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Deirdre A. Oakley, Georgia State University
Premiering at this year’s annual meeting on Sunday, August 15, The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification is the first feature-length film investigating the various and sometimes contradictory forces behind Atlanta’s revitalization following the Olympics. The annual meeting premiere will be the first time a public audience views the film in its entirety. A Psyentific Films and Casclayde Media production, the film documents the "growth at any cost" mantra behind Atlanta’s transformation, including some of the thorny issues surrounding race and class.
The once predominantly black city known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement has become more affluent and more white over the last decade, resulting last November in the closest mayoral race between a black and a white candidate since the 1970s. Many wonder whose city Atlanta is becoming. The Atlanta Way attempts to answer this question from the many differing perspectives present in the city. Some say Atlanta is no longer the "Black Mecca" while others say it still is—even with the white influx—just no longer affordable to poor and working-class African Americans.
Signs of gentrification in Atlanta’s
up-and-coming Cabbagetown neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Deirdre Oakley.
The Atlanta Way covers some of the specific initiatives happening within the context of the city’s rapid gentrification. These include the Olympic Legacy Program, which ultimately led to the elimination of public housing; the budget battles between the state and the city over public transportation; allegations of municipal corruption; the recent mayoral election; and City Hall’s controversial attempts to shut down the Peach and Pine Homeless Shelter, which houses more than 500 mostly black men every night and sits on the border of the up-and-coming SoNo (South of North) neighborhood.
As the film reveals, until the recent housing market bust, Atlanta was experiencing unprecedented redevelopment of its urban core. Spurred by the 1996 Olympics, older apartments and homes belonging for decades to low-to-moderate income residents appeared to morph into luxury condos and lofts for "in-town living" at a speed-dial pace. Private developers were making a killing and City Hall had a piece of the action. Then the proposed Beltline came, an ambitious revitalization initiative combining green space, bike trails, light rail transit, as well as commercial and residential redevelopment along 22 miles of historic rail segments encircling the urban core. Though the Beltline hit some financial snags, the quest for economic prosperity went forward. In 2007, the Atlanta Housing Authority announced plans to demolish the city’s remaining project-based public housing without replacement. By early 2010, they had achieved their goal. Despite the recent economic downturn and a vacancy rate ranked third in the nation, real-estate development continued.
To capture the paradoxes of Atlanta’s redevelopment, the film relies on a series of candid interviews with Atlanta residents from all walks of life, members of the local media, urban planners, historians, and sociologists from area universities, as well as local politicians, developers, and business leaders. There is no narrator, nor is one needed because a clear and compelling story emerges through the residents’ voices.
"We wanted the film to unfold as we were experiencing it with the people we interviewed and the situations we were covering," says the film’s director King Williams. Adds Executive Producer Zettler Clay VI, "We organized the film around real-time situations so the audience feels like they are there with us."
The film’s title is derived from the expression "the Atlanta way of doing things." While its origins date back to the city’s 1906 race riots, it more generally refers to the preference for backroom dealings among the city’s black and white power structures over open opposition. The core of this preference is about investment and profit: Open opposition makes economic progress difficult. Therefore issues of race go unmentioned, and the mutually agreed upon growth imperative is assumed to be color blind.
"Issues of racial inequality are certainly explicit but routinely ignored in city politics," says Saba Long, a consultant on the film.
While the "Atlanta way of doing things" has been well documented in the academic literature through Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988 and Larry Keating’s Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion, this film is geared towards a much broader audience and captures more recent events including City Hall’s campaign to promote Atlanta as "ATL." ATL is the new hub of black music and filmmaking with a hip-hop scene boasting homegrown rap artists like Ludacris and T.I., and a movie industry anchored by Tyler Perry’s film studio.
In one segment of the film, William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College, says "If BET could design a city; it would look a lot like this one." But as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the BET-style red carpet glamour of ATL has an ugly underbelly: Persistent homelessness, displacement, spikes in crime, as well as a decaying city infrastructure (including a clogging sewer system), that hasn’t kept pace with redevelopment.
The film’s genesis was a paper King Williams wrote for one of his college classes on gentrification in Atlanta. An African American Studies major at Georgia State University, he had chosen that topic because, as a kid, he had seen his neighborhood in nearby Decatur gentrify and always wondered what happened to the residents who left. "I never thought my paper would turn into a full-fledged film," says Williams.
The film is a collaborative effort with 14 other students and recent graduates from Savannah College of Art and Design, Clark Atlanta University, and Georgia State. The Atlanta Way provides a fresh approach to issues of race and urban redevelopment. It’s definitely worth seeing. And the fact that it has been created and produced by a student-run team—an effort garnering interest from both HBO and PBS—is impressive in and of itself. The film is likely to become an urban sociology class staple at colleges and universities throughout the country.
The film’s premiere, followed by a moderated discussion with the filmmakers, will be held at the ASA Annual meeting on Sunday, August 15 from 12:30-3:30 pm. The film’s run time is approximately 90 minutes, leaving plenty of time for discussion. To view the film’s trailer, visit www.theatlantaway.com. For updates on the film, visit the The Atlanta Way Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheAtlantaWay.
Executive Producers: Zettler Clay IV & King Jarrett Williams
Producers: Sean Gleason, Ashley Renne Simpson, & Jessica Tipton
Director: Jarrett Williams
Co-Director: Alvin Reeves
Consultant: Saba Long
Editors: Garrett Winfrey & Ashley Wilson
Photography: Dimitri Crowder
Sound: Darrick Williams
Research: Emily Turner
Production Assistants: Byron Barkley, Tiffany Barnett, Elena Blandina, & Brittany Martin