City DopeNews

Is Athens Becoming the Land of the Bland?

The Georgia Downtown Association held its annual conference at the Classic Center last week, which is a reminder that as much as we wring our hands about the way downtown has changed, it’s still a successful downtown that other cities look to for inspiration. It has changed, though—and not necessarily in ways that benefit the whole community. During one conference session, UGA College of Environment and Design professor Pratt Cassity laid out some hard truths about the whitewashing of downtown that could serve as sort of a counterpoint to my interview with Ryan Gravel, founder of the Atlanta BeltLine.

When we rezoned Athens in the late 1990s to drastically increase density downtown and limit development on the outskirts of the county, we were doing what urban planners like Gravel advised to alleviate the mistakes of previous decades. No one predicted what we’ve seen as a result, though. Sprawl simply leapfrogged the county line, denying Athens-Clarke County tax revenue and forcing residents to drive even further to, say, get to the hardware store. Our unique, funky downtown increasingly no longer serves the established residential communities around it—artists, musicians, African Americans, the elderly and mobility-impaired, the working poor—but has been taken over by luxury student housing and same-y chain businesses.

Something similar is happening in Atlanta’s east-side neighborhoods. Gravel punted when I asked him about the BeltLine driving gentrification. While acknowledging that cities need to engage on the issue and there are ways to alleviate gentrification, he’s not an expert on economics, he demurred. His approach is to put the infrastructure in place and let the market do its thing. The solution to gentrification, he said, is “not to not build parks and grocery stores.”

Near the beginning of his speech—entitled “Where Have All the Wig Shops Gone?”—Cassity quoted comedian Margaret Cho: “If Austin were a Disney ride, it would be Athens, GA.” He argued that if Athens is becoming banal and homogenous, it’s our own fault. And we’re not alone. “The thing we love most about downtown is variety and diversity, yet that is somehow being removed from revitalized downtowns,” he said.

One culprit, he said, is the “tourist bubble.” As cities competed for convention and tourism dollars, they created spaces where visitors would be insulated from everyday life—convention centers and hotels connected by skyways and escalators, or “honky tubes,” as Atlanta African Americans called them. It started with urban renewal projects in cities like Boston and Baltimore, then spread to Atlanta, which razed thousands of low-income homes for a convention center that was obsolete in five years. Then came the World Congress Center, Peachtree Center, various permutations of Underground Atlanta, World of Coke, the aquarium, the College Football Hall of Fame and, maybe one day, casino gambling. Suddenly downtown Atlanta was for white tourists, not black residents.

These trends spread from big cities to places like Savannah, then to Athens and trickle on down from there, Cassity said. “Are we creating a white privileged version of downtown based on cities we’ve all visited all over the world?” he asked.