I spent part of this week in and around Atlanta, the ever-expanding capital of the ‘New South.’ I’d not been to Atlanta in years, other than in passing while traveling; this week I wandered around the city some, both intentionally and unintentionally, since I didn’t get a hold of a decent map until the last day of my visit. It’s a big city; most of my experience in urban navigation has been in ‘Old World’ cities where my means of transport was my own two feet, and in New Orleans, a city set apart from pretty much every other North American city I’ve visited. Atlanta is, I suppose, the South’s paradigmatic example of the modern city- big, ever-expanding, new and shiny (in the up-scale parts anyway, never mind the poor parts for the moment), with precious little of any considerable age, even for North America. Of course, General Sherman bears some blame for that, but not very much; there wasn’t a whole lot there back when my unfortunate ancestors were getting shot up at Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek.
There are of course some sections of the city that are fairly old and historic, and feel it. Auburn Avenue, which was the center of African-American life and commerce after the imposition of segregation in the early twentieth century, has some wonderful old and funky buildings; the Episcopal Methodist Church with its hodge-podgy neo-Gothic and big blue neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the steeple is singularly wonderful, and is still in good shape. Further up the street, the Park Service has purchased and renovated a whole neighborhood worth of old buildings associated with Martin Luther King Jr., who was born and spent his boyhood in one of the old houses. But the stretch of street running back from the historic site is, with all its lovely old structures and venerable history, pretty decrepit. As my friend and I walked up from downtown towards the MLK site, we were approached by a homeless man offering an impromptu tour, followed by a request for donations. The whole area is now run-down, boarded up buildings and heavily armoured likker and mini grocery stores here and there; our homeless tour-guide told us he lived back up under an overpass of the interstate which now dissects the area.
The historic site is quite nice itself however, a sudden imposition in the immediate landscape, neatly trimmed shrubs, a rose garden, a fairly new looking museum, as well as a new Ebeneezer Baptist Church (the old one is still there, though it is at present closed up for renovations). There are signs up in the National Historic Site warning visitors against giving anything to ‘panhandlers,’ reminding one of signs in less urban Park Service sites prohibiting the feeding of bears.
The area went down, as we say, in the late sixties; before it had been a thriving center of African-American businesses, churches, and residences, with it’s own economy and tradition of mutual aid. If the segregationist regime rejected their money, the entrepreneurs of Auburn Avenue reasoned, it was their loss- so they built up their own economy, and thrived. Dr. King’s family came out of this milieu, and the determination and communal (but deeply personalist) sense of mutual aid and support would go a long ways towards the successful challenging of the segregationist regime and its systematic but ultimately untenable oppression. This was one of the things that struck me most as I looked at the exhibits in the museum, and has always struck me about the civil rights movement, particularly in its early stages- it was community-based, and broad-based, with people of many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and standings coming together in a truly powerful movement. The men and women who challenged the segregationist State did not have to resort to bombs and guns; they had built up lives and communities powerful enough to take on even a violent and deeply entrenched regime and succeed, without turning to violence and oppression themselves.
Returning to the gritty shot-up feeling streets of which Auburn Avenue is only one, one has to ask- what happened, and what can anybody do about it? Auburn Avenue itself is an icon of what has been happening in our cities and towns for years now, what is happening right now as I write. Desegregation had its part, of course- African-Americans were no longer restricted to their own self-contained economy, and could take part in the wider economy and succeed there- leaving behind in many cases places like Auburn Avenue. But this is hardly the only explanation, or even the primary one. At the same time as desegregation was going into affect other programs, Federal and otherwise, were coming on-line, many under the title ‘urban renewal.’ As one line was erased new ones were laid down, often with the best of intentions, but often resulting in Federally-supported ghettos. The drug war has only escalated and grown more violent and more deeply entrenched; the ever expanding field of operations of the Mexican drug cartels only harbours more violence and destruction, and it’s not up-scale gated communities suffering the brunt of the violence and the corruption and rot.
There are other problems as well- job losses, poor education, and so on- but they all share the quality that few of them are exactly intentional. Much ‘urban renewal’ was meant to help the poor, at least ostensibly, or was at least supported by people who wanted to do good. Of course, plenty of it was deliberate in partionining off the poor, especially but not exclusively minority poor, from the elite enclaves. There is ridiculous highway a few blocks from my neighborhood here in Knoxville that, I am pretty sure, was built primarily to separate downtown from the much poorer, and darker-skinned, east-side neighborhoods; maybe there were no such intentions, but the effect is the same. The drug war is supported by well-meaning people, and I am sure at least some of those carrying it out have only good intentions and genuinely desire to do good. The damage is the same though.
The problem is further presented though- the evils and problems afflicting places like Auburn Avenue are so various that they are hard to fight against. There is no segregationist regime that we can unite against and battle; there are no straight-forward targets, as much as we would like for there to be. There is less ground, too, for people to stand on, as so many urban- and otherwise- communities are shot-up and worn out. The work that is needed- and here I start to really preach to myself as much as anyone else- is personal, is on the ground, and is probably not going to yeild immediate or impressive results any time soon, maybe ever. The great failing of the American elite- who are often very well-intentioned people- is to generally stay safely away from the poor and the decimated places, while sympathizing for them, in the abstract, and proposing solutions that are sure to work in theory, in principal. But while there are some genuine general policy solutions no doubt- the drug war comes to mind- they are only a part of the solution, probably not a terribly important part.
When it comes down to it we have to stop thinking in terms of helping the poor, or saving the inner city, as if the poor were a different species or something (albeit an endangered and valorized one), capable of being saved through the right policy enactments or a sufficiently large charity pay-out. In the end, working to end the violence and destruction of our cities is a struggle for ourselves; it is not a case of our aiding the poor and downtrodden in their struggle; we are all in this together, my struggle is your struggle. I cannot cut myself off from the rest of the world; my sin afflicts my neighbor and it afflicts me, just as the violence and deprivation of endless war and seeping poverty are part of my struggle, against the violence and evil in my heart and the violence and evil that come from outside my heart.
Our Auburn Avenues are not going to be magically transformed overnight; if there is going to be change, it must begin in our hearts- my heart- and work outward, person by person, community by community, in knowledge of each person and place’s particulars, and with love for them, love that, in imitation of the love of God, offers itself in becoming one with the sufferer, by becoming a co-sufferer, from the inside, with all the danger and dirt and darkness that comes with being inside of a suffering world, a suffering humanity.