Over the weekend some graffiti artists slipped in to the marshaling yard where the new Atlanta streetcars are being housed and tagged them. If you haven’t heard of it, the Atlanta Streetcar project is part of an initiative to spark tourism in the city and get people out of their cars to explore neighborhoods. According to a press release on the City of Atlanta website , “The purpose of the Atlanta Streetcar project is to provide an integrated multi-modal, high-quality transit network that links communities, improves mobility by enhancing transit access and options, supports projected growth, promotes economic development and encourages strategies to develop livable communities.” You could make the argument that Atlanta already has a transit system in place that could provide those services if the state legislature and suburban white fear of transit riding Black Boogeymen kept it from expanding, but that’s another story for another time. In the distant future it may well achieve it’s officially stated goals but at present, it’s a shiny, mostly riderless blue leviathan than travels in an endless loop past the campus of Georgia State, over to the MLK center and back again.
It seems ironic that so many people at City Hall felt a streetcar would be the cure for Atlantans’ lack of engagement with their own city. To reach back to an archaic form of transport for a city that prides itself of being cutting edge feels like a manifestation of the split personality Atlanta often seems to have. The graffiti tagging and the response to it feel the same. Some people label it vandalism by the ubiquitous “thugs” that so many people living outside the perimeter are convinced terrorize the city, while others will admire the artwork. When I heard about it, I felt like it was a flashback to an important time in Atlanta history, a fragment of a lost, once thriving era when you could cruise down Peachtree Street on a Saturday night and see and almost unbroken stream of nightlife from Pharr Road in Buckhead to Marietta Street Downtown. I went downtown, hoping to see any of the tagged cars rolling by, but the ones I saw in service were clean. The hiding and eventually scrubbing of the graffiti could be a metaphor for the erasure of that same history. I’ve lived in Atlanta for almost 20 years and a lot of the flavor and vibrancy I discovered when I first arrived has disappeared. It’s become less like a city and more like a suburb, where street vendors get fined, last call is midnight, and new residents of Ponce de Leon call the cops on MJQ for noise violations.
The Atlanta that attracted so many talented, creative people and turned the city into a music, entertainment and nightlife powerhouse is all but dead. What’s left is a sanitized Southern version of Times Square under Giuliani; a great place to walk your dog and sip latte, but colorless and increasingly soulless. There seems to be a deliberate effort to kill off any local creative energy and replace it with a suburbanites idea of what a city is. The people shaping this new Atlanta seem to want every aspect of it to be processed and commodified, but cities don’t work like that. A city is a chaotic, living organism, and you have to leave room for a little chaos or you end up with a city of drones moving in prearranged patterns, going from work, to home, and back again, like a streetcar.
Without maintenance, a machine will eventually break down. The same is true for a city, and for a human soul. Art matters, creativity matters. Every now and then a little of the Atlanta flavor will make itself known; a sun-faded piece of old party flyer stuck to a lightpole, the echo of bass booming from cars, the crews of bikers who roar down Peachtree on the weekends. The streetcar tagging could be part of that, a reminder of the energy that made Atlanta a destination for creatives all those years ago. Who knows, maybe the word of a well tagged trolley cruising through downtown will inspire someone to help make Atlanta become “the ATL” once again.