Chapter 5: Atlanta – The Color of Money
IN A CLEARING surrounded by dogwood and pine north of Atlanta's Perimeter beltway, George and Patricia Lottier have carved out a classic little American success story.
A few years ago, George left his job with a Fortune 500 corporation to launch his own company selling durable souvenir drinking cups—like those with the team's emblem which you take home from a Hawks game. His enterprise, Plastic Impressions, is based in an office-condo tastefully clad in stucco and gray clapboard offset by dark green canopies and doors. It grosses about $12 million a year. He believes it will be doing $30 million to $40 million worth of business in three years. He drives a two-year-old Lincoln.
Patricia Lottier, meanwhile, is publisher of The Atlanta Tribune, a monthly that focuses on affluent, entrepreneurial business people. The Tribune's offices, adjacent to George's, are marked by blond furniture housing the IBM PS 80 computer driving the makeup screen, the NEC Silent Writer 890 laser printer that sets the type, and a light table. Camera-ready ads from Coors, Benson and Hedges, First Atlanta, and Warner Books are temporarily pasted on the walls.
George Lottier is an avid golfer. He shoots in the low eighties. The Lottiers live in a home that boasts a Jacuzzi next to a built-in gas barbecue, and a lighted sports court for tennis and basketball. It backs up to a fragrant forest in a subdivision built around the Willow Springs Country Club. George said that when they moved, getting a house with a golf course attached to it was not a high priority for him. It was the first priority, "and there was no two, three, or four."
The Lottiers' two sons are Christopher and Shawn. The elder is already in college; the younger recently was trying to choose between the University of Virginia or Georgetown.
The Lottiers' story is so typical of Atlanta today that in their office foyer is a painting of the fabled Fox Theater that actually has Gone With the Wind on the marquee. In fact, the Lottiers' story would be utterly unremarkable in America—right down to the fact that it is occurring off Georgia Route 400, north of the booming Atlanta Edge City of Perimeter Center. Except possibly for one thing: the Lottiers are black.
So is everybody profiled in The Atlanta Tribune.
For the Lottiers and people like them are part of one of the biggest changes in black affairs in American history. The Lottiers are not some kind of superachievers. They are part of a new black middle class without precedent in size and accomplishment in the more than four hundred years blacks have been in the New World. This black middle class is succeeding by the standards of the majority white culture in mainstream American careers. What's more, this new black middle class is burgeoning in the suburbs surrounding Edge Cities.
The rise of Edge Cities contained a nightmare possibility for America: that because so many jobs were moving out to the fringe, frequently into what had been lily-white suburbs, an entire race would be left behind, trapped, in the inner city, jobless, beyond reach of the means of creating wealth.
Such fears, however, have not been confirmed, despite the plight of the black underclass. A black suburban middle class is booming, statistics show. And it is emerging at the same time and in the same places as Edge Cities.
In fact, by the second decade of the next century, this new American black middle class could be as large in percentage terms for blacks as the white middle class will be for whites, predicts Bart Landry, the University of Maryland sociologist who wrote The New Black Middle Class. Already, in the Atlanta area, of the 19 percent of all families that are black:
- Almost a third make more money than the typical white family in America.
- Forty percent are suburbanites.
- A third live in predominantly white areas. Psychological barriers long thought to separate Atlanta into the "white" Northside and the "black" Southside—such as Ponce de Leon Avenue—are not as impregnable as myth credits them with being.
- Middle-class black families living in middle-class neighborhoods have virtually the same income as their white neighbors.
Nor is Atlanta an aberration. In the Oakland area, 36 percent of all black families are more prosperous than the typical white family in America. On Long Island, it's 49 percent. In the Chicago area, it's 30 percent. In the Miami area, it's 24 percent. In the Los Angeles area, 33 percent. In the Detroit area, 31 percent. In the Washington area, it's 46 percent. This means blacks are now significantly represented in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in America. To the extent that income is a measure of class, those numbers reflect the size of the black middle class in America.
"There is a story there to be told. And it is a story of the success of the revolution of the last twenty years," acknowledges Milton D. Morris. Morris is the director of research at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington. The Joint Center is America's pre-eminent black think tank.
"It's almost as if we would rather not focus on that side of the picture, because, after all, the glass is half empty. Many people still perceive the results as very, very tenuous. It's like 'Yes, there are these things, but we really don't believe it's for real; we can't take it too seriously because it could disappear any minute.' But those successes, they're there. They're real. They ought to inspire us."
None of this is to suggest that the problems of race and poverty in America are solved: the problems of poor black people both in the inner cities and in rural areas are daunting. Some of the highest birth rates in America are recorded in neighborhoods where a third of the population is unemployed half the year. The virulence and toxicity of new drugs such as crack are awesome in their effects. The murder rate in inner-city neighborhoods exceeds one a day. During the sharp recession of the early 1980s, the size of the black middle class shrank. Black college enrollment for males has declined from the 1970s. One in four young black males in America is in jail, on probation, or dead before the age of thirty. There is only one black-owned corporation in the Black Enterprise 100 that sould compare with any corporation in the Fortune 500. Many people, both black and white, firmly believe there is a resurgent white racism. The Reagan and Bush administrations' civil rights and affirmative action record is hardly viewed as benign. And even the growth of the new black middle class does not necessarily yield racial integration; it sometimes means the rise of affluent suburban enclaves that are still almost all black.
What can be said with a fair amount of confidence, however, is that the rise of Edge City has not had an evil effect on the aspirations of all black people. It has been at least matched by the rise of a large, churchgoing, home-owning, childrearing, backyard-barbecuing, traffic-jam-cursing black middle class remarkable only for the very ordinariness with which its members go about their classically American suburban affairs.
"Successful blacks are the most forgotten group of Americans there are, and the most interesting," says George Sternlieb of Rutgers. "The focus has been so much on the losers that the very people who have been able to come through have been ignored."
Broadly sketched, there have been three black elites in American history, and to understand the previous two is to grasp just how different in scale is the new one.
The first black elite emerged after the Civil War. Among blacks of that era, status was determined largely by proximity to whites. Those who had once been "house" slaves enjoyed a higher status among their liberated brethren than did those who had once been "field" slaves. A black barber could be regarded in the black community as having relatively high status if he had a large number of prominent white businessmen as clients. The inarguable demonstration of proximity to whites, of course, was to have relatively light skin. That is where the equation got started among blacks—which persists to this day—that the darker one's skin, the lower one's status, according to historians and sociologists such as E. Franklin Frazier, author of Black Bourgeoisie, the 1957 study universally regarded as a benchmark.
The second black middle class appeared around the turn of the century. This was the preachers-and-teachers middle class, the pinnacle of segregated society. Its core was black professionals serving a black clientele—a small band of doctors, lawyers, restaurateurs, and undertakers, for example. It was particularly well represented in Atlanta because of the clustering there of the five black colleges and universities that now come under the umbrella of the Atlanta University Center, the nation's largest private black institution of higher learning, crowned by Morehouse College, "the black Harvard," and its sister school, Spelman.
The legacy of this second middle class can still be seen in the markers put up by the U.S. Park Service in front of the Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes on Auburn Avenue, near Ebenezer Baptist Church. This is the neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up; it is now a National Historic Site and Preservation District.
In front of 522 Auburn, used as National Park offices, is a sign labeling it the "Bryant-Graves Home, circa 1894." It reads: "In its prime, the `Sweet Auburn' neighborhood of King's boyhood housed a diverse mixture of people—some poor, some wealthy, some obscure, some prominent. This house reflects the life style of two community leaders. Reverend Peter James Bryant, Associate Editor, Voice of the Negro, and a leader of the fight against the 1908 Negro disenfranchisement law, resided here from 1902 to 1925. Later, Antoine Graves, a highly successful Black realtor and contractor, occupied the home through the 1940s."
Members of the second black middle class still did not necessarily equate status with money. Status was measured more in the manner of the British elite, by refinement of manner and education. Being "in trade" was considered déclassé, even though this black middle class owed its position to a captive market. Thus, as integration opened whole new worlds in the 1960s, this middle class declined in influence. But it had always been tiny. In 1950, less than 1 percent of all black people had a median income equal to that of white people with white-collar jobs. Right after World War II an income of $5000 a year was upper middle class for whites. Perhaps seventy-five thousand black people in the whole country made that kind of money then, out of a total black population of fifteen million. That seventy-five thousand is not much larger than the circulation of the Lottiers' publication aimed at black enterprise in one urban area today. In fact, as recently as twenty-five years ago, it was almost specious to make class distinctions among black people. For the overwhelming reality was—to be black was to be poor.
That is no longer the case. This era's third black middle class is the one that rose with the legal end of American apartheid in the mid-1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened up access to public accommodations and most workplaces. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed blacks the ballot in the South and attacked the system of terrorism that had been set up to keep them from gaining power at the polls.
This new black middle class was the first to find its circumstances approximating that which white people took for granted for themselves. Not too surprisingly, this middle class promptly became the first to measure status primarily the way most whites do—by the amount of money it could command from society. It was the first middle class to include a serious share of all blacks. And it is a middle class that is still relatively young. If you were eighteen in 1964, in 1990 you were just entering your peak earning years, at the age of forty-four. For that baby boom generation of black people it really is a different world from the one their parents come from.
Both "middle class" and "suburban" can be tricky to define. University of Maryland sociologist Landry is especially leery of describing the black middle class solely in dollar terms. He points out that the combined incomes of a working-class family—a security guard, a domestic, and a teenager working a McDonald's counter, for example—can easily match the income of, say, a single-earner family headed by a civil engineer. But, he would argue, that does not make the three-earner family middle class. Its chances are about maxed out. The civil engineer, by contrast, has far greater access to such economic opportunities as a mortgage, a line of credit, and continuing advanced education.
Suppose then that a middle-class job is defined as one primarily demanding intelligence and judgment. That basically means a white-collar job. Suppose further that a middle-class family is defined as one marked by that kind of work, plus the realistic expectation of college for the kids, plus an above-average income.
Meanwhile, "suburban" is usually defined for statistical purposes as any place in a metropolitan area outside the central city. That definition is less than ideal in both directions. There are beautiful, affluent, quiet, black and white neighborhoods within the political boundaries of the city of Atlanta that feature trees, lawns, and single-family detached homes. For all practical purposes, they look and function like suburbs even though they are usually counted as urban. Similarly, there are downtrodden neighborhoods in outlying "suburban" jurisdictions that are nothing but extensions of either urban or rural poverty. Suppose, therefore, a neighborhood is functionally suburban, regardless of its location within a metro area, if it is predominantly residential, well off, and marked by single-family homes.
By those standards, at least a quarter, if not a third, of the black families in Atlanta are suburban middle class, according to extensive computer runs performed specifically for this chapter by the national marketing demographic firm Claritas. These complex runs were in turn cross-checked for consistency against federal, state, and local statistics, reviewed by demographers at the Atlanta Regional Commission and geographers at Georgia State University, and verified by interviews on the ground.
And this suburban middle class is not peculiar to Atlanta, the research shows. Other cities with vastly different histories are producing suburban middle-class black families just as reliably. In the North, Detroit had the largest proportion of skilled black craftsmen of any city with major black population in 1940. Today in the Detroit suburbs, the children of auto workers are flourishing as engineers and executives. In the West, there was a historic absence of a hard-core legal system of segregation. "I grew up in California, and I never knew about Jim Crow," explains Roscoe Dellums, wife of U.S. Representative Ron Dellums of Northern California. "Our parents didn't talk about such things in front of us. They felt they were preparing the generation that would break through, and we never got the message that we were inferior." Today Los Angeles, America's most dynamic urban area, with a population that is less than 15 percent black, has a black mayor. Nationwide, since 1970, the number of black-owned businesses has more than doubled, the number of black managers and administrators has nearly tripled, and the number of black lawyers has increased more than sixfold.
The result is that the black population in America today is divided roughly into thirds. One-third is the largely suburban middle class. (The way Bart Landry defines middle class, the proportion is 46 percent.)
Roughly a third—30 percent of black families—continues to be in poverty. However, only about a third of that third—perhaps 10 percent of the total black population—is swept up in those profoundly depressing problems clustered under the rubric "underclass," according to most calculations. Estimates by researchers at the Urban Institute indicate that "underclass neighborhoods"—areas where high school dropouts, unemployed men, welfare recipients, and female-headed families are especially numerous—contained a total Of 2.5 million people in 1980 That is a dreadful number, but even if that population were all black, which it is not, it would work out to only 9.4 percent of the total black population in America.
Then there is a working class between the two. This class benefited from the sustained tight labor markets of the 1980s. In a report for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Harvard economist Richard Freeman showed that when the unemployment rate dropped below 4 percent in the cities he studied, the key employment rate for young black men with a high school degree or less improved by a third. To put it another way, in 1983 the unemployment rate in those cities for the members of that group was 41 percent. In 1987, it was 7 percent. Future years in which growth occurs probably will be similar. Fewer young people will be entering the work force in the 1990s than there were during the baby boom.
What's more, assuming they get an even chance—which is admittedly a large "if"—the children of that in-between black working class are in a better position to move into the middle class today than any minority group that preceded them, Landry maintains. That is because the economy is producing more middle-class white-collar jobs than any other kind.
"If you came in in the 1950s and had an equal chance, you should have middle-class children now," Landry says. "If they went to school, boom, the jobs available to them should all be middle class. At the turn of the century, or during the Depression, a very small percentage of anybody was middle class."
The makeup of these classes is not static. Individuals move up and down within them. People who stay in school make it out of housing projects and up the socioeconomic ladder all the time. By the same token, people of any race who have not accumulated wealth are only four or five paychecks away from slipping several notches.
But the idea that in the 1990s most blacks are somehow behind all whites in achievement is just plain wrong. Since the 1960s, black educational attainment has seen one of the steepest growth curves of any population group in American history—including the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Jews. Only 38 percent of young adult blacks had a high school education in 1960 That figure had soared to 55 percent by 1970, 75 percent by 1980, and had reached 83 percent by 1986. The high school dropout rate plummeted.
Between 1984 and 1989, the number of black students taking college Advanced Placement exams almost tripled. Those who received grades high enough to qualify for college credits more than doubled. Of all black kids who had graduated from high school in 1988, 27.1 percent were in college. To put that. another way, a higher percentage of young black Americans are in college than there are young Swiss or English people in college. "Perhaps the most untold story of American education in the past few years is the achievement of black students; the hard data are encouraging," says Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, which administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Advanced Placement tests, and the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
And this is largely a function of the rise of the black middle class. Among those black kids who took the SATs, the percentage of their parents who had at least an undergraduate degree increased from 17 percent to 25 percent between 1980 and 1989. The percentage of those parents who did not have a high school diploma dropped from 31 percent to 15 percent. Anrig describes the black students who did better on the SATs in the 1980s as "the children of the kids who started to get a better break in the 1960s." Margaret Simms, an education analyst with the Joint Center, ascribed the higher scores to "increased access to integrated, non-ghetto schools" among black students who have moved into suburban and racially mixed areas or transferred to schools there.
The members of this black middle class are obvious to anyone glancing around himself in a suburban school, a shopping mall, a traffic jam, or a bank queue. (Bank lines are particularly fascinating to watch. They tend to be full of people with money.) The skin of the middle class is coming in a lot of hitherto unusual hues—brown and yellow as well as black.
In fact, the best evidence that the rise of Edge Cities is primarily a function of class—not race—is simple. Edge Cities are rising in every North American metropolitan area that is growing—without regard to how many blacks live in that region. The Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, and Toronto regions all have healthy downtowns and tiny black populations. Yet they are forming Edge Cities just as reliably as are the New York, Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago regions, all of which have highly evolved downtowns and large black populations.
The reason some of these distinctions have gone largely unnoticed is the way statistics are usually reported in the press. The pivot is: "Compared with what?"
In the Atlanta area, accomplishments usually are measured against the pinnacles of economic, educational, and social achievement of the whites who live in the most affluent suburbs of east Cobb, north Fulton, or north De Kalb counties. Which is okay, except that if you compare everything to peaks in which $300,000 houses are "normal," then by definition everything else—black and white—is going to look like a valley. And it is not uncommon for the black middle class in many, though not all, neighborhoods to lag behind the white middle class in several indices. This new middle class, after all, is young, both historically and in age.
That does not mean that most black people are uneducated or poor or living in slums. And that becomes clear when you measure the success of black people in Edge Cities nationwide against a different standard—the levels of income, education, and housing achieved by most whites nationwide. By the standard of the median white families in America—recognizable in such places as Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Norman, Oklahoma; Heflin, Alabama; and Pawtucket, Rhode Island—the change is striking.
This suburban black middle class demonstrates that averages are not fully representative of the black experience in America anymore, because those averages are lowered by that third of the black population still suffering extreme tribulation. Yet the third of black America that is fairly described as suburban middle class is becoming indistinguishable statistically from whites of the same class—not only in income and education, but in consumer behavior and attitudes toward government.
This has major national political implications. "As the black middle class shares the same frustrations, problems, and desires as the white middle class, party barriers will break down," says Roger J. Stone, a Republican political consultant who was a senior adviser to the 1988 Jack Kemp presidential campaign. "The party or candidate that offers solutions to jobs, education, traffic, growth, and health care as well as civil rights will be able to attract that vote. Some Republicans already have. Tom Kean in New Jersey, in the  governor's race, won 62 percent of the black vote. That was both suburban and urban."
This also has national economic implications. "If black household and income profiles converged to those of all Americans, there would be a near $100 billion increase in personal incomes, about a 3 percent increase in gross national product (roughly equivalent in scale to the total GNP of Switzerland, Belgium, or Sweden), and a consumer market target that stirs the imagination," reports Rutger's Sternlieb and his colleague James W. Hughes.
And that is clear even in Dixie-Georgia.
To this day, the layout of Atlanta is shaped by race. "On the Southside, the streets had one name, and on the Northside the continuing streets had another, because white folks didn't want to live on the same name street as the black folks," says Stephen Suitts, director of the Southern Regional Council.
As recently as 1962, at the height of white flight, municipal barricades were erected at the Peyton Road Bridge to prevent blacks from even driving through white neighborhoods, much less moving into them. Nonetheless, as whites dumped their houses at fire-sale prices to flee school desegregation, black people were happy enough to buy up some of the most convenient and attractive neighborhoods in Atlanta. To this day, if you take that historic Ponce de Leon-Route 78 divide and extend it east and west out into the suburbs, you still get almost all the predominantly black neighborhoods over on the Southside. And the Edge Cities have all risen on the Northside.
Meanwhile, the booming Edge City counties of Cobb and Gwinnett have refused to allow MARTA rapid rail lines to be built into their jurisdictions, a decision widely viewed as racially motivated.
What has changed, though, in the last twenty-five years is the way middle-class blacks now arrive in the Atlanta suburbs. Today, people—both black and white—with strong commitments to the old downtowns who have lived there all their lives don't think much about moving out. Instead, the black people fueling Atlanta's Edge City growth are, like their white neighbors, moving in from outside the region. Under those circumstances, as predicted by William Julius Wilson in his landmark 1978 work, The Declining Significance of Race, class has become a more important predictor of behavior. Black middle-class settlement patterns have changed not just in Atlanta, but all over America, nowhere more dramatically than in the South.
Throughout the middle of this century, millions of blacks with get-up-and-go got up and left Dixie entirely. This became known as the Great Migration—the largest internal population shift in American history, with the exception of the pioneers heading west. In the 1950s alone, one of six Southern blacks left for the greater opportunities of the industrialized North and West. The total black migration from the South was 1.6 million in the 1940s and 1.5 million in the 1950s. In 1900, nine tenths of all blacks lived in the South. Today it is half that.
This was especially a movement of young people. With little save their best clothes and a picnic lunch packed by their families, entire generations boarded buses and trains they nicknamed the "Chicken-Bone Express" from Mississippi to Chicago, or from Alabama to Detroit, or from the Carolinas to Washington, or from Georgia to New York.
This was not a movement just from South to North. It was a movement out of feudalism into the Industrial Revolution. And most important, it was a migration out of rural subsistence into the big cities. It was this tie to the declining old downtowns that worried a lot of people.
But if anything is proved by the numbers above, it is that American blacks have been extraordinarily mobile in the pursuit of a better life. And their efforts have paid off. It was not only the black population that was liberated in 1964. The American economic system was, too. That system has a well-earned reputation as rough-and-tumble. But it also has a stunning track record of transforming illiterate serfs from every mountain and desert on the globe into middle-class suburbanites in three generations or less. And in the 1960s, that system was freed to work on blacks. This unleashed a pent-up, high-velocity gush of black ambition and frustration and drive, featuring countless tales of individual grit, into the heart of an economy that, as it happens, simultaneously was being transformed into one producing mostly white-collar, middle-class jobs.
And now, the news is that young black people, the sons and granddaughters of those who left for the industrial cities of the North, are on the move again. They're coming back to Dixie. During the 1980s, the U.S. Census found, the percentage of all African-Americans who live in the South increased for the first time in the twentieth century. And this substantial increase was fueled by better-educated men and women under forty. Noted Larry Long of the Census Bureau, "That's a profile of people who migrate for job opportunities."
By contrast, a generation ago, when segregation blocked access to white colleges, in Atlanta the overwhelming magnet for the middle class was the elite black schools on the Westside. This produced a settlement pattern not unlike that of Cambridge, Massachusetts, or any other major college town, only more pronounced. People who originally came for an education stayed because they found it unimaginable to exist in a place less "civilized." In the wake of civil rights, the black population in southwest Atlanta boomed. Most of the second-, third-, and fourth-generation black "society" families in Atlanta live there to this day. Lillian Lewis, wife of U.S. Representative John Lewis, told me she just didn't know "anybody" who lived on the Northside. Actually, she said, she had met Pat Lottier, but she expressed amazement that the Lottiers lived in, and the black Tribune was published on, the Northside.
Yet this synthesis should be no more- or less-astonishing than the move of this generation back to the South. After all, this new generation—the offspring of immigrants, if you will—is coming back to the South today primarily for the white-collar jobs of high technology and the Fortune 500. These corporations, of course, tend to be headquartered in Edge City.
There are four full-blown Edge Cities in the Atlanta area, with three more in the embryonic state. One is the Cumberland Mall-Galleria area. That is where the Perimeter beltway road, Interstate 285, is intersected by Interstate 75, the northwest spoke coming out of the downtown hub. A second is north of downtown around Perimeter Center at 285 and Georgia Route 400, the landmark of which is the skeletal white dome of the tallest building on the Perimeter, at thirty-one stories, locally called the Birdcage Building. Each of these two is bigger than downtown at Five Points. The third is in the Buckhead-Lenox Square Mall area, the most chic of Atlanta's Edge Cities, with over 150 yuppie restaurants and singles joints, a bookstore that has been built into the circular showroom of a defunct automobile dealership, and a mysterious and intense concentration of Persian rug merchants. The fourth is the midtown area, which boasts most of the region's arts centers, including the one named after Coca-Cola king Robert W. Woodruff. The three Edge Cities that are emerging are a backshop location around Gwinnett Mall to the northeast, the area around I-85 where that northeast radial crosses the Perimeter, and the area around Atlanta International Airport to the south.
When young black people come into the region from the outside for their new corporate jobs, they are not necessarily much more aware of every detail of Atlanta's history than any other recent arrivals. Not being familiar with all the taboos of previous generations about where they "should" or "shouldn't" live, many make the classic suburban calculations. They look for how much house they can afford, at a commute from their job they find acceptable, in an area with good housing resale values and good schools. Frequently they are helped in this search by the relocation services retained by their national employers, like IBM—which enjoys a particould rapidly make far more critical decisions, he believed. They would want to know about more class-based issues: how the schools were, what the price of the house was, what the commute was. He was banking on the idea that race was not an issue that was ambiguous—that it just was an issue that was complex. And the complexities were ones that white people would be able to dissect with sophistication, given the opportunity.
Calabro, who is white, was betting his professional life on that belief. It will be interesting to see whether he is right or wrong.
The First Law of Demographics is: You cannot count on people to change. You can, however, count on them to die.That means that members of one generation should not try to predict the future based on their experience. As they die off, they will be replaced by a generation with different life experiences that have produced different attitudes. Not necessarily better, but certainly different. And in this fashion, questions that obsessed one generation sometimes never really get answered; they just end up sounding more and more archaic.
It is only a truism, then, to say that the future of race issues is in the hands of the generation that has recently entered adulthood. After all, this is the first generation to go to integrated schools, the first to operate routinely at a variety of levels with people of other races. So who knows whether it is significant, but it turns out that the hottest disco in Atlanta is Dominique's. It is smack in the middle of the Edge City growing up around the Cumberland Mall and the Galleria.
The Cumberland Mall-Galleria area is a classic of the Edge City genre. The Galleria itself—the mall-hotel-office complex—has a helicopter landing pad. It is directly opposite the Kinder-Care day-care facility, and near the Embassy Suites for businessmen who want a little extra space because they plan to live out of their hotel room for a long time. The landscaping is very, very high—the purple wisteria of spring is everywhere, as is the white dogwood, pink dogwood, red tulips, and masses of pansies and azaleas. Near where Sherman took the last high ground before marching on Atlanta, yuppies now spend the weekend rafting. This is probably the only Edge City in America that encompasses a National Recreational Area—the Chattahoochee River—with its Smokey the Bear park ranger signs. Not for nothing does the real estate profession call this the Platinum Triangle. And there, right in the middle of it, is Dominique's. Named after Dominique Wilkins, number 21 of the Atlanta Hawks, it has the most heavy-duty sound system I have ever experienced. The bass line from the JBL speakers the size of refrigerators that hang from the ceiling is so serious, it does not merely enter your chest. It moves your shirt while you are standing still. Tumbling neon light displays, shifting from green to pink and blue, reflect off banks of video screens simultaneously showing the same weird cop movie as the beat thunders on.
The Saturday night I was there, I could barely move. It was business suits and ties everywhere—hundreds, if not thousands, of young professional people. The crowd—at ground zero of this majority white Edge City in the middle of Georgia—was 90 percent black. No one seemed uncomfortable with this arrangement.
When I got back to my car, what I saw on top of the hill across the way was a big slab of Edge City office building. It had a sign at the top that seemed a metaphor for what I had just been part of.
In bright blue light, from the top of that hill overlooking Dominique's, it proclaimed: CORPORATE SPECTRUM.
John Lewis has had a singular perspective on the American Dream for the last thirty years. When he arrived in Washington in 1986 as a congressman, he was already an important figure in American history. The National Journal noted that it's not your typical freshman congressman who is sought out by his senior colleagues wanting to hear the stories he's got to tell.
In 1959 and 1960, John Lewis, then only nineteen, helped organize the first lunch-counter sit-ins in America. They established the right of all Americans to be served whatever they had the money to buy—a meal, in this case.
In 1961, he was one of the leaders of the Freedom Rides. The issue again was whether all Americans could equally use the nation's public facilities—this time, interstate Greyhound bus terminals. For this he was beaten viciously in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and in Montgomery, Alabama.
Lewis was a keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his "I have a dream" speech. In 1964, he helped coordinate the Mississippi Freedom Project. In 1965, in Selma, Alabama, he helped lead 525 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were attacked by Alabama state troopers using clubs, whips, and tear gas. His cause that time was whether all Americans had the right to vote. The result was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, still straightforward and guileless, John Lewis is the U.S. Representative from the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia, whose state flag is still three-quarters filled with the Stars and Bars. Seventy-five years before John Lewis was born, Sherman burned Atlanta flat. Fifty years after Lewis was born, he was a second-term member of the House representing that town. In between, the world into which Lewis was born—a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama—was so antique, so feudal, that Lewis cannot remember even seeing a white person until he was eight.
Historians use examples like this to address the matter of scale—the notion that, depending on which lens you use to look at something like change, thirty years can be an excruciatingly long time or a strikingly short one.
There is no question that John Lewis is pretty much astounded by what he's seen in his life so far. "Pockets of south De Kalb, Hunter Hill, Cascade Road, Guilford Forest, Loch Lomond, Stone Mountain—it's wealth. Nothing but wealth. Lots of blacks doing extraordinarily well. And it's all happened in the last twenty-five years.
"It's altogether a different world. If you had told me twenty-seven years ago, when I first moved here, that I would be able to go into a neighborhood and knock on the door and say, 'I'm John Lewis. I need your help. I need your support. Will you vote for me?' I'd've told you you were crazy. You were out of your mind. It would have been very dangerous for me to go some places. I wouldn't have gone to some neighborhoods that are now in my district. I just wouldn't have done it."
He means it. Although these are neighborhoods he won with 90 percent of the white vote in his last seriously contested election.
This has, of course, not been without a price. He recalls a day not long ago when he had a nodding acquaintance with virtually everyone in Atlanta in the black middle class. Now, "I go to places, I go campaigning, I go to a church, a restaurant—I feel I should know that person. And I don't. We are dispersed. We had a greater feel of solidarity in the days of segregation. Twenty-five or thirty years later, we have choices, and we're taking them. People don't want their children to come in contact with the undesirable elements. Fear of crime, fear of violence. So they move away. You can even see it in the churches. We are paying a price.
"The revolution is not complete. But in so many ways we have witnessed a quiet, nonviolent revolution. Could I imagine it when I was growing up? No, no Those days of the marches? No, no."
Lewis points out the window of his district offices in a downtown high-rise near Five Points, just beyond an American flag behind his desk. He says, "Right in that building there, where the drugstore is—I was arrested in that building in 1964."
When I chatted with him there was a controversy going on. Affluent black parents in suburban De Kalb County wanted the local public schools upgraded. Yet, as Lewis noted, "you hear black parents say, 'I don't want my children bused.' For the first time in my life, in thirty years in the Movement, 'I don't want my children bused.' Strange to hear that. 'We want our school, this school, in this neighborhood, upgraded to a first-class school.' " So much for "separate but equal."
I had just come from Lenox Square Mall, the most chic in Atlanta and, arguably, the South. It is well patronized by black people, as is Cumberland Mall, where more people shop in a month than live in Atlanta proper. It occurred to me to have the temerity to ask Lewis what he thought Martin Luther King, Jr., would have made of these Edge City malls.
That gave Lewis pause. "Dr. King was born and raised here in Atlanta. For the most part he knew the old Fourth Ward [the Sweet Auburn neighborhood]. There was a sense you could not go any farther. It was unthinkable, living beyond North Avenue." Lewis' voice turns into a reverie as he goes on. "This friend of mine has built this unbelievable house near Stone Mountain. Swimming pool. Heated swimming pool." Pause. "That covers itself," he continues, so softly that he is almost talking to himself. "I've been living here since 1963. I think I've been to Stone Mountain maybe twice. I heard of Stone Mountain [back then], I heard of the Klan. At least once a year there would be a fiery cross on Stone Mountain. Now there's a black guy with a swimming pool."
Lewis is in his fifties, which almost makes him too old to be statistically part of the new generation of the black middle class, and he recognizes that. "The young black professionals know much more than I do about what has happened all around this place," he says. And Lewis, now a congressman, has layers of aides. That insulates a person from life's grottiness. Hence, there are lots of thoughtful people who differ with Lewis. They look at America's promises to itself and see the glass as, at best, half empty. So I ask Lewis, Is this what the Beloved Community looks like?
"Atlanta's not the Promised Land," Lewis reflects. "It is not the Beloved Community. But it is in the process of becoming. It's like democracy. It is ever becoming."
When the interview seemed to be over, I thanked Lewis for his time, and started packing up my gear. Somehow, we got talking about what had been Lewis' favorite pastime—collecting antiquarian books by and about black people. Recently, he said, he had pretty much lost the desire to pursue his hobby because he'd completely run out of space. "My wife accuses me of being a pack rat," he said. I joked with him that what he needed was to move out to one of those semi—Tara tract mansions out in some Edge City, out in Cobb County, in Marietta.
No, Lewis said, I have to stay close to the airport, really. Then he added, "I will show you a house that I would love to have." It seems a couple of his supporters held a grand fundraiser for him once. And "across from them is this old, old house." Lewis has discovered that it's not up for sale yet because the ancient lady who lives in it has established a lifetime trust. But it is on eighteen acres within the city limits, on Cascade Road, the most affluent black suburban neighborhood in Atlanta.
"It's beautiful," said Lewis. "For a politician it would be an ideal place. Have a barbecue or something for all of the people in the district. It's an old house, a great house. They had a dairy. In the back you will see the old windmill, and what you put the corn in, the silo. And this is near to the city.
"I would love to have a little place I could raise chickens. There's enough room. Eighteen acres. I would love to be able to raise some chickens there. They are such innocent creatures. That was life growing up. It was fine—made me responsible. Made me a better person. No question about it. A sense of responsibility, in the sense of caring for something. I owe a great deal to my early life, and to the chickens."
We joshed. So all you need is eighteen acres on Cascade Road and a few chickens. "And a few chickens," he replied, laughing. And you'd be a happy man! I teased. "That would be. Almost. The Beloved Community," he replied. We laughed. "I'm kidding," he insisted. `Just kidding."
His voice trailed off. Earlier, he had dismissed his longing for this place. Think what eighteen acres in suburban Atlanta Costs. But as he continued, I thought, This is not entirely a joke.
"Beautiful sight," he added, so softly as to be almost inaudible. "I have never seen the inside of the house," said he, sounding surprised at his own revelation. "But I would buy it without seeing the inside. It reminds me of growing up on the farm.,Just the outdoors, the trees, the oak trees. And that's the thing about Atlanta. If you're flying over this city, it's a city of trees. You can be living in the city, but you're out there, in the grass, the trees, the flowers. Beautiful dogwoods. All in a line. As they get older, they just get shadier."
That's when it finally occurred to me. John Lewis has a dream. He has a dream that's a very familiar American one. That one day, he might have a big old house. Surrounded by the most expansive lawn in creation. In a fashionable neighborhood. Among his peers. Three minutes from the beltway. Fourteen minutes from the Edge City of Cumberland Mall-Galleria. Closer to that Edge City than to downtown. With extraordinary access to the airport. In the most vibrant metropolitan area of the Deep South.
It's what generations have sacrificed and strived for. It's the way a lot of people have reassured themselves that they do, in fact, live in some kind of a meritocracy—in a system that, for all its grievous flaws, sometimes approximates fairness. It is the residential portion of the dream that made Edge City inevitable. In other words, maybe John Lewis has an image of the Beloved Community that some people might dismiss out of hand as a silly, irrelevant, middle-class suburban caricature of the American Dream.
But I, for one, ended up seriously hoping that John Lewis gets that house. For all that he has gone through—in the service of his country—on mature reflection it seemed to me he has earned it.