On Tuesday night, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin came to Portland. Okay, so I lied in my post title. She didn't really come here to ask me to move back to Atlanta, but you're smart enough to figure that one out. The purpose of her visit was to speak about "The Greening of Atlanta" as part of a speaker series sponsored by the Portland Parks and Recreation Department. When I saw advertisements of this event, I just had to come. Not only am I a little bit "homesick" for Atlanta occasionally (don't mistake that for my wanting to move back, however), but Mayor Franklin is one of the most popular elected officials in Georgia. She won reelection in 2005 with over a whopping 90% of the vote. In 2001, she was elected by a mere 183 votes or so. I remember when she first ran that year, her ad had a simple slogan: "I'll make you proud!" My mom really loved that ad too, but with Shirley Franklin, you believed that she will live up to that and she really has. Her term ends December 31, 2009 and I hope that she will be selected as a Cabinet member in a President Barack Obama Administration (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, perhaps?).
Before she spoke, she mingled around, talking with people and I happened to be sitting up front so I was able to introduce myself as an Atlanta defector. I told her that I loved living in Atlanta, but with the public transit system getting worse every year, it was harder to live there without a car. She agreed that MARTA wasn't the best in the world. I also told her that she's a lot better than her predecessor (the completely corrupt Bill Campbell who I hold responsible for making the Atlanta Olympic Games crassly commercialized and somewhat subpar as far as projecting a spirit of brotherhood for the athletes; he was eventually prosecuted and indicted for tax fraud, if I'm not mistaken).
It was interesting to hear updates on the long talked about "22-mile beltline" that was to link the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown with parks, sidewalks/bike paths, and a streetcar line. It was one of the projects I was most excited about, but it's still no where near a ground breaking starting point. Even the much talked about streetcar for Atlanta's world famous Peachtree Street is merely on a dreamsheet rather than actual construction. It's a shame that Atlanta took out most of its streetcar rails when the city moved towards buses in the 1950s and streetcars fell out of favour. Now, streetcars are "trendy" again as cities all want one because let's face it, anyone who has ridden down New Orleans' St. Charles Avenue or on Market Street in San Francisco in a streetcar can attest to how cool it is, compared to riding a bus. Streetcars are probably used by tourists more than commuters or downtown folk running errands, but they are still part of a city's ambience. If they were not, then you wouldn't see cities put out a cheap alternative like they do everywhere: the bus that looks like a streetcar (nothing's lamer than that).
Mayor Franklin also spoke about Atlanta's water crisis. The city is still in a drought and city planners predict that the Atlanta metro area (which had 1.5 million in 1988 when my family first moved there; 3 million in 1996 during the Olympics; and 4.8 when I moved away in 2006) will have 7.5 million people by 2030. Anyone who even considers moving there...are you crazy?!? The water crisis alone should make you reconsider moving there. The region's development plan is wacky. No one cared about sprawl as they cleared forests for more mega-mansions and shopping centers, all with huge parking lots that generate heat and encourage more driving.
What I most liked about Mayor Franklin's talk is that she is brutally honest and didn't shrink from some of Atlanta's problems. Her complaints were the same as my complaints, namely that while the city of Atlanta and some neighboring suburban towns are liberal with aspirations of being environmentally-friendly and sustainable, the region itself is conservative, where most people don't care about limiting growth or protecting the environment. Clearing land to build new neighborhoods full of mega-mansions and shopping centers has become the new Southern culture. Thus it's hard to allocate funding for more parks, greenspace, affordable housing, and other issues that are the heart of progressive values. I'm glad that there are politicians like Franklin who are attempting to bring these issues to the forefront of that city, but I simply could no longer wait for some unforeseen day when Southern culture might shift to reflect my progressive values. As much as I wanted to stay and settle in Atlanta (particularly the town of Decatur, which in a weird way, Portland reminds me of...only that it's much bigger), life was just too frustrating to live among a small minority of progressives who share your vision and values. It was better to just up and move to a part of a country where people who think like me are the majority, where a city does reflect my vision of how a city should be.
There were quite a few former Atlanta residents in the audience. Some asked questions that I was thinking, which was a good thing. It was nice to see that there were other people who left Atlanta for Portland with the same frustrations I felt about Atlanta. When I got home, I wrote an essay that I hope to submit to both the Oregonian and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about why I left Atlanta for Portland. The biggest reason (beyond those stated above) was that life without a car simply became too much of a hurdle to live a socially active life. In the nearly two years I've lived in Portland, not owning a car hasn't been much of a factor in my ability to do the things I want like it was when I lived in Atlanta. I know the easy answer would be to buy a car, but I knew back in the late 1990s that when my car eventually died on me (as it did in 2002), it was risky to buy a new car when I knew that peak oil was upon us and I didn't want to be stuck with making car payments if I could not afford to buy gasoline. With gas prices where they are now and predictions that it might be up to $7 by year's end, I think I made the right decision. Millions of Europeans live just fine without a car, why can't Americans? Since Portland is sometimes considered "America's most European city", it's no surprise that I am able to live the kind of life I want without the burden of car ownership (I don't miss the monthly payments, insurance, gasoline, oil change, and other maintenance costs).
So, Mayor Franklin...I appreciate the great job you've done for the city of Atlanta. You definitely made me proud and I really do hope that when your term ends, that President Barack Obama will name you to his cabinet. You are one of few politicians in Georgia that I admire and I'm glad that others feel the same way (Time magazine had named her as one of America's Top Five mayors a few years ago). Thanks for visiting Portland and sharing with us some exciting developments going on in my former city. Unfortunately, though, Atlanta symbolizes my past and Portland is my future. It's great to be a part of a city on the verge of greatness with a visionary outlook and a super cool newly-elected mayor (that'd be Sam Adams, of course).