NewsPub Notes

Searching for Solutions in Athens

Credit: Adria Carpenter/file

The year ends not with a bang, but a loud whimper. Our nation is caught in a turmoil that revolves around one man. Our community, through its schools, is also agitated by a one-man turmoil that has set us asunder into two groups who can no longer even agree on the meaning of words.

Our schools, denigrated as they have always been by those who choose white flight into private schools and Oconee County, are now held up as homegrown havens of racism. Our intown neighborhoods we fought so hard to save from those who would tear them down are now enclaves of the wealthy. Our local businesses that set us apart from mass merchandising are faltering as the chains gain a stranglehold, even in banks and the medical community, formerly strongholds of private initiative.

How do we gain the perspective amid all this change and devolution to see ourselves clearly? Where do we start? With the Creek Indians? This land we inhabit was the Creeks’ beloved land, but we drove them out and enslaved Africans in order to turn subsistence farming into capitalism, which supported the founding and maintaining of the university, which gave birth to the town. And the town and the university and the schools were segregated. African Americans were freed from bondage, but not from ostracism, and continued in a sort of parallel universe within the Classic City but apart, in their own neighborhoods, churches, schools and businesses, doing for subsistence wages the work white men and women didn’t want to do.

And then African-American environs within Athens were swept away by national currents that financed Urban Renewal for the eradication of “slums.” Stable neighborhoods where African Americans had lived for generations were torn down to free up land for the expansion of downtown and because the university wanted Baxter Hill. The residents of those areas were made essentially homeless, because there were few places available for Urban renewal’s “relocation” programs.

The other federal initiative, Model Cities, brought jobs, infrastructure and political participation for African Americans, and the Civil Rights Act brought protections against discrimination. Finally, racial integration in the public schools meant basically that the African-American schools were closed, and everybody went to the white schools, except all those white people who started their own schools.

And then, just before Superintendent Demond Means arrived to insist on equity in our public schools, the university’s callous treatment of burial grounds containing the remains of enslaved Athenians came to light. Outrage in the black community was never adequately addressed by the university and was still smoldering when Dr. Means began to look around for allies to back up his heavy-handed assault on the status quo within the public school system. Now, Means is leaving, but the anger is still strong.

Our history also includes another parallel universe that might be called “weird Athens”: the music and arts communities founded on subsistence labor in the restaurants, bars and clubs that contribute to a sort of café society and its spinoffs. Weird Athens and its cultural enrichments are under siege from the migration of information to the internet and from the Atlanta-ization of Athens. Emblematic of this assault, oddly, is the HOPE Scholarship. Devised as a means of helping needy students attend college, it quickly morphed into money that could be used by any student with a “B” average, regardless of need. Hence, the HOPE became a conduit for students from Atlanta, so that it cut out not merely the poorer students for whom it was intended but most of the students from outside the Atlanta area, thus inhibiting both economic and geographic diversity.

Here it all comes together. Most jobs for African Americans at the university are custodial, and the wages are more or less subsistence, tending to perpetuate working poverty in Athens. Most of the Atlanta students now concentrated in the high-rise apartments downtown want the franchise food and clothing to which they’re accustomed. Landlords want the rents the franchises are willing to pay.

Wham, bam: You’ve got Chic-Fil-A instead of the downtown Taco Stand; you’ve got Urban Outfitters instead of George Dean’s clothing and Lamar Lewis’ shoes. You’ve got Avid Bookshop closing its Prince Avenue location, Daily Groceries Co-Op struggling, Ike & Jane gone, Eden’s Café gone, Flagpole hanging on, the black businesses on Hot Corner squeezed onto one corner.

We can hope that in 2020 the country and the school system will begin to sort things out with more attention to equality. The shakeup in local businesses is liable to continue in the new year, maybe even accelerate. Our economy is largely built on the tastes of suburban Atlanta kids. If “local” means only the terrain they pass through for four years, the rest of us have got to sustain ourselves however we can. 

All of us locals are weird in our own ways. Perhaps it’s time we embrace our weirdness and each other and make Athens a place for all of us. Maybe it’s time to resurrect One Athens, that local economic initiative killed by the 2008 recession. Maybe it’s time to come back together and figure out how to make Athens work.