Saturday, February 8, 2014

In Atlanta, Racism > Gridlock

I have my own story from the total gridlock on January 29th and it has very little to do with snow and everything to do with living in a city that is determined to keep racism alive, even if it means sitting on a highway for 26 hours or sleeping in the aisles of a drugstore. 

Near the MLK Memorial, before the snow
We live downtown, but like most Atlantians we work north of the actual city. My one-way commute is 30 miles, out of the city and into one of the north suburbs. On a great morning, it takes me 40 minutes door-to-door, but I'm going against the main flow of traffic. On a bad day, in the afternoon, it has taken me 2 hours to make my way home. Did I mention that's all multiple lane highway? 

I spent my formative years in Berlin, Germany which, like many cities in Europe, is fully supported by a robust public transportation system. Travelling to places like Portland and NYC, I know the U.S. has cities where owning a car isn't the norm. Public transport shortens commutes, lowers stress levels and is better for the environment. Except if you live in Atlanta. 

My house downtown is a short walk away from a train station, but the train will only take me about half way. I make a transfer to a bus and then it's a quarter mile walk to my office. It should be a shorter, less stressful way to get from home to work. Except, I live in Atlanta. 

Using public transportation, on a good day, takes me just shy of 2 hours - the same as sitting in gridlock, except waiting on a bus or a train means waiting in the cold, or the rain or the heat. Most bus stops don't have benches or shelters. Buses don't run on time. And the fare for a system that isn't shorter or useful - $2.50 per trip. (for comparison, that's the same base amount you pay for the MTA in NYC, except that that system gets everywhere in the whole city) 

MARTA, Atlanta's underfunded public transportation, fails as a reasonable commute tool for most of Atlanta commuters. Why? Because racism and an inherent distrust of a fragmented system of city and country governments is more important to Atlanta voters than giving up hours and hours in their cars. In 2012, a 7.2 billion dollar referendum was voted down that would have started to bring rail service to areas currently not served or grossly under-served and would have made using the bus systems outside of the ITP (inside the perimeter) area reasonable. Articles reference concerns about government graft, which is warranted given Atlanta's long history of only electing officials who suck. 

This week’s weather fiasco in Atlanta, which stranded thousands of commuters on glassy-slick roads and gridlocked the entire metro region for the better part of 24 hours, was caused by a freak snowstorm, they say. And this is true, in the same way it’s true to say the Civil War started because some guys in Charleston, S.C., started lobbing cannon balls at Fort Sumter. But the real problem in Atlanta isn’t snow; the real problem is history. ( Slate, "What Does Racism Have To Do With Gridlock" )

What you know if you live in Atlanta, if you work in an office in the burbs and share water cooler gossip in a mostly white office like me - white people moved out to the suburbs in droves all through the 60's and 70's reaching a fevered pace in the 80's and they still desire 40 years later to keep their white, middle class enclaves as white and affluent as possible. Bringing MARTA to outlying areas of the metro-Atlanta area means easy access of the 'unwanted' (read: poor and minority) out to areas where they are quietly feared.

After the 26 hour gridlock brought on by a populous who freaks out at the mention of snow but doesn't support a government who would actually take preparing for it seriously, I was in a group of mostly strangers at an event in one of those far out suburbs. This is only days after many of them, including me, spent more than 6 hours, some as many as 20,  in their cars trying to get home and so it was the time to share horror stories. At the conclusion of the group share, I overhear two of the men talking about MARTA. The final comment, "I still won't vote for the rail, it will just bring our property values down." 

This kind of sentiment isn't surprising. "Bringing property values down" is a common euphemism for "MARTA means black people/brown people/poor people and *those* people bring crime because they are all criminals". There is an undercurrent of accepted racism and classism in Atlanta in a form that may be unique to Atlanta. It's the kind of racism that wrapped in the warm, slow drawl of the "Bless Your Heart" culture and hiding behind education and household income. 

Atlanta is different from other parts of Georgia, we consider ourselves metropolitan, diverse, cultured. It's really mostly the bullshit language of our privilege talking. We enclave inside the city in our mixed use communities and half million dollar McMansions. We are better educated, so we consider racism something of the past that isn't part of our self-aware intellect. We are wealthy, so we assuage our guilt by giving to the food bank, but cross quickly to walk around the growing population of homeless or impoverished. We have cars so public transportation doesn't register as a need. We don't use it now because we fear interaction with people who are visually different from us and because it's functionally useless unless you live and work near a rail line. 

As for my story, I spent 4 hours trying to get the 13 miles between my office and my partner's office. I watched the gridlock rapidly grow as the snow fell and all the offices in a city of 4 million workers closed all at once. We made the decision to leave the car in the parking deck of my partner's office and walk the half mile to the train station and hope to get a south bound train to the station near our house. 
GA400 less than an hour after the snow started.

We walked through intersections where no one had moved in so long that people had just turned off their cars. Folks standing on their door frames trying to see up ahead. I didn't have the heart to tell them that there was no end in sight. It was cold, I wasn't dress appropriately, even though I knew what the weather report had said. I've been in Atlanta almost half my life and it never would have occurred to me that it could get this bad. 

The train platform was nearly empty. Above us thousands and thousands of people sat in there precious, convenient cars with nowhere to go and no plan for what to do in a situation like this. Help wouldn't be coming for hours and hours. 15 min later, we were on a southbound train. 30 min after that we were huddled together at the Five Points station waiting on the last train to take us the 3 stops home. 45 min later we were walking up the hill on Moreland Ave towards our house, watching cars slip and slide an honk. My commute took me 6 hours and that was short compared to some. 
The best part of the whole experience was watching people at the terminals and on the train, people I would guess would otherwise sat stone faced and uninterested, interact and converse. Sharing stores of how things were where they had come from, asking about loved ones. Finding camaraderie in the knowledge that we were moving towards our homes when the rest of the city sat for hours. 

There are organizations within Atlanta who are working to provide basic transportation to Atlanta's residents. The website for Citizens for Progressive Transit isn't frequently updated, but there is a side bar on the left with some local organizations that are actively trying to make public transportation a reality in Atlanta. 
The view from my front yard just before they shut Moreland down.

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