Yep, downtown Athens is indeed awesome. While recognition from outsiders is nice, we don't need their validation, either. Do we?
Pretty regularly, Athens lands on some kind of best-of list. Most recently, Travel & Leisure ranked us the No. 19 best college town in America.
We should have been way higher, which just goes to show you that most of these lists are meaningless. The Travel & Leisure piece, based on an unscientific reader poll, is still more legit than most. Many such lists aren’t bylined, which usually means it was either written by an intern after some cursory online research, or it was ripped off from another website. Nor do most of these lists say what metrics or methodology they used. The only logical conclusion is that they were pulled out of a hat.
Editors love these kinds of listicles because they’re cheap and easy to produce, they get shared on Facebook a lot, and they’re presented as slideshows, so they’re worth more clicks than a standard article. Tourism folks love them because they’re an excuse to brag about their city to potential travelers. Call it the marketing-industrial complex.
What they don’t do, however, is really tell anyone anything about Athens. For example, here’s Travel & Leisure’s description of Athens:
“The buzz about Athens centers mostly on its music scene. This is, after all, where R.E.M., the B-52’s, Widespread Panic, and Indigo Girls all started out. But lately, the home of the University of Georgia and its football-crazy Bulldogs fans is becoming quite the culinary hotspot, with about 60 restaurants and nearly 100 bars in the downtown area. Sunday brunch at Mama’s Boy is guaranteed to take the edge off a late-night Saturday at the World Famous.”
That’s all true, but pretty generic, right? These rankings always mention the same four bands (and the Indigo Girls are really an Atlanta band). They never talk about any of the music that you might actually be able to hear at the World Famous on a Saturday night. We should be proud to be the home of R.E.M., but our music scene is so much more than what happened 30 years ago—something no one but Flagpole sees fit to publicize.
So, sure, be happy that you live in an awesome city, but remember that it’s awesome because it’s awesome, not because some 20-year-old in New York who’s never been here says it is.
And don’t forget the real problems in Athens that patting ourselves on the back could distract us from. Here’s another ranking: Athens has the highest poverty rate of any city with more than 100,000 people in the country. I’d love to see us ranked No. 19 for the lowest poverty rate, or No. 19 for the highest graduation rate. It won’t happen if we let some random rankings lull us into thinking everything’s OK.
Family Leave: Before my daughter was born in July, I was, to quote Jackie Chiles, shocked and chagrined, mortified and stupefied to learn that the University of Georgia doesn't offer time off to new mothers and fathers. My wife, who works for the university, was able to cobble together vacation and sick time and short-term disability to spend a couple of months at home.
Faculty and staff now are trying to institute a new family leave policy that would give employees eight paid weeks off after the birth or adoption of a child, in addition to the 12 unpaid weeks off mandated by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Under the proposal, faculty (though not staff) also would be eligible for "modified duties" due to family circumstances, such as reduced course loads.
A University Council report, passed unanimously last week, cites 10 peer institutions with progressive family leave policies, including the flagship universities in those liberal bastions of Florida, Kentucky and North and South Carolina. Those universities thus have a competitive edge in recruiting faculty who plan to have families.
President Jere Morehead says he cannot act on the family leave policy without Board of Regents approval and that he will pass it on to them. Let's hope they prove themselves more open minded on this issue than on domestic partner benefits.
A Ranking that Matters: Athens, surprisingly, only ranks in the middle of the pack among cities on LGBT equality with a score of 46 out of 100, compared to the national average of 59, according to a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
The Athens-Clarke County government won points for recognizing domestic partnerships and reporting hate crimes to the FBI. It lost points due to the statewide ban on same-sex marriages and the lack of non-discrimination laws regarding city contractors, housing, employment and public accommodations. In addition, the Human Rights Campaign nicked ACC because we don't have a human rights commission, and the mayor and police department don't have official liaisons to the LGBT community, although I haven't heard anyone call for them to be appointed.
Another HRC report covered major corporations. Caterpillar's rating is 90—it offers the same benefits to all employees and their partners regardless of sexual orientation, although it is weaker in the area of transgender treatment. Electric motor manufacturer Baldor, which offers few benefits to same-sex partners, has a rating of 25. Those were the only two of Athens' top 20 employers listed.
Downtown Trash: New garbage trucks with robotic arms are “on order and expected to arrive here anytime,” ACC Assistant Manager Blaine Williams told commissioners at their agenda-setting meeting last week. In January, the Solid Waste Department will start picking up trash downtown on a continuous basis, which should help keep the sidewalks looking and smelling fresh.
The commission also is set to approve new loading zones downtown and ban trucks from parking in the Clayton Street center lane except from 2 a.m.–noon. “I think this is addressing a situation that we all know is a situation,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said. “It's hard to maneuver downtown with some of the trucks parked in the middle of the roads. Some folks also started taking advantage of the situation… turning on their blinkers to run in the bank or get a slice of pizza.”
Chase Street: The commission is designating the Chase Street/Newton Bridge Road area as an “opportunity zone,” so businesses that create jobs will be eligible for tax credits, encouraging manufacturers as well as artists to locate there. “This is an area I think is ripe for revitalization,” Hamby said.
Wetland Buffers: ACC planners caught flack from environmentalists last year for proposing to remove local protection for wetlands, relying instead on the state’s identical 25-foot buffer. The proposal is back, but Planning Director Brad Griffin is now merely asking the commission to make the “fairly minute” change of adding new data to the county’s wetlands map as the courts decide whether the state buffer does, in fact, apply to wetlands.
Girtz said he will propose strengthening, rather than weakening, local protections for wetlands. “If we care about water quality in this community, we need to care about it no matter what” the courts rule, he said.
But other commissioners declared themselves confounded by the complex issue and how it would affect especially industrial property owners. “I am so confused,” Commissioner Kathy Hoard said. “I cannot believe every one of my colleagues isn't.
Free Parking: You don't have to go to Walmart to find free parking on Black Friday. Both on-street and deck parking downtown will be free on Nov. 28. The two-hour limit for on-street spots will still be in effect. Since there's no football game that day, you'll have less chance of being trampled than at a big-box store.