Atlanta’s Answer to America’s Urban Transit Apartheid

The contours of urban apartheid in twenty-first century America are depressingly familiar. Where post WW2 government spending built the interstate highway system and the suburbs to fuel white flight from the cities, the dispensation for the new century involves massive diversions of public resources toward the objective of disempowering and expelling the black and poor from central cities.

Far from being a problem to flee from any more, the central cities now have what America’s elite covet. Everything in the US runs on oil, but dense urban populations enable a far more sustainable transit infrastructure in this era of increasingly expensive fuel. The cities also have public assets in the form of public health networks and infrastructure, tax revenue streams, public education systems, public housing and public lands, all of which chambers of commerce nationwide are eager to privatize.

Given this agenda, any degree of democratic control over local resources by the current residents of inner cities is an obstacle to the goals of gentrification and privatization which are the intended future for the nation’s cities. And while chambers of commerce are traditionally Republican bastions, Democrats, have often been enthusiastic boosters of handing the public assets of cities over to private control.

On the federal level, the cynically misnamed HOPE 6 (Housing Opportunities For People Everywhere) law, passed during the Clinton administration, enabled the destruction of tens of thousands of units of public housing nationwide, and the unmonitored dispersal of hundreds of thousands of their former residents into existing stocks of substandard housing by erasing the requirement that replacement housing be built when such units are demolished. Rather than protect residents of the cities who made their own careers possible, black Democratic elites in cities across the nation have more often than not been eagerly complicit in the looting of urban resources which accompanies gentrification. Communities looking to their local black Democrats for leadership, or just for useful information to protect themselves against dispossession and dispersal have been repeatedly disappointed and betrayed.

Corporate media do their part to ensure that the only voices heard in public discussion of how cities should be developed are members of their own chorus, lauding the virtues of the elite’s economic plan for the cities, which in every case amount to moving poorer people out and richer ones in, giving the process names like “revitalization”.

In Atlanta for instance, where two out of twelve metro counties (the two with black majorities) taxed themselves to build and operate 90% of the region’s transit assets with no state funding whatsoever, the state, along with suburban and exurban counties and the local Chamber of Commerce have performed a legal carjacking which gives them ultimate control of those assets. For the most part, black Atlanta’s well-developed black political elite, just like the black political class nationwide has been silent on questions of gentrification and the privatization of public assets. Although Atlanta’s string of black mayors stretches back to the mid-1970s, its visionary leadership seems to be coming from outside the political establishment altogether.

In response to a multi-year campaign in the state legislature and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to bring the city’s transit agency under the control of the chamber of commerce and suburban counties which contributed no revenue to build the system, Atlanta Jobs With Justice (JWJ) put together the Atlanta Transit Riders Union (ATRU). JWJ-ATRU’s organizing effort reached out to the area’s unionized transit workers, to the disabled and transit dependent, to the black clergy and to the tens of thousands who use public transit daily.

Over the course of several years, JWJ-ATRU has stopped a transit fare increase, and flexed its community organizing muscle to persuade the transit authority to restore bus service to areas it cut.

“That was a good start, but not nearly enough,” Terence Courtney of Atlanta JWJ told us. “We could see the need not just to react to service cuts and the atrocity of the month, but to make the peoples’ voice heard on the planning and policy level. Private, unrepresentative and un-elected bodies like the Chamber of Commerce are always coming out with their master plans for housing, transit and education which provide the framework for what little discussion takes place on these issues.

“The voices of those who use transit, not just the individual voices, but the voices of entire communities are nowhere in their master plans. The voices of the workers who drive the buses, maintain the tracks and stations, repair the buses and trains, and who also live in the communities the transit system serves, these voices are nowhere to be heard. So we began to understand that if we are going to have a public discussion, if we are going to pick a political fight over the future of our city and the region we had to come up with and to advance the peoples plan for sustainable regional public transit. We understood that it had to be a plan that serves the needs of communities already here, not the communities that will be built after they’ve used our tax money to gentrify this place and evict us all, not the interest of bond holders and real estate speculators.

“So that’s what we did. We got the assistance of some good people at Georgia Tech, most notably Laurel Paget-Seekins who did a lot of the heavy lifting, putting all the pieces of this plan together. We got the input of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, of faith based organizations, of communities of disabled and transit-dependent people and tried to put all this in a context of democracy. The result is the plan we presented on April 29, and which you can download from our web site. We think it should be a template for these kinds of organizing efforts across the country where decision making is being passed from public and accountable bodies to private and unaccountable ones to silence and marginalize the voices of real people.”

“This study presents a future vision of transit in Atlanta that is accountable, affordable and accessible,” said Laura Paget-Seekins, a graduate student at Georgia Tech. “It’s accountable by having a democratic decision making structure that values the knowledge and experience of workers and riders. It’s affordable both in terms of its fare structures and its funding sources which are equitable, and it’s accessible to people regardless of physical ability and to all parts of the region.

“We propose to do this do this not by drawing route lines on a map, but by ensuring that there are service standards throughout the region ensuring that no matter what growth takes place in terms of jobs, no matter where affordable housing is pushed out of, that there will be transit access in the future based on the criteria that there should be no new service for riders of choice at the expense of service for riders who are transit dependent.”

Putting forth the plan is an important step, but only a step. There will be months and years of political struggle over which plans are finally implemented, and how. If the mostly complicit silence of the black political establishment on other questions of gentrification and privatization of urban public assets is any guide, it will be a sharp struggle, and it will have to be waged against some African American elected and appointed officials.

The democratic and people-centered approach of the ATRU transit plan is the polar opposite of the market-driven models favored by America’s bipartisan political elite. For the American elite, economic development has long been a matter of selling the land out from under poorer urban residents and “revitalizing” neighborhoods by filling them with richer neighbors from somewhere else. Despite the fact that these processes have unfolded nationwide and in plain view for more than a generation, our black political class of elected officials and candidates, our black “think tanks” and academics, our black political elite, their stunted political imaginations limited to the gains and losses of the next funding or election cycles, have offered us no alternative models of urban economic development, much less any plan of action for implementing them.

Could it be that just as the emergence of the decentralized, civilly disobedient grassroots movements of the fifties and sixties heralded the passing of old and less relevant leadership, that Atlanta’s transit workers, transit riders, its faith and community based entities and others are showing the nation a way forward?

* You can download a copy of the ATRU Transit plan here. To contact the Atlanta Transit Riders Union, email terencecourtney(at) And the best place to keep abreast of the struggle against privatization of public assets in Atlanta is the web site of Atlanta Progressive News.

Bruce Dixon is the managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on May 15th, 2008 at 11:47am #

    Mr. Dixon,

    I want to thank you for writing one of the very best pieces I’ve ever read on DV. You not only illuminated the problem but you provided a formidable approach to it.

    And what’s more, you have familiarized me with an important source of solidarity!


  2. Don Hawkins said on May 15th, 2008 at 1:12pm #

    “The times they are a-changin”

  3. Alex said on May 15th, 2008 at 1:45pm #

    Ever since Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, there has been a broadening view of the term ‘Apartheid’ to mean something other than what happened in South Africa. Apartheid, in its purest sense, is a type of ‘divide and conquer’ mentality impacting the whole of humanity in every society.

  4. Max Shields said on May 15th, 2008 at 3:30pm #

    I think it is fair to say that “divide and conquer” is exactly what we have here, and hardly unique to South Africa.

  5. samson said on May 16th, 2008 at 5:28pm #

    Me, I had both good and bad reactions to this.

    I lived in Atlanta for 20 years, all of it ‘in-town’. So the title of the piece caught my eye. But, since I don’t live there any more, I’d like to have known some of the details of the ‘carjacking’ he mentions but fails to describe. And I’d like to have known some of the details of the alternative plan … instead of just the rhetoric of the supporters.

    But, criticism aside, if I still lived in Atlanta, I do know I’d be on the side of Mr. Dixon and his friends.

    One thing does bother me quite a bit. This constant referral to ‘gentrification’. I’m sorry, but this is starting to sound extremely racist to me. It essentially sounds like saying no one but blacks are welcome in a ‘black’ neighborhood. It sounds eerily like what I used to hear the white racist say when they were threatened with a black person moving into the neighborhood. Even down to the detail of saying ‘if they come here, they’ll destroy the property values’.

    Sorry, but I support the basic idea of freedom. And that says that anyone aught to be able to live where-ever they want to live. And that I’d like a world where the neighbors greet a new arrival warmly. Not a world where hatred greets someone of a different color who tries to move it.

    There’s nothing wrong with someone paying fair market value for a house. There’s nothing wrong if someone happens to choose a good investment that goes up in value.

    What I will say is this. One thing we should get rid of is property tax assessments. Base property taxes entirely on one thing. The last value at which the property was purchased. It should never change while the same person continues to own the property. It doesn’t matter what is happening to the neighborhood until someone sells the property and that sets the new property tax value for the next owner.

    That way, if people are living in a neighborhood that is ‘gentrifying’, then they are free to continue to live in that neighborhood. They’d pay the bank the same mortgage payment they’d agreed on. And they’d pay the government property taxes based on what they originally bought the property for. That way, they could enjoy the improvement of the neighborhood and continue to live there. Then, when they decided to sell they could make a nice junk of money from the new higher property value.

    Sorry, but this is just starting to get under my nerves. I’m a white guy who lived in the middle of Atlanta for 20 years. I rented in the middle of the city until one day I could afford to buy a house. When I could afford to buy a house, I bought one where I like to live … which is in the city instead of the suburbs. The house I bought was at the time in a row of houses that were all rental property. Yes, the neighbors were almost all black. I even had a real honest to goodness crack house about 4 doors down.

    Yes, the neighborhood did eventually fill out with more white people. By the time I left, every house on the street was owned by the occupants … even the remodeled crack house. And yes, I sold the house for more than I paid for it.

    Sorry, but I don’t see a damn thing wrong with that. And I’m getting really sick of what to me are blatantly racist attitudes that essentially just say that they don’t want white people to move into their neighborhoods.

    Like I said, I grew up hearing white racists complain if a black person was looking to buy in their neighborhood. And the exact words they used were ‘they’ll destroy the neighborhood’. The similarity to hearing people complain of white people moving in and destroying the neighborhood is just too striking.

    Sure, work to make it fairer. Do what I suggest with property taxes so people don’t get run out of their homes. There should probably be efforts to help overcome a legacy of white racism by encouraging renters to buy the buildings they live in. That way they’d make money when the values go up. But, I’m just getting really sick of hearing very racist statements that essentially say white people are not wanted because of the color of their skin. Thats just wrong no matter which way it goes.

    Like I said, if I was still in Atlanta, I’d be supporting the ATRU. I earned that right. As a broke college kid, then as a college drop-out working in Atlanta, I spent many, many hours riding that transit system. And, as someone who paid the 1-cent MARTA sales tax for 20 years, I’d be pissed if the state and the surburbs came in and took what I’d paid for with my taxes and my fares.

  6. Max Shields said on May 17th, 2008 at 11:59am #

    samson said: “And I’d like to have known some of the details of the alternative plan … instead of just the rhetoric of the supporters.”

    Suggest looking at the Detail plan Mr. Dixon supplied ATRU Transit plan
    As well as Atlanta Progressive News he provided for more info.

    The Transit plan is really interesting. Cities represent, Atlanta is just one example, a legacy of incredible wealth that is daily taken out through speculation and land holding. Transit systems are prime examples of privatization wich allows wealth to grow, unearned by wealthy transit systems. Transit systems have always had this issue as they crossed the country. Public land goes up in value and is privatized creating massive leakage of urban wealth.

    The only quarrel I have with Dixon’s article, and it’s really more implied by Mr. Dixon’s other writings, is that this is NOT an African American problem per se. The hoarding of common wealth has been going on for a couple of centuries, and race has nothing to do with it. That said, Dixon has written a short, but important piece here. There is much more that can and has been written on this problem.

    I really like the way some people in Atlanta are taking back their common wealth and their voice.

    PS while I think a case can be made for Apartheid, it may not be the best title. I think we’re talking about colonization through the privatization of the commons. Again, I just don’t think this is a race issue just because the people who happen to live in Atlanta are black. This would be going on regardless of color (and has).

  7. Mark Wilson/Philadelphia said on May 18th, 2008 at 7:01pm #

    As a real estate speculator in the “inner-city” I witness both sides of the issue. As an African American I feel for the elderly that are losing there homes and being priced out of the market. As a capitalist I feel little if any remorse for those that have not educated themselves to see the value of the land that they own. Our people often times do not put forth the effort to expand their reality thru reading, day trips, documentary watching or web surfing to enhance their overall knowledge base. When entire communities of people do not use their resources to keep their homes or grounds updated it’s hard to empathize. How hard is it to paint the exterior/interior of your home. How hard is it to have the local handyman do the most basic repairs. If people in these soon to be gentrified areas did these things they would either get market value for their homes or not be ostracized when the “hood” changes…..
    I often encourage people to do the little things to their homes instead they tell me how rich their going to become when the “white people” buy them out. I try to explain to them that unless you do some serious work to your house you aren’t going to 25% of what you think its worth they laugh and inform me that I think I know everything. Many times I will get a call a few weeks/month’s later once they get the L&I condemnation notice asking me if I want to buy. I offer much less than the 25% I initally told them and they accept b/c the city will take the house within 30 days anyhow. Point is if your not benefitting from capitalism your being absorbed by it.
    The sooner our brothers and sisters in the ‘hood’ recongize this the better and more respected our entire race will be.

    Lets go Obama!