Atlanta and the Urban Future
By ROB GURWITT, GOVERNING MAGAZINE – July 2008
A major American city has undergone big demographic changes overnight. Will others follow?
There is going to be a hard-fought campaign for mayor of Atlanta next year, and to understand it better, you might pay a visit to the Lighting Loft on Edgewood Avenue, in the city’s Old Fourth Ward. Not for any whispered political tips, but to look over the sleek and coolly sophisticated fixtures it sells: brushed-steel sconces, lamps in glass of the richest amber, cobalt blue pendants that could light a goat stall with hip urbanity.
What’s arresting about all this high-end domicile candy is where it’s located. A few minutes’ walk away, on Auburn Avenue, is the modest home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born; another block and you’re at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father preached. This is a nationally iconic black neighborhood, a fount of African-American culture and creativity through the middle third of the 20th century, but more recently an unsettling symbol of inner-city decay. You can still find small houses in need of repair, older black men hanging out on front porches, the occasional homeless addict wandering the streets. Yet they share space now with cafes, clothing galleries, expensively renovated homes and factories converted into upscale lofts. Almost any day of the week, one finds young white couples pushing baby strollers or checking out the progress of the new Japanese restaurant that’s going in.
The Old Fourth Ward is changing at a stunning clip. It has not thrown aside its past, and it is home to plenty of African-American professionals and executives, but it also is filling up with white suburbanites who are tired of two-hour daily commutes and who like the idea of living next to downtown.. Nor is the Old Fourth alone as a symbol of what seems to be Atlanta’s almost day-by-day transformation. White newcomers are picking up houses and condos in Cabbagetown and Midtown, in Edgewood, Kirkwood and Castleberry Hill, up at the new Atlantic Station project and downtown in mixed-income developments that have replaced some of the most legendarily dysfunctional public housing in America. “It has become classy,” says local political consultant Angelo Fuster, “to live in the city.”
There is really only one way to put it: Atlanta is becoming whiter, and at a pace that outstrips the rest of the nation. The white share of the city’s population, says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, grew faster between 2000 and 2006 than that of any other U.S. city. It increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2006, a numeric gain of 26,000, more than double the increase between 1990 and 2000. The trend seems to be gathering strength with each passing year. Only Washington, D.C., saw a comparable increase in white population share during those years, although several other big cities are starting to see it now.
This development is occurring at the same time that race and ethnicity are driving changes every bit as fundamental in Atlanta’s suburbs. For if the city itself is growing whiter, the Atlanta region is growing less white. The Atlanta Regional Commission reports that in 2000, the white, non-Hispanic population of the 20-county Atlanta metro region formed 60 percent of the total population; by 2006, that had shrunk to 54 percent, not so much because whites were leaving — although four counties did see absolute declines in white numbers — but because of the arrival in the suburbs of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Africans and Caribbeans. Of the 10 counties in the nation with the largest declines in white percentage of the population from 2000 to 2006, six are in the suburbs of Atlanta.