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Atlanta: Does Edge City Have a Future?

 “They ran the environmental people out of here a long time ago. You’ve got no trees. You’ve got no streams. You’ve got no mountains. It’s a developer’s paradise.”
–Gwinnett County Developer Wayne Mason

            “. . . a fatal hit-and-run up in Cherokee has got you backed up some on eye-seventy-five. . . .” the radio announcer said, running down the hour’s traffic reports as though he were reciting last night’s baseball scores.  I was at that moment motoring up a freeway myself, in a sub-compact rent-a-car, from Hartsfield airport, the mega-hub of the Sunbelt, toward the post-modern spires of Atlanta.  It took a moment to sink in before I understood the import of that little news-flash: some motorist had been killed in a car crash by another driver who then sped away from the scene, up in the northern suburb of Cherokee, or possibly the general vicinity of Cherokee County (whatever) — and so thousands of other perfectly innocent commuters would now face pain-in-the-ass traffic delays, duration unknown, due to some dumb-ass incompetent driver who had gone and got him or herself killed at rush hour and therefore upset the supper plans of so many upstanding good drivers, that is, folks who have the goshdarn sense and the decency to pay attention to the road!  Well, isn’t that enough to piss off the Pope?
            It was a very strange moment in America.  As a matter of intense current interest, Hurricane Floyd was at that hour churning off the Georgia coast, a few hundred miles away, like a colossal pillar of wrath, and nobody knew which direction it might take next, though Savannah was a good guess.  In light of the situation, an unprecedented evacuation was underway along the entire southeast American coast, with horrendous traffic jams along every east-west interstate highway between Jacksonville and Cape Fear.  Though the National Defense Interstate Highway System originally had been intended for just such mass evacuations, it had actually never been tested to this degree before.  And, let’s face it, 1959 standards probably didn’t apply anymore.  For one thing, the sheer number of motor vehicles was up exponentially.  Not in forty-odd years, either, had a hurricane so large and fearsome behaved quite so erratically, and, what with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) all cranked up to grandstand for the CNN audience, and virtually every county and municipality along the southeast coast issuing official evacuation orders, the system had clogged up like the porkfat-lined vascular system of a baby boom Bubba behind the wheel of his beloved suburban utility vehicle (SUV), and, Lordy, the entire fretful coastal plain had become a united parking lot.
            Of course, this mess was all occurring quite a ways from my then-current coordinates: approaching Ted Turner’s new vanity ballpark on the Downtown Connector (the combined I-75/I-85 corridor).  The sky was blue, well, bluish-brownish-ochre really, due to the ozone-producing nitrogen oxides, and carbon particulate matter issuing from scores of thousands of other cars like mine similarly plying the overloaded freeway system of greater Atlanta that same moment. But this was Atlanta every day nowadays: one big-ass parking lot under a toxic pall from Hartsfield clear up to the brand new completely absurd Mall of Georgia (which we will get to presently). In fact, the whole city — if that’s what you could call this giant hairball of a thirteen-county demolition derby — had come under the most intense pressure to quit doing what it was doing and being what it had become. 
            In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had ruled that Atlanta was out of compliance with the 1990 Clean Air Act.  The flipping of that little bureaucratic toggle had swift and  horrendous consequences.  Because of it, the metropolitan area stood to loose over $1 billion in federal highway funds plus, retroactively, an additional $700 million budgeted for road projects that were approved before the EPA ruling.  In short, Atlanta would probably not even be able to maintain its existing highway mileage, let alone begin building the outer perimeter northern arc freeway that had been the collective wet dream of all the panting suburban realtors / commercial homebuilders / car dealers / strip-mall developers / parking-lot pavers, and other pathogenic characters who fed off the metastasizing tumors of suburban sprawl.
            In the face of this catastrophic funding cutoff, the Georgia state government felt compelled to act.  It created a regional superagency called the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA).  The state vested GRTA with the power to create any kind of public transit system it wanted to in the suburban ring around Atlanta proper — light rail, buses, people movers, you name it — and it could compel each county to pay for it, or else confiscate that county’s highway money.  GRTA was also given unprecedented powers to kill local developments or road projects of any kind or scope — malls, housing subdivisions, road-widening schemes, anything.  The fifteen-member board could just say “no,” and that would be the end of it.  What’s more, the legislation gave governor Roy Barnes even more extraordinary powers to hire and fire GRTA board members at will.  He could dump the whole board with a phone call and appoint a new one, just like that.  Of course, the opportunities for mischief in a system like this seemed bottomless (and Georgia had a long and deep record of political chicanery), but so far Barnes was the first governor to enjoy these prerogatives and no one really knew what would happen.  Barnes was considered an upright, progressive figure, and he was the first governor in decades to come from the Atlanta metro area itself.  Everyone in Georgia politics, friend or foe of the governor’s, was so nervous about the GRTA legislation that they referred to it jokingly as Give Roy Total Authority.
            There was, however, at the same time, a gathering recognition among the prospering classes that the development explosion of the past thirty-odd years around Atlanta had begun to produce diminishing returns, as the geeks in econ might say, tending toward a decrease in the quality of life — to use the kind of euphemistic, understated, neutral language that was commonly employed to describe the fucking mess that even hardcore suburban growth cheerleaders, in their narcotic raptures of consumerism and gourmet coffee, had begun to dimly apprehend.   Above all, traffic had become intolerable.  That was pretty much the sole criterion for the quality of life in Atlanta: motoring convenience (or lack of).  You dared not venture out anymore to a restaurant on a Friday evening in Buckhead, the Beverly Hills of Atlanta, unless you wanted to spend half the night listening to books-on-tape in your SUV.  Routine mid-day trips to the supermarket now required the kind of strategic planning used in military re-supply campaigns under wartime conditions.  Mothers with children were spending so many hours on chauffeuring duty that they qualified for livery licenses.  Motorists were going mad, literally, behind the wheel — one berkserker tired of waiting at an intersection shot out the signal light with a handgun.  The people of Atlanta were clearly driving themselves crazy with driving.
            Culturally, though, the masses were not disposed to process this information rationally. It went against their current politics, their whole belief system, really, which boiled down to the notion that Atlanta was the ideal expression of democracy, free enterprise, and Christian destiny.  There couldn’t be anything wrong with the form of the city, the way it had crept over the landscape in a dynamic efflorescence of money, power, and personal freedom, like a pulsating slime mold.  Atlanta was doing what every other place in the country wished it could do, and in spades, producing unprecedented new wealth and prosperity.  Atlanta was becoming a collection of fabulous Edge Cities, which, the cognoscenti would tell you, was what the future would be all about — brilliant sparkling satellite pods of corporate high-rise dynamism embedded in a wonderful matrix of leafy, tranquil dormitory suburbs, all tied together by a marvelously efficient personal transportation system that. . . wait a minute.  This sounded suspiciously like that old bullshit from Le Corbusier, the Franco-Swiss avant-garde guru-fraud from the 1920s: the Plan VoisonLe Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City, the proposal to demolish a big hunk of Paris and replace it with Towers in a Park connected by freeways.  You mean towers in a parking lot, Jane Jacobs had satirized the idea way back in 1961, because that’s the way it always worked out in the pathetically innocent, idealistic American experiments of the 1950s and 60s that inevitably took the form of high-rise subsidized housing, instant vertical slums, the Projects.   The idea was so wholly discredited by the end of the century that it is embarrassing even to dredge it up again.  Corb himself had tippy-toed back to the Paris authorities year after year from the 1920s to the 60s with his shopworn, dog-earedPlan Voison for the Right Bank and they laughed at him — even while they were planning La Defense.   The Radiant City was the most conspicuous failure of all branches of Modernism, be it in the arts, the practical professions, or social science.  It had been the butt of ridicule for generations.  Nobody with half a brain took these ideas seriously anymore — except the people of the Sunbelt, USA, a regional group who, culturally speaking, had crawled out of the mud about twenty-three years ago.
            By late 1999, then, Atlantans were having a very hard time understanding any of this beyond the visceral level.  Everything in the economy of the moment was telling them to keep on doing more of the same.  The EPA judgment of air quality noncompliance was an abstraction to them. It had nothing to do with real life — except perhaps as an illustration of the evil of Big Gubment.  Pretty soon now they (they, you know, them) would come up with cleaner gas, or better catalytic converters, or some all-new-type of fuel, hydrogen cells or what-have-you, and all this fuss about ozone and carbon particulates would fade away like the headlines from the Cold War.  Saying there was anything wrong with Atlanta was like being against America.

Following the Money

            I saw all economic folly of the Sunbelt summarized in three TV commercials broadcast on CNN Headline News in my Holiday Inn room off the remorseless Peachtree Street strip up in Buckhead.  The first ad was for a financial “product” called the “DiTech 125 percent dream loan.”  The DiTech finance company  would lend you 125 percent of the mortgage money necessary to buy a house, up to half a million dollars.  Borrowers could use the 25 percent slopover to pay their closing costs, or buy furniture (or buy a boat, or go to Vegas forexcitement).  I had heard many rumors while I was in Atlanta that people knew people who were buying enormous new houses in the outer limits of the suburbs and living in them without furniture, due to the fantastic and relentless other costs of living, such as the payments on the his-and-her SUVs that were indispensable for commuting to work, in order to pay the humungous mortgage on a 4,500 square foot vinyl McMansion.  The next TV commercial, a few minutes later, was for a debt consolidation service, aimed at folks whose finances had gotten a little bit out of hand, who were invited to roll all those depressing bills into one easy monthly payment.  Of course, this was, psychologically speaking, just another version of the old Polish blanket trick — cutting twelve inches off the top of your blanket and sewing it onto the bottom to make it longer.  But, God knows there were enough clucks out there in the Atlanta cable TV view-shed for scams like this to scare up a regular supply of fresh marks.  The third commercial was for bankruptcy lawyers.  And there you had it: the whole story of a reckless economy, a gigantic Ponzi scheme encouraged by the Federal Reserve’s massive inflation of the money supply and hence of the credit supply. 
            America was at this time near the end of an unprecedented credit orgy, of which the Sunbelt was the prime physical manifestation.  The expanding US money supply filtered through the big banks to the regional banks and was expressed as mortgages for evermore suburban houses, loans for gigantic cars, credit card debt for the parallel orgy of consumer spending, or as commercial loans for absurdities like the Mall of Georgia, a triple-decker, $250 million, 1.7 million square foot intergalactic mother ship of national chain retail that had landed on five hundred acres of former cotton fields up in the Gwinnett County town of Buford, thirty-five miles from downtown. The month the Mall of Georgia opened, three more regional mega-malls were being built and a fourth was in the planning and permitting stage.
            The Mall of Georgia, built by Buckhead developer Ben Carter, was conceived to be a sort of entertainment theme park accessorized by mega-shopping and featuring a main street “feel,” as Carter put it, an “outdoor village.”   (Whenever the word feel is used in real estate development propaganda, it should be understood that the place will be a cartoon of the thing it is purported to feel like.)  To make sure that the mall’s skin evoked the local vernacular, the developer hired an out-of-town consultant, Communications Arts from Boulder, Colorado, to research architectural motifs that would “relate” to the region’s art, history, and natural characteristics.  This is how psychotic commercial development has become in America.
            Some of the buildings had been plunked down to enfront outdoor walkways.  To call them streets would be inaccurate, because they were not public rights-of-way, just mall corridors open to the elements.  Anyway, they were surrounded by a wasteland of 8,600 parking spaces. (There is no public transportation of any kind in Gwinnett County.)  The mall’s central atrium (a fancy name for the franchise fried food court) was designed to employ decorative elements from Atlanta’s old downtown Union Station (long demolished). Unfortunately, a few days before the mall’s official opening in the late summer of 1999, several of the major prospective tenants that were to supply the “entertainment” component — Virgin Music, Jillian’s nightclub (imagine a nightclub chain!), and FAO Schwarz toys — had nixed their deals and pulled out.  What was left was the usual 20-screen multiplex cinema (yawn), and the state’s only 3-D IMAX theater. 
            Otherwise, the Mall of Georgia’s salient attribute was its visible quality of being a fantastic mis-investment.  One sensed, gaping at the immense “landscraper” — as Leon Krier has termed these horizontal mega-structures — that they would never, ever, sell enough scented bath oil and other unnecessary consumer crap out of the place to justify its existence, even over the relatively short depreciation period of the buildings (after which, for all anyone cared, the place might be sold for use as a for-profit prison or as the world’s biggest evangelical roller rink).  In fact, the same thing could be said about most of the development on the suburban outskirts of Atlanta: its tragic destiny was already visible.
            You could learn a lot about Atlanta and Sunbelt culture from broadcast advertising.  The story of the reckless credit economy continued the next morning on the car radio.  I got stuck for half an hour at an intersection cluttered up with yellow front-end loaders and men in hard-hats when a commercial came over the country music station for Joe Ray the bailbondsman, whose advertising pitch was “bad things happen even to good people.”  From this notion, caboosed onto the TV commercials of the previous night, you could extrapolate a whole dramatic train of events:  Billy-Bob had fallen behind on the payments for his DiTech 125 percent dream loan, debt consolidation had not managed to reduce his indebtedness, and bankruptcy was underway but had left him with no walking-around money, so, in order to feed his family, Billy-Bob had been constrained to rob a convenience store, and the license plate on his getaway car had been recorded by a security video, and, well. . . .
            This economic recklessness was but one facet of Sunbelt culture that came in over the airwaves.  Another facet was the theological one, which plays a large role in daily life there. A memorial service had been held for the victims of the massacre-du-jour, a lone gunman who had entered a church basement in Fort Worth a few days earlier and slain several children and adults. The media was now on hand for the service, of course.  The wife of one of the victims explained from the alter that she would continue to speak of her husband in the present tense because  he was “still alive in heaven up with Jesus.”  What an odd notion, I thought: that when you were dead, you were still alive, perhaps more alive than when you had been supposedly alive on earth.  F. Scott Fitzgerald had remarked earlier this century that it was a mark of genius to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time.  Of course, he was a mid-westerner, but still it was unlikely that everyone in the Sunbelt (formerly the Bible Belt) who subscribed to the fundamentalist Christian idea of heaven as a sort of eternal theme park was necessarily a genius.  What it actually prompted one to think was how childishly incoherent Sunbelt theology was, and how strenuously it served to counterpoint another set of western notions concerning the essentially tragic nature of life.  Not only did Sunbelters refuse to accept a tragic view of life, but they liked to decorate their alternate version with satin and lace, like a gift shop welcome sign.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

One Response to “Atlanta: Does Edge City Have a Future?”

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