven in these jurisdictional conflicts.

Maybe the Braves’ relocation will prompt a deeper conversation about regionalism that actually leads to practicing regionalism. This might particularly happen if Cobb County learns a lesson the hard way–being on the hook for bonds that new revenues and property value increases don’t cover, or watching the Braves pull up stakes in thirty years. But learning the hard way doesn’t factor in the Times piece when it comes to the significance of metropolitan jurisdictions or the politics of land use around the new stadium. Severson is particularly sanguine about the prospect of a New Urbanist residential and retail development around the new stadium.

The Cobb County site is actually more in line with a new ethos of urbanism that rewards smaller, walkable communities, said Chris Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business.

I’ve taken some issue with Leinberger’s analysis here before; I don’t disagree with his general conclusions that markets are shifting to favor the kind of amenities that the affluent want, which include walkability and some semblance of integrated residential and commercial life. But public policies matter too; there just isn’t enough market demand for New Urbanism to make it anything other than a lifestyle amenity at this point, and one mixed use walkable development around a baseball stadium is not going to impact the way that Atlantans navigate the already built-up spaces of the region. So, while Leinberger isn’t wholly wrong here when he states

“The real distinction in Atlanta now is between those places that are walkable urban areas and those that are drivable suburban areas,” he said. “Where they are doesn’t matter as much,”

Cobb County politicians aren’t showing signs that they view the stadium as part of a shift away from an automobile-centered single family home mode of development. While Leinberger elsewhere insists that metro Atlanta’s underdeveloped transit infrastructure is holding back the progress of walkable metropolitan places,

“Metropolitan Atlanta has been under-investing in the rail transit transportation infrastructure that greatly assists the walkable urban development the market and economy is now demanding,” the report stated. “Investing in rail transit in the early 21st century is as important as building of freeways in the 1960s and 1970s was for the economic growth of the Atlanta region 50 years ago”

Cobb County isn’t buying. As the chair of the Cobb County GOP put it:

“It is absolutely necessary the (transportation) solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

So I suppose there’s a boundary that still matters after all.

I should acknowledge that Severson identifies and identifies the opportunity to cultivate a conversation around regionalism in metro Atlanta. But that conversation is not yet here.  Cobb County might be entirely delusional about the chances of the Braves’ stadium becoming a paying proposition, but they expect to come out winners and they expect to keep the spoils of victory to themselves. Kasim Reed’s regime in Atlanta let the Braves walk because they had just put Atlanta taxpayers all in for the Falcons. The rhetorical nods to regionalism that Severson’s found here amount are just table talk: Atlanta politicians trying to spin the fact that they folded weak hands in the game of localism. 

Some Super Postmodern Remix of Stadium-Based Corporate Welfare, Urban Renewal and White Flight

The Atlanta Braves have just announced their intention to abandon city-owned Turner Field south of downtown when the team’s lease on the ballpark expires after the 2016 season and move to a new, mostly-taxpayer-funded stadium in Cobb County near the interchange of Interstates 75 and 285, the city’s beltway.

The Braves have spun the move as an economic one, bringing the stadium closer to the center of their ticket-buying public, a claim that, as this graphic from the AJC shows, has some validity. Ticket sales are heavily concentrated in the northside triangle of Buckhead and Cobb, Gwinnett and north Fulton counties. And the southside site is outside of that triangle.

But the idea that this move will give Braves fans a quicker ride to the ballpark is dubious. Residents of Buckhead, north Fulton and Gwinnett will be separated from the Cobb County site by the Chattahoochee river and will have little choice but to take the notorious Perimeter highway. As Bookman says,

In transportation terms, Turner Field is admittedly far from perfect. It doesn’t have direct mass-transit access, and downtown traffic on the interstates has been a challenge. However, at first blush the Cobb County site compounds rather than solves both problems. Adding Braves traffic to an already clogged I-285 or I-75 northbound at rush hour to make a 7:05 first pitch — really? It sounds like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

So getting to the ballpark by car is not going to get a whole lot easier. How about transit access? Unfortunately, while Turner Field is not served by a light rail line, MARTA does operate a shuttle bus from the downtown Underground Atlanta development near the Five Points intersection of all four rail lines. I’ve taken it and it involves a walk through a downscale shopping center and a stroll across a street from the bus stop. I’ve taken it with a two-year old, and it’s convenient and easy.

But perhaps the Braves understand the sentiments of their target audience all too well. In a region where new arrivals quickly learn that MARTA “really” stands for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta,” the lack of even such a makeshift transit service to the ballpark at the Cobb site is a feature, not a bug for many potential fans on the north side. Cobb County voters infamously refused to join the MARTA district in the 1970s. Kevin Kruse ably recounts this moment in the epilogue to White Flight, quoting a Cobb County official who approvingly compared the Chattahoochee to a moat separating Cobb County from Atlanta. Cobb County rejected joining the MARTA district as part of a regional transportation plan as recently as 2011 too. This spirit has clearly not gone away, as Cobb County GOP chair Joe Dendy made clear in offering conditions for party support of the stadium plan:

1.) That Cobb County citizens won’t have to pay higher taxes as a result, and

2.) “It is absolutely necessary the (transportation) solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

Like Charlie Pierce says,

No, thank you, I won’t be needing the Enigma Machine today.

This is not about race because nothing is ever about race.

Indeed. Let’s not be tempted to look at two maps at the same time….

RegionWhiteBaseMapJUA

And let’s also ignore the fact that anyone from Atlanta who wants to catch a Braves game in 2017  will have to take their car across the Lester and Virginia Maddox Memorial Bridge on I-75 over the Chattahoochee….

Strictly as an aside here, if the good citizens of Cobb County stand behind this scheme and pony up so that all of the greater northside can avoid passing through majority black neighborhoods to see a ballgame, despite the county’s dire school budgets and general austerity, I suppose H.L. Mencken would approve:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

So, while this move brings parts of the region’s history of white flight full circle by drawing out an anchoring regional institution from Atlanta, it also makes an ironic endpoint for an era of sports-related urban renewal on the south side, a history of promised revitalization that panned out more as community displacement. Reading this long piece by Rebecca Burns in Atlanta magazine a couple of things become clear: the Braves are at the center of a dysfunctional network of community and governmental entities that have consistently screwed up grand proposals to revitalize the Summerhill and Peoplestown neighborhoods that surrounded the old Fulton County Stadium, the 1996 Olympics complex, and current-day Turner Field (read this piece by Charles Rutheiser too). The area remains poor and predominantly African American, and if the ballclub today seems more inclined to walk away from the area, I suspect their fans, or the ones whose dollars they care about, can live with that too.

It’s unfortunate that the Braves have chosen this month to make their announcement, because the City of Atlanta has just sealed off a massive deal with the Atlanta Falcons to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars of city funds and hotel tax revenues collected in Atlanta and disbursed by the state legislature to replace the Georgia Dome in the Vine City area of the near west side. The Georgia Dome, too, is a perfectly functional facility less than 20 years old that is nonetheless insufficiently profitable to the team’s owners. Mayor Kasim Reed is putting a, ahem, brave face on the most recent news, promising

“one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had” will go up at the site of Turner Field after the Atlanta Braves move to Cobb

and contending that this deal was just too much to place on the city’s taxpayers’ backs:

Reed said the Braves asked for between $150 million and $250 million for infrastructure improvements for the team to remain downtown. He said that would have left the city “absolutely cash-strapped” and unable to chip away at a nearly $1 billion infrastructure backlog.

“Atlanta is not that liberal with our spending,” said the mayor.

That’s a statement that takes a lot of guts, as Neil DeMause of Field of Schemes explains, since

as a best guess for how much the Falcons deal would cost the public, “more than half a billion dollars” is an excellent starting point.

I can only imagine that Reed plans on being long gone when the NFL team bolts for greener (i.e. whiter) pastures in twenty years.

Atlanta, Detroit, and the End of Black Political Dominance in Cities?

In the context of a political-economic (and emphasis on the first term there) crisis of unprecedented proportions, Detroit voters have elected Mike Duggan as the city’s first white mayor since 1973. Duggan opposed the establishment of an emergency financial manager for Detroit, but will be stepping into office with few defined expectations except that he will be compelled to work with that manager, Kevyn Orr, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Duggan’s experience as a medical center manager in Detroit would seem to be a big factor in his election, as his yet-undefined responsibilities will involve moving the city out of bankruptcy (assuming, of course, that a judge rules that the city is eligible). On a certain level, the vote makes sense. But on the other hand, this is Detroit, where demographics and a frequently brutal history of white flight and ethnoracial conflict seemed to have made an African-American hold on the mayoralty permanent.

Political scientist Michael Leo Owens suggests that this kind of turnabout in Detroit might be remarkable but neither unique nor unexpected. In a just-published article in the Journal of Urban Affairs published with Jacob Robert Brown, Owens looks at the near-miss 2009 campaign of Mary Norwood, who sought to become that city’s first white mayor elected since 1973.

The concurrent regime change in Atlanta and Detroit (and other American cities) is not coincidental, but rose out of particular contexts of African American political mobilization, white flight, and demographic change that manifested in cities across the U.S. at roughly the same time. Owens and Brown suggest that the emergence in many cities of a generation of white (neo)liberal politicians who have made serious or even successful challenges for office  in majority-black cities is also no coincidence, and can be understood through the concept of black political demobilization. The conclude that, while demographic conditions and institutional legacies of black political organization are quite favorable in Atlanta, these conditions are insufficient to ensure continued black political control. Indeed, as the authors note,

We, however, are concerned with the ways that strong BPE may reduce the capacity of blacks to win elections; or how, in the words of an anonymous reviewer, “a black empowerment city potentially has within it the seeds of its own destruction.” (2)

This political self-destruction ought not to be confused with a racist argument that black political rule is inherently destructive to a city. Rather, the phenomenon of racial political transition is a systemic outcome of many factors, including disruptions to the black electorate, discontent by elements of that electorate with the results produced by a particular regime, and, significantly in the case of Norwood’s campaign, the mobilization of white voters through a discourse of grievance at being excluded from political control that mirrors a demobilized black electorate.

For me as a historian, this analysis is provocative and challenging, and raises several important questions about process.

For instance, if, as the authors posit, there is a cyclical pattern to BPE that wanes

as the “symbolic effect” of BPE fades and the substantive limits of governance appear over time

then what are the historical markers of that change? Is the process organic and gradual, or do particular moments catalyze awareness and presumably deep frustrations with those limits? In Atlanta, how are those limits tied to the class, social, or cultural cleavages between African American communities? How does historical analysis destabilize notions of a core idea of BPE?

Owens and Brown also destabilize the idea of the city of Atlanta as a “black mecca”, noting that for African Americans as well as whites, booming in-migration to the region has favored the suburbs, though that suburban migration has been quite racially polarized. While the city of Atlanta has long been economically squeezed by the growth of its suburbs, this squeeze no longer maps neatly onto the trope of white flight, as affluent whites now constitute one of the most likely groups to settle in the city limits. How, then, have black attitudes about the city developed and how have they affected political participation or withdrawal for residents contemplating, but not yet committed to, suburbanization? How is the city affected when black professionals move to the region without settling in the city? How are those housing choices influenced not just by the segregating influences in the market, but within black publics? I suspect that we will soon read a history of this black suburban movement that parallels Kevin Kruse’s work in White Flight.

And finally, Owens and Brown describe a key dynamic of contemporary racism, the politics of white grievance. In particular, the Norwood near-miss illustrates that many whites in Atlanta, even those moving back into a majority-black city, are motivated by a zero-sum conception of politics in which gains for African Americans come at their expense. These sentiments have troubled the official mythology of the “city too busy to hate” since the 1940s and accelerated with the election of Maynard Jackson in 1973, but today are couched in a narrative that roots racial antagonism in illicit black racial solidarity, the strength of white bloc voting for Norwood notwithstanding. I’m personally quite invested in how this discourse developed and established itself in Atlanta and the nation, and hope to share some thoughts on that in the future.