I’m grateful for the review of City on the Verge by Douglas Blackmon in The Wall Street Journal (June 12, 2017). I have immense respect for Blackmon, whose book, Slavery by Another Name, helped to inform mine, and which I cited. It’s an incredible work, which I have recommended to everyone I know as required reading. And I appreciate that in his review, Blackmon echoes reviews in publications such as Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, in observing: “City on the Verge is a deeply researched effort to capture [the city’s] history and, along the way, paint a portrait of Atlanta’s neighborhoods, from the still elite area where the author spent his childhood to bustling zones of gentrification and immovable pockets of desperation.”
I welcome the dialogue Blackmon instigates when he asserts that City on the Verge “accepts a shaky proposition: that one great shining idea can transform a major urban center.” Plenty of well-respected urbanists and journalists have observed the transformational impact the BeltLine is having on Atlanta, but in City on the Verge I did not in fact assert that the BeltLine by itself was going to “save” or transform the city of Atlanta. It is a vital part of that desperately needed effort, however. It is emblematic of the direction the city must go (as well as the surrounding metro area) in making Atlanta a more livable, walkable, bikable, transit-efficient, equitable area, with greater population density, more parks, and more mixed use and mixed income developments.
As I wrote in City on the Verge, “In literally encircling the city it [the BeltLine] provides a metaphorical narrative hoop on which to organize the book.” Because it connects rich and poor, black and white, the BeltLine is a vital link. But it is by no means the only project needed. And if Atlanta planning commissioner Tim Keane is correct that the city’s population will triple to 1.5 million in the next thirty years, getting it right now is not just a good idea, it is crucial, as I wrote in this passage in City on the Verge:
Atlanta’s quest for reinvention is one that maps onto America’s broader struggle to renew its cities: to transcend racism, segregation, and gaping economic divides, to transition from cars to public transit and walkable environments, to find new prosperity in the ruins of vanished industries. In recent decades, the city has undergone an extraordinary transformation, one that makes it seem to be on the verge of leaving its adolescence behind and becoming a grown-up city, with enough density to support a web of public transit, plenty of parks connected by multi-use trails, bike-friendly streets, and opportunities for people in the most troubled neighborhoods to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. Yet Atlanta has been on the verge of something for most of its relatively brief history, and there is a real danger that the city’s leaders will once again opt for image over fundamental change. Atlanta cannot afford to wait any longer, nor can the country.
I particularly welcome debate about Blackmon’s casual observation that “the success of the BeltLine so far is the product of powerful cultural and economic trends, not the cause of them.” That strikes me as a false dichotomy, setting up something of a straw argument. Yes, the BeltLine was an idea whose time had come, but it has been a symbiotic process in which the project has served to drive and enhance those cultural and economic trends.
With all due respect to Blackmon, it strikes me as naïve to conclude, as he does, that “if for whatever reason, that great shining idea is never fully realized, Atlanta will surely find another one.” Surely? I suspect an editor in Blackmon’s days of reporting for The Wall Street Journal might have cautioned him against such absolute conclusions. The political, philanthropic and community leaders who have toiled for a decade to bring the BeltLine to the point it has reached would certainly take issue with the inevitability of such a grand idea – as would the tens of thousands of passionate advocates impatiently rooting for its realization. If the BeltLine turns into a partially completed and otherwise abandoned project, I fear it will be a real disaster for the city.
And even if the BeltLine is completed, affordable housing issues must be addressed in a comprehensive manner as soon as possible, not only for BeltLine communities, but in the entire city. If gentrification means displacement of impoverished neighborhood residents, it will be an even greater disaster.
–Mark Pendergrast, author, City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future