When American protestors take to the highway

Americans like their highways free of obstructions. So, what happened recently when a group of protestors blocked one of Atlanta’s main highways at rush hour?

That was what made the images of last week’s protest on the road known as the Atlanta Downtown Connector so jarring. A few dozen individuals, including members of the group Southerners on New Ground, walked out onto that roadway and laid down a banner reading “#BlackLivesMatter.” This was one of several actions around the country protesting police violence and mass incarceration, and expressing solidarity with those who have been demonstrating in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson…

The protesters blocked traffic on I-75/85, one of Atlanta’s major commuter routes, for only a short time, but they managed to get the attention of the drivers who rely on that route before the police cleared them from the roadway without making any arrests…

Reaction to the protest was decidedly mixed among Atlantans, with some people going on Twitter to criticize the action with comments such as, “I support the protests in #Ferguson, but why are they shutting down a highway in Atlanta so that BLACK folks can’t get home from work?” and “Look, I get standing in solidarity w/ #Ferguson, but #Atlanta traffic is already bad. So yeah, if you’re stuck in that, I’m POd w/ you.”

Blocking city streets has been an urban protest tactic since there were urban protests…

Blocking major roads in the United States, however, is much more rare. Most notably, the Selma to Montgomery marches that were pivotal in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used U.S. Route 80, a move that was upheld in a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. His opinion was deeply controversial at the time: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups,” said the judge, “and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

While this summary doesn’t give many details, I would be really interested to hear how the police handled this. Any pedestrian activity, let alone an intentional protest, on a major highway would often be viewed as a concern. At the same time, this is a good way to get the attention of a lot of people for the unusual location of the protest.

The article ends on a note that such protests help make highways less removed from normal life. This is due to a long American history of generally wanting their roads to be for automobile travel. This means bicycling, walking on nearby sidewalks, slow vehicles, and any other impediments (including natural ones) are often scorned. Such thoughts and policies helped lawmakers and politicians ram highways through major cities and urban neighborhoods in the mid-1900s. In contrast, our cities don’t have as many public pedestrian spaces like many European or other global cities which are full of plazas, parks, and wide sidewalks.

 

The difficulties in addressing poverty in the Atlanta suburbs

Here is a look at how poverty is being addressed in the Atlanta suburbs:

This is not an indictment of Cobb County in particular. Rather, what’s happening in Cobb is a microcosm of the dilemma facing suburbs nationwide: a rapid spike in the number of poor people in what once were the sprawling beacons of American prosperity. Think of it as the flip side of the national urban boom: The poverty rate across all U.S. suburbs doubled in the first decade of the millennium—even as America’s cities are transforming in the other direction, toward rising affluence and hipster reinvention. If the old story of poverty in America was crumbling inner cities and drug-addled housing projects, the new story is increasingly one of downscale strip malls and long bus rides in search of ever-scarcer jobs. We can’t understand what’s working in America’s cities unless we also look at what’s not working in the vast suburbs that surround them.

And there’s a lot about Atlanta’s suburbs that isn’t working. Suburban poverty exploded here between 2000 and 2011, rising by 159 percent. Now, 88 percent of the region’s poor people live in suburbs. On its face, there is nothing remarkable about that statistic; after all, metro Atlanta is huge (8,300 square-miles, about the size of Massachusetts), and its population keeps rising (it’s now almost 6 million, equivalent to the population of Missouri). But fewer than 10 percent of us live in the city of Atlanta itself. So it would stand to reason that most poor people are suburbanites; most metro Atlantans are suburbanites, period…

For suburban Atlanta, as in suburbia nationwide, this shift presents some vexing problems. Designed around a car-centric culture of single-family homes clustered in cul-de-sacs served by strip centers and shopping malls, and fueled by jobs reached by commuting to downtown or suburban office parks, suburbs like Cobb County have struggled to respond to denser populations, increased congestion and, as a result of the 2008 recession, a decline in the middle-class jobs that made it all possible. Suburban Atlanta voters, including in Cobb County, have consistently rejected mass transit that might relieve their car dependency. And county zoning ordinances have continued to favor single-family housing over denser development, exacerbating the problem for the poor who are clustered there in ever greater numbers…

Here’s the most complicated problem with poverty in the suburbs: It’s almost invisible. There are 86,000 people in Cobb County who live below the poverty level. But you could live in Cobb your whole life and never see them, or at least not knowingly. Cobb County covers 339 square miles and is home to 717,000 people. Its poor residents can be lost in the crowd—and lost in all that space.

An interesting look at the myriad problems that makes addressing suburban poverty harder: lack of transportation options besides cars, limited social services that tend to be spread out, race and class differences that get reified through political and economic decisions, and limited recognition of suburban poverty.

Just a note: we need more sociological research on suburban poverty and suburban patterns in Sunbelt metropolitan regions that may be less segregated than Northern cities but are also more sprawling.

Did a lack of regionalism lead to the traffic nightmare in Atlanta after 2″ of snow?

What caused the terrible gridlock in metropolitan Atlanta after two inches of snow (which quickly turned to ice)? Here is one argument for a lack of regionalism:

Which leads into the blame game. Republicans want to blame government (a Democrat thing) or Atlanta (definitely a Democrat thing). Democrats want to blame the region’s dependence on cars (a Republican thing), the state government (Republicans), and many of the transplants from more liberal, urban places feel the same way you might about white, rural, southern drivers. All of this is true to some extent but none of it is helpful.

How much money do you set aside for snowstorms when they’re as infrequent as they are? Who will run the show—the city, the county, or the state? How will preparedness work? You could train everyone today, and then if the next storm hits in 2020, everyone you’ve trained might have moved on to different jobs, with Atlanta having a new mayor and Georgia having a new governor.

Regionalism here is hard. The population of this state has doubled in the past 40-45 years, and many of the older voters who control it still think of it as the way it was when they were growing up. The urban core of Atlanta is a minority participant in a state government controlled by rural and northern Atlanta exurban interests. The state government gives MARTA (Atlanta’s heavy rail transportation system) no money. There’s tough regional and racial history here which is both shameful and a part of the inheritance we all have by being a part of this region. Demographics are evolving quickly, but government moves more slowly. The city in which I live, Brookhaven, was incorporated in 2012. This is its first-ever snowstorm (again, 2 inches). It’s a fairly affluent, mostly white, urban small city. We were unprepared too.

The issue is that you have three layers of government—city, county, state—and none of them really trust the other. And why should they? Cobb County just “stole the Braves” from the city of Atlanta. Why would Atlanta cede transportation authority to a regional body when its history in dealing with the region/state has been to carve up Atlanta with highways and never embrace its transit system? Why would the region/state want to give more authority to Atlanta when many of the people in the region want nothing to do with the city of Atlanta unless it involves getting to work or a Braves game?

The region tried, in a very tough economy and political year (2012), to pass a comprehensive transportation bill, a T-SPLOST, funded by a sales tax. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an attempt to do something. The Sierra Club opposed it because it didn’t feature enough transit. The NAACP opposed it because it didn’t have enough contracts for minority businesses. The tea party opposed it because it was a tax. That’s politics in the 2010’s. You may snicker, but how good a job has any major city done with big transportation projects over the past 30 years?

The argument here is that no one smaller group of government was prepared to deal with the roads and the problem was compounded because there was no structure to coordinate and organize activity when something like this happened. Additionally, regionalism could promote more mass transit to serve the entire region and reduce dependence on cars.

It would then be helpful to look to other major metropolitan regions to see how they tackle responses to natural disasters. Does regionalism lead to a better outcome for the region in such situations? For example, regions like Minneapolis or Indianapolis are held up as examples of regionalism – do they respond better in major snowfalls because of this? Without regionalism, is there a way to coordinate across levels of government in emergency situations that doesn’t require a full-level of regional cooperation on everything else?

Atlanta Braves bucking the baseball trend by moving to the suburbs

While the new baseball stadiums of recent decades tend to be located in urban neighborhoods, the Atlanta Braves made an announcement that they are moving 15 miles outside of the city:

On Monday, team president John Schuerholz and two other executives told reporters that the franchise will build a new stadium in Cobb County, roughly 15 miles away from Turner Field, and begin playing there in 2017, after their current lease expires, with construction to start in mid-2014.

That’s a shock, in that the Braves have only been playing in Turner Field — which was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics — since 1997. Such a move will make it the first of the 24 major league ballparks to open since 1989 to be replaced, and buck the trend of teams returning to urban centers. The proposed park is in the suburbs and closer to the geographic center of the team’s ticket-buying fan base, a much higher percentage of which happens to be white. US Census figures from 2010 put Fulton County at 44.5 percent white and 44.1 percent black, while Cobb County is 62.2 percent white and 25.0 percent black…

So instead of sinking $350 million into fixes to modernize Turner, the Braves are spending $200 million for a new park, with much of that cost likely to be covered by the development of the surrounding area and the sale of naming rights. Notably, Turner is one of just eight venues that doesn’t have such a deal in place. According to a New York Times piece from July, the Atlanta Hawks get $12 million a year for the naming rights to their venue, currently known as Philips Arena. The largest baseball deal is that of the Mets for Citi Field ($21 million per year), though the dropoff from that figure to the second-largest, Houston’s Minute Maid Park ($7.4 million), is steep.

The new venue is at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 285, said to be a major traffic snarl, “the place so congested we Cobb Countians know to avoid if at all possible,” as the Journal-Constitution‘s Mark Bradley described it. The county has resisted the expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) into its domain since its inception in 1971, so it’s not served by light rail, and while the team claims “significantly increased access to the site” via Home of the Braves, it offers no specifics on the matter.

While this goes against ballpark trends, it also fits some other trends:

1. Suburban expansion in Sunbelt cities. Many of the new ballparks have been built in Northern cities, Rustbelt places where downtown development is needed. Think Camden Yards in Baltimore or Jacobs Field in Cleveland or PNC Park in Pittsburgh. In other words, Sunbelt cities have different settlement patterns including beltway highways around the city and not that dense of an urban core to begin. Turner Field wasn’t exactly in an urban neighborhood and other reports suggested it would have been quite difficult to expand parking and nearby amenities.

2. Matching ballparks with nearby development projects that can also bring in money. A baseball team can be profitable but developing nearby real estate can be even more profitable. For example, look at the deals suburbs tried to make with the Cubs earlier this year: you can have land and access to transportation and we would be more than happy to develop land around your ballpark. And the Cubs are trying to do this with Wrigley Field as well by developing nearby properties into a hotel to increase their revenue streams.

3. It sounds like Cobb County is giving the Braves a good deal by financing some of the project. This is a longer trend: companies, sports or otherwise, moving to where they can get a good tax deal. This has happened with urban ballparks – cities have financed parts of those stadiums because they can’t afford to let the team out of the city. In this particular case, it sounds like the Braves thought they got a better suburban deal whereas other cities have pushed harder to keep teams with incentives.

I suspect this is a more isolated case of ballpark construction in the suburbs.

Building chicken McMansions in the Atlanta area

McMansions may not just be for people: they can also be for chickens.

Leonard and the twenty residents of his Chicken McMansion will be a featured stop on a tour of Atlanta urban chicken coops that will take place in early October.

Anne-Marie Anderson is a tour organizer, a woman whose Decatur back yard chicken coop is a step down from Leonard’s — despite its plant-growing green roof, rain barrels and way more space than her chickens need.

“On a scale of one to ten, this one is about a seven,” Anderson says, gesturing toward the upscale coop in her sloping back yard. “You can tell when a chicken is happy. They strut and they look happy and they cluck.”…

Anderson says her coop cost about a thousand dollars to build. Leonard says his chicken coop probably cost twice that. Not that he’s competitive.

Here is what I don’t understand: the term McMansion is typically used as a negative term. That does not appear to be the purpose here. The term is used to imply a large and expensive home, similar to the common usage for McMansion, but this is seen as good things for chickens. Indeed, can’t the builder/owner of a McMansion chicken coop charge more for chicken eggs and meat having had more space? Therefore, in the world of chickens, it appears that a McMansion is a good kind of house.

Discussion over “Prairie Modern” McMansions in the Atlanta suburbs

A historian discusses “Prairie Modern” McMansions that have been built in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur:

For the past several years Decatur architect Eric Rawlings has been designing homes in a style he describes as “Prairie Modern.” Rawlings considers the eight Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes to be among the best examples in his portfolio. Others in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood call them out-of-place McMansions. All but one of the Prairie Modern homes have been built at teardown sites, single-family residential lots where smaller homes were demolished to make way for the Prairie Moderns…

Rawlings defends his Prairie Modern design and he strongly disagrees that his Prairie Modern homes are McMansions. He left this comment in a 2011 blog post:

I have over 60 built projects in Oakhurst alone and only 8 are Prairie Style, only 22 are New Construction. I have about 40 renovations, many of which preserve the original building with a minor addition not even visible from the street. KC Boyce’s house is only 2100sf with 4 beds and hardly a McMansion by the actual definition. Susan Susanka, author of the Not So Big House, invented the term McMansion and would completely disagree with your interpretation of the definition. His 2 story house with low slope roof is barely taller than the houses near it with steeper roofs. The house on the left is sitting more than 6ft lower because of grade elevations. Scale does not mean height or floor area. It refers to the proportion and size of the pieces and parts that make up the structure. A simplistic two story cube is out of scale compared to a one story house made of smaller forms. A larger house made of the same sized pieces and parts is in Scale with a smaller house made of the same size pieces and parts. The Fayetteville house is 25ft tall, 10ft shorter than the Decatur Zoning limit of 35ft. [Copy pasted as received.]

Despite Rawlings’s assertions that his Prairie Moderns are not McMansions, they are more than twice the size of the homes they replaced. They are also larger than neighboring homes that are contemporaneous to the ones torn down. And, they draw from an architectural vocabulary that is out of character with the community. All attributes that conform to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s definition of a McMansion.

Lots of interesting pictures of homes to illustrate the argument. Several things are worth commenting on:

1. Susan Susanka did not invent the term McMansion. The term dates roughly to the late 1980s.

2. There seems to be some discussion of what exactly constitutes a McMansion:

2a. The historian draws from a definition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it seems that the teardown dimension is big here: these houses are bigger than the surrounding homes.

2b. But there is an architectural congruity issue as well: Prairie style homes don’t fit in this particular community. This amuses me: the Prairie style is well-known in the Chicago area because of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Oak Park and Chicago and you could find a number of “Prairie Moderns” in the region. I suppose this style is tied to Prairie regions (Midwest) but wouldn’t the Prairie style make more sense than stucco houses in the Atlanta area? Of course, one could argue that neither style or perhaps any “foreign” styles are appropriate.

3. Adding to the intrigue is that one of the “Prairie Moderns” won an award from Decatur for “Sustainable Design and Energy Efficiency.” So perhaps not everyone has an issue these homes. If so, this would be common in teardown situations: you can often find people arguing for newer homes and owners being able to do what they want for their property and others arguing that new houses should have some architectural congruency with the existing neighborhood and that there should be some design guidelines or standards (perhaps through the creation of a historic preservation district).

h/t Curbed National

Quick Review: Turner Field and Busch Stadium

In the last three weeks, I visited two baseball stadiums for the first time: Turner Field in Atlanta and Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Both stadiums are relatively new (Turner Field opened for baseball in 1997, Busch Stadium in 2006) and I’ll compare them.

1. Both have some similar features that characterize baseball stadiums built after Camden Yards in Baltimore. They feature wide concourses, particularly on the bottom level. There are unique spots in each stadium such as special vantage points, named sections, food options, and restaurants in the bleachers. The seating is pretty close to the field though skyboxes and suites are given prime positions. Home plate faces the downtown and the outfield seats are constructed so that the buildings can be seen from the seats. I would have to say Busch Stadium was nicer: it featured a lot more red brick (while Turner Field had a lot of dark blue) and a better location.

2. The locations differ. Busch Stadium is at the south end of the downtown with its southern edge bordering Interstate 64 while Turner Field is a few miles south of downtown along Interstate 75. There really is nothing to see or do around Turner Field while one can easily walk from Busch Stadium to the Gateway Arch. Even with these options in St. Louis, more could be done to surround the stadium with fan-friendly areas instead of open space.

3. The two games offered some fun moments. The best part of the Atlanta game was watching the home team come from behind to win in the bottom of the 9th. The best part of the St. Louis game was to watch Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds. In his third big league appearance, Chapman threw multiple pitches over 100 miles per hour, peaking at 103 mph. Chapman also faced Albert Pujols with one on and one out in the bottom of the 8th – Chapman induced an inning-ending double-play groundout.

4. It is a little hard to compare crowds since I was at Turner Field on a Monday night and at Busch Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon during a key series with the first-place Cincinnati Reds. However: Atlanta had a pitiful crowd considering the team was in first place and playing well. The St. Louis crowd was enthusiastic throughout, even with their team down 4 and 5 runs in the last two innings. I felt bad for the Atlanta players as they deserved a better crowd.

5. One feature I strongly disliked in both stadiums: they both had people speaking to the crowd between innings. While this is probably done to keep fans attentive, I found it annoying. This is the sort of thing I would associate with minor league parks where the baseball quality is lower so fans need to be entertained in other ways. Fans at major league games should find plenty to do without needing to be entertained all the time by special entertainers.

6. A final thing I noticed: both teams prominently featured their past accomplishments. The Cardinals’ scoreboard consistently included the line “ten-time world champions.” The Braves set of pennants in the outfield commemorating their incredible playoff streak from the 1990s through the 2000s was impressive.

7. Final thought: I enjoyed visiting both stadiums and seeing some good baseball.