“Setting Atlanta in motion”
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This dissertation investigates the ways in which the making of a public transit system in Atlanta ended up not resolving, but instead perpetuating, and even accelerating, the city’s uneven development among the suburbs, center city, and affluent intown neighborhoods. It examines how the different actors, commercial civic elites, suburban county residents, and intown neighborhood residents produced and deployed their own configurations of the concept of “public,” and how these varied and frequently incompatible ideas conceived of, and affected, the public transportation system. Early planning demonstrated that the major beneficiaries of the transit plan would be the white middle class and downtown businesses. Advocates argued that public transit would perform its role as a “public” service by easing or eliminating the traffic congestion which threatened to deteriorate economic growth, while at the same time it would contribute to the convenience of suburban commuters. This concept of “public,” however, was fundamentally at odds with the notion held by African-Americans and suburban county residents. Each of these groups held a substantial stake in public transit and its impact on their neighborhoods. Failure to reconcile the conflicting understandings of “public” resulted in Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) losing in 1968 two county referendums to begin construction. Conversely, the victory of the public transit referendum in 1971 was a direct result of MARTA’s new plan, which included a 15-cent flat rate fare, a rail route to the poor African American neighborhoods in Northwestern Atlanta, and incorporation of the existing Atlanta Transit System’s bus network. An even more important factor in the victory was the efforts of intown neighborhood residents. These residents had engaged in campaigning against expressway or toll-way proposals, and strongly supported the idea of public transit. They stressed the important role that public transit would play in protecting the environment, private property, historic buildings, and public institutions. The potential that these conceptions of “public” held, however, was undone in the actual implementation of the plans. The making of public transit as a result of the victory led only to the unmaking of public space, and ultimately of the transit itself. The construction of downtown stations terminated the contingent rise of a diverse, multiracial downtown enclave, which had previously shown signs of emerging as a public sphere in which the underprivileged could raise their voices. The death of this incipient public space foreshadowed the eventual abandonment of poor African-Americans’ demands for a flat fare and a route to poor communities. Despite its popular image as African-American transit, MARTA succeeded only in preserving the affluent white intown neighborhoods. More importantly, however, it also failed to meet its original goals of eliminating the auto-dominated urban infrastructure and uneven development among the suburbs, city centers and existing old affluent communities.