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 particularly high profile among the Atlanta black suburban middle class. The assumption underlying their calculation is that one expensive suburban subdivision is pretty much like another in its racial attitudes, an assumption that generally proves correct.
And that is precisely the revolution. Those are calculations in which issues of class outweigh issues of race. The result is the rise of the substantial new black middle class in neighborhoods like Smyrna in Cobb County. Cobb County as recently as twenty years ago was serious Klan country. It accommodated the likes of Lester Maddox and convicted church bomber J. B. Stoner.
And again, this is not just Atlanta. "The latest Census reports reiterated that return migration has not been to the central city. It has been to the outer rim," notes the Southern Regional Council's Suitts of the Dixiewide pattern.
These middle-class locations beat the alternatives. Pat Lottier makes no apologies about this at all. She has vivid memories of what she and her husband left, and a steely determination that her family will never go back to it, ever. "My husband and I have been married twenty-two years. We've always lived in what you call Edge Cities. You probably want to know why. We felt the need from the very beginning to live away from the inner city. We wanted to move away from everything the inner city has. We wanted our kids to have the very best, and the best was outside of any major city. Safety. Amenities. The best shopping centers. A house with an acre or more. The freedom to leave your house and check on one door and not all the doors and not all the windows. The best schools—being able to go into the school and say I need to see the teacher and someone saying, 'Yes, Mrs. Lottier, sit down.' Inner city doesn't give you that. And unfortunately I don't think it ever will. That's a shame to say. It really is a class issue."
The story of the Lottiers' rise to the Edge City middle class is a classic one. It faithfully portrays many of the striking changes that have swept through America in the last twenty-five years.
Patricia Lottier was born in 1948, in Kentucky. "A town called Ashland. It's a little twenty thousand-population place, and that may include a few cows and chickens. My father—eighth-grade education, day work, hourly work, cleaned houses, unskilled labor. Died when I was twelve. My mother, one year college but still not enough to get anything in Ashland, so she was an hourly worker, a cook, worked for the white man."
Patricia grew up literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Her family's address was 316o Railroad Street. The schools did desegregate quietly in that largely white Ohio River town near the West Virginia line. "The powers-that-be decided how they would handle integration. The few blacks in that town said, 'Yessir, that's fine.' Not a large black population. Probably 5 percent, and I'm guessing, because I doubt if they even counted us except on Election Day, when everybody got two dollars for voting. We were part of that mentality back then. I remember the two dollars. I remember the little men who had the two dollars in their pockets. And I wondered why they were handing out two dollars. My mother explained.
"Your choices back then, you either were a schoolteacher or a nurse if you wanted to do something with your life. I didn't want to be a schoolteacher." Pat Lottier was graduating from high school in 1966. It was right there that the changes in the big world outside Ashland would reach in and change her life. Pat Lottier was not going to get just any run-of-the-mill nursing education. "Johns Hopkins needed more blacks at their nursing school, and they recruited me. Full scholarship. I was a good student. I'd done no traveling before then—you don't travel if you don't have any money, do you. But I knew about Johns Hopkins. Hopkins was the leader in heart surgery. I would watch them on TV, some public station, working on someone's heart. I said, Boy, that's exciting. I shall be a nurse." As an aside, she adds of that time, "I can't be a doctor because that's just not heard of."
It was there in Baltimore she met her husband, George, at a football game at Morgan State, the traditionally black school he attended. George's great-grandfather in 1894 founded one of America's historic black newspapers, the Baltimore Afro-American. "So they had prestige," Pat recalls of George's family. "They didn't have money, but they had prestige."
Pat and George were married in 1968. Pat received her nursing certificate in 1969. George, who was born in 1944 and had not had a stellar relationship with academe, enlisted in the Army in 1963, and got out in 1966. He spent his hitch in Germany, in the 504th Aviation Battalion, ending up a sergeant running the aircraft-engine motor pool. He remembers the Army as a worthwhile experience. He says the most important thing it taught him was that "the system can work, and you can have an impact on the system"—that the system, if challenged, can respond. George has a curious dyslexia. As he's telling a white person stories of the worst times he's ever had, he automatically, reflexively, and apparently unconsciously smiles. He obviously learned a long time ago how to deal with other peoples' tension.
George chooses to describe the revelation that you can make the Army change as an "interesting situation." So after George got out of the service, he became a salesman. "I thought it was a way of finding out what's going on, how the game is played." And it was. He soon ended up with Dixie-Marathon, the maker of Dixie Cups, where he worked his way up the ladder to district sales manager, then product manager. The way the corporation worked, if you succeeded at one sales job, you were rewarded with a more lucrative district. That made the Lottiers corporate gypsies. They did indeed end up living in one area after another that today is Edge City territory: Framingham, out on the Massachusetts Turnpike between the Boston area's two beltways; Lancaster, Pennsylvania, "Amish country," now in the orbit of King of Prussia; back to Massachusetts, Northborough, at the outer 495 beltway; then to Danbury, Connecticut, working at headquarters in Greenwich, then to north Atlanta, where the corporation had its offices in the Edge City at Perimeter Center.
George's memory of all these predominantly white neighborhoods was that, being transients, "We didn't look at the area and say who lives there. We looked at the area to see how does it look in terms of appearance, what's the resale value of the house? Is it safe for Pat, because I had to travel? It really was a class issue. I want to resell my house and get a higher value, and if I go to an all-black neighborhood, then it means that we're limited to who's going to buy it."
The boys came in 1971 and 1972. Meanwhile, Pat observed that she didn't like changing bedpans. So she decided to go for a degree in public health administration, to get into management. This led to a master's from Emory, which led to her becoming southeastern operations manager of the home-care division of Baxter International, a national provider of hospital and health supplies.
But in the 1980s, as the Lottiers approached their forties in Atlanta, they became restive in their respective corporations. A promotion for Pat would have involved yet another relocation—to Chicago or Boston. And neither wanted that. The boys were entering their teens, and Pat saw the Atlanta area as "Utopia—beautiful weather, friendly people, Southern hospitality, good food."
So in 1985 George launched his own business. He took his extensive experience with Dixie Cup ("You learn from the masters," observes his wife) to launch his promotional cup corporation. ("Hardee's promotes the Moose Cup. Have you seen the Moose Cup?" asks Pat. "That was his design.")
Then, more or less coincidentally, the Lottiers ended up lending money to a person who had started up The Atlanta Tribune, aimed at the black entrepreneurial community. "He had the paper located in the inner city," Pat explains. "And I thought that was crazy. The paper was trying to reach the upscale black consumer. The market that I felt he needed to attract was all over the metro area." So in 1988 the Lottiers bought out the founder. Patricia quit her job to run the Tribune out of the Lottiers' Edge City offices just fifteen minutes from their Roswell home and country club membership. Patricia owns 51 percent, George, 49. In two years, Pat has tripled the number of advertising pages. Her demographic study shows the Tribune's typical reader is thirty-six, a business owner or decision maker with an outfit like AT&T or Xerox, has 2.5 children either in college or soon to go, an American Express card, an upscale car, and a vacation home or higher-than-average travel. Window stickers for the paper read "Sold here: The Atlanta Tribune, the Right Paper at the Right Time." Pat has allowed herself to think about other cities. The New Orleans Tribune has a nice ring to it, she thinks.
Yet when I sat down with Stephen Suitts, his reaction to all these Adam Smith market-economics figures was almost wistful. Suitts, forty, who is white, has been on the side of the angels in the racial struggles of the South since Selma. His office is in a part of downtown Atlanta to which economic revival has not yet come. He softly jokes about being an old-fashioned liberal—his Southern Regional Council is the oldest interracial organization in the South, dating back to 1919.
For him, the movement was a moral crusade. It was not about just changing laws or reordering macroeconomics. It was to be measured in the openness of hearts. Martin Luther King, Jr., coined the phrase "the Beloved Community" to describe the original ideal. The standard was not how many riding lawn tractors a black suburbanite might own, but how many minds might be cleared. So for Suitts, all these data about the suburban black middle class were bittersweet. While they obviously represented enormous change at levels that could be quantified and measured in dollars, they did not offer him much of a geography of the soul—evidence of the success of ideas in which he had invested his life. "Brotherhood," for example.
On August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his most famous speech. In it, he said: "I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
More than a dozen times during our conversation Suitts picked up the maps of the Atlanta region that I'd brought, marked by brightly colored Census tracts showing affluent black people and where they lived. He'd stare at the numbers, put the maps down, and then, almost involuntarily, pick the maps up and stare at them some more.
Finally, he said, "Well, it does not surprise me. I have no stake in the past." Suitts picked up the maps again. Put them down. "The opportunity for somebody to be able to go anywhere, put themselves into a suburban house, and buy themselves riding lawn mowers, cut that grass, and have as much neighborly approval as any white is part of what we wanted integration to mean.
"But it wasn't all. It clearly wasn't all. And essentially the question is whether or not one views the efforts, the civil rights movement, as an attempt to try to establish a new moral ground. I think what we have achieved is where people are not judged by the color of their skins, but by the color of their money. And I'm not sure that's quite as far as we want to go" Suitts was not the only one less than enthralled by these numbers. Michael Lomax, forty-two, is California-born and -raised, and black. He is a literature professor at Spelman College. He also has a considerable reputation as one of the most thoughtful and articulate lights on the formidable Atlanta black political scene, which embraces Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, and Julian Bond.
Lomax is Fulton County commission chairman. Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta proper and the poverty therein, also embraces the fanciest black neighborhoods in the region in Cascade Heights, plus some of the most expensive neighborhoods anywhere in Georgia on the Northside, around Perimeter Center.
His reaction to the recitation of the numbers of black people moving into Edge City territory is:
"How does that play to me? That they are not really intimately a part of the social, political, and even economic fabric of the African-American community that is Atlanta. The center of the African-American community in Atlanta is the colleges, the university, the black churches, which are basically in the center of the city.
"People can live in Alpharetta [north of Perimeter Center] and have no connection with the African-American community at all. I don't know whether it's good or bad. It's reality. For many of them, living in a predominantly white suburban area is the essence of the American Dream.
"I think it typically leads to isolation. I don't think you are socially integrated into those communities. If you were, you would be a member of the country club, you would dine socially with these people, you are members of their church. They are the first and second circles around your life. And I don't think in most cases that is what happens. What happens is that you are tolerated, maybe even, to some lesser extent, accepted. But I don't believe very often that's your community."
I mention to Lomax that what I'm trying to get at is the extent to which class is now becoming as large a definer of people as race. He does not buy the premise—at all.
"Believe me, race is the defining issue. Class is a distinguishing and differentiating issue within the race. But race is the issue."
I ask him why he thinks that. Lomax reacts with an expression of such incredulity that it says, If you don't know, there is so much reading you need to do that maybe we should resume this interview in another lifetime. I say, Humor me. Please tell me why you, personally, think race is the defining issue, more than class.
"Because I believe that race is the most powerful defining characteristic in this society. I think more than gender, more than religion, for Western civilization the color of one's skin is the primary defining issue."
If we do have a huge emerging black population in the white suburbs, I ask, how does that square?
"Well, you can reside there. The laws tolerate that. I'm not sure you can have a conversation, but if I have a conversation with most black people who work in white corporations—they feel tolerated at best, alienated at worst. They may have economic attachments, but they don't feel they are part of the company. They don't hold out the illusion at this stage that they're going to wind up chairman of the board. There may be economic reasons for them to remain attached. They don't feel they can have the same material existence if they were to shift into some business enterprise supported only by the African-American community. But I don't think they feel the same sense of ownership.
"One thing that is happening that reduces the sense of alienation is that there are large numbers like them who then form another group. One of my roommates from college has lived in Reston, Virginia, for twenty-five years. when he got out there he was the only one. Or one of two. Now there is a larger percentage of African-Americans who live there. So I think what you are seeing is that rather than black and white upper-income people being more closely associated, you are really getting black upper-middle-income people in sufficient numbers selecting at what levels they will interact with the traditional black community. They get their sense of community on Sundays. They come into the inner city to go to church.
"Race is an inherently ambiguous and pervasive issue in this country, and there is nothing clear about it except that it has a lot of meaning and it resonates throughout people's lives. In terms of my own mind: I figure if I were to live outside and work outside of the black community, worship outside the black community, have social interactions outside the community, send my kids to school outside the black community—I would feel completely adrift. For me and for my family—which has the choice of doing anything it wants to do—we choose to have anchors in a traditionally black middle-class community. My daughter goes to a predominantly black public school. She intends to go to a black college—Spelman. She wants that. She was in a white private school; she didn't like that. She felt socially isolated. She said, I want to go where I am not a minority."
If there are now some substantial numbers of black people not making that choice, I ask Lomax, are they kidding themselves? "Who am I to say whether they are kidding themselves? The pendulum swings. when I was ready to choose where to go to college, having gone to a good integrated public school in L.A., I was the only person in my class to go south to Morehouse. Today, twenty-five years later, California is probably the third largest feeder of students into Morehouse and Spelman colleges. Why? Because these kids who grew up in privilege, affluence, now want a racial experience. They want a sense of connection. The allure of integration is not proving substantive. Increasingly I think you are going to see African-Americans choosing to live in racially homogeneous environments. That is emotionally and socially a more satisfying experience for them than always going against the grain or being in some other environment. What also happens is when we get there the whites run away anyway. So you're going to opt for that or you're going to by default wind up there."
What do words like integration and segregation mean in the late twentieth century? I ask Lomax. When I look at affluent suburbs like Hunter's Hill that are virtually all black, is that segregation?
"No Segregation means that there is an imposed restriction—it's not a choice. When I moved sixteen years ago to the Cascade Road area, it didn't even dawn on me to think of moving into a white area. I don't know why. It wasn't for lack of exposure. I had become a Southerner, I guess. I was a graduate student finishing my Ph.D. It also just happened to be a very nice area, and a lot of my friends were moving there.
It has not had all the amenities. You still can't get decent commercial and retail. But I don't have to walk out of the house and worry about somebody asking me when am I going to pick up the garbage, as if I am a service employee. Life is difficult enough. I don't want to go through that. If I were to move, the likelihood is that I'd either move into another African-American area with a bigger house, maybe. Or I might move into a more urban setting like downtown. But moving into the northern part of the city, which is predominantly white—I've never really felt that was good."
When I was talking to blacks on the Northside, I tell him, I began to get the attitude that Karl Marx was right—that issues of class are what control.
"We all make our choices. If all the black people who could move away did move away, what we left behind would be pretty bad. I think that you cannot run away. I get angry very often when I drive through my community and I see some deterioration, I see the social problems. But at least I have to see them every day. 'To whom much is given, from them much is expected.' You can't run away from that. You shouldn't run away from that.
"My tendency is to feel that for those of my brothers and sisters who choose to live their lives in Alpharetta—they're selling their birthright for a mess of pottage. They are not getting much in return. They're getting middle America. Maybe upper-middle America. They're getting homogeneous affluence. They're getting a kind of nondisturbing terrain. But that's not reality. I hear my own people speak with disdain about the homeless and the unattractive qualities of urban America. They really believe that if they can spend a half million for a home, nothing should intrude upon them that is unattractive. I don't think that's the way the world is.
"I think one of the things you might ask a lot of those people who tell you that class means everything—ask them how long they've had class. Many of them are first generation out! I think that they are running away from something and not just running to something more like them."
They really hate what they left, I acknowledge.
"It shows you how painful and violent the scars of race remain in this country."
Lomax's responses are important because they represent the orthodox thinking of many of the middle-class black people I talked to And many of Lomax's points are dead on. A striking number of the next generation of black kids who could go to college anywhere, for example, are now seeking the black university experience.
Chris Lottier, Pat and George's older son, chose to enroll as a freshman at Howard University in Washington. That is the first historically black school to have a full complement of professional graduate schools. When I sought him out there and asked why he selected a black school after living his entire life in white towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he said, "I wanted to find out what it was like to be like the blond kid sitting next to me in high school—I wanted to find out what it was like to be in the majority."
Yet, he was thinking about transferring after two years to join his younger brother at the University of Virginia. It was not that he felt he would get a better education there, but he matter-of-factly said he thought that white employers would probably be more impressed with a UVA degree than one from Howard. And making money was important to him.
Gregory T. Baranco, who is black, owns a chain of Atlanta automobile dealerships. One of them is in the working-to-middle-class environs of Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta. Gwinnett is among the whitest urban counties in America. Baranco owns the dealership that sells them Lincolns. When, for some reason, I found that amusing, he grinned and said, "All you need is a level playing field."
Baranco, who has also helped start a black bank, and his wife, Juanita, who is a lawyer, have built an entire subdivision off Panola Road in south De Kalb County, where the houses range from $334,000 to $600,000 and the owners are black. The Barancos were building a spectacular home for themselves there with banks of curved windows and an indoor swimming pool. Such homes are not uncommon in north Fulton. Why, then, did the Barancos choose south De Kalb, where they had to build a whole subdivision to get the house they wanted? Because you are buying not just a lot but community, said Harold Buckley, the other partner in the development, to the Atlanta Constitution. "If you are buying a home, you look for places where your family can establish long-time friendships," explained Buckley, whose new home will be next door to the Barancos'.
The Barancos' daughter Evelyn, meanwhile, has had the same impulse as Chris Lottier. She was choosing to spend a year away from prestigious Wellesley, where she was originally enrolled, to attend Spelman. Lomax's crucial point may well be that what matters in this society is the freedom and ability and wherewithal to choose—including the choice of when and how to congregate.
Apart from that, it is exactly as Lomax said: race is an inherently ambiguous and pervasive issue in this country. It does echo throughout people's lives. Because for so long it was the same thing to be black and to be poor, some first-generation middle-class black people are having trouble sorting out what it even means to be "authentically" black in the absence of privation. When I was doing my interviews, the trendy label being used by young black Atlantans for affluent people who were not thought to be acting sufficiently black was "pseudos."
At the same time, points out Juan Williams, who wrote Eyes on the Prize, the book that accompanied the PBS documentary series on the civil rights revolution, "Lots of white people live up to their asses in debt and don't think that much about it. Middle-class black people are much more paranoid, sensing the wolf at the door. Poverty to them is much more real. They're more likely to have family or friends who've been through an experience like eviction, where their clothes and furniture are put out on the street in an embarrassing display. In truth, the primary fear is of falling into some economic mishap that would take away our dignity, of reducing us merely to another poor black face. Just another 'nigger.' "
The impact on race of our new Edge Cities is similarly ambiguous. The argument that racism thrives is simple: racial patterns of residence are still very strong. Bart Landry claims that even Zip Codes that appear integrated statistically are not so when you get down to the block level. What you find is small enclaves of fifty black homes, not a general distribution, he believes.
But even more telling are perceptions. They can vary tremendously, depending on whether you are black or white-irrefutable evidence of how much race still matters. I once debriefed a young black Washington Post colleague from a suburban background after she completed a three-month Edge City assignment. Her articles had given no hint of her private perceptions of Edge Cities. It turned out they were scorching. No matter how many black people may have been there, Edge City reminded her of South Africa. "The people there are so consumed with themselves and their ideas of success that it is to the exclusion of anyone else. In trying to reject failures of any sort, they have lost compassion. The glass buildings are narcissistic. They reflect like the inside of a spa. It's all people admiring their own muscle. They have no soul." She said she had not met a single person during her assignment whom she found herself personally liking.
But again, there are more powerful arguments against the idea of racism being crucial to the rise of Edge Cities. They include Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Toronto, London, and Paris. As for perceptions, take Chet Fuller, a senior editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, who is black. He talks about Atlanta, with its overwhelming complement of Edge Cities, as a "place of big dreams. It says, 'We've tried a lot of things and we're not finished yet.' It's sold all these wolf tickets—it's bragged on itself so hard—that it has had to go out and back it up. There's a confidence in the air [among black people]—the way people carry themselves. They look people in the eyes—they don't look down. The word you hear is that anybody with skills and talents can make it here. It's a place of opportunities. There's lots of support. There are networks in place, a good political climate in place, and corporations with black people in decision-making positions. We in the South deal very publicly with our racial problems. On the network news, sometimes. Doesn't keep us from doing business."
These contradictions, this squishiness, is why, talking to Lomax, I couldn't let go of this bone I had in my teeth about class as an explanation of affairs. I couldn't help wondering whether there were any class origins to his elegant college professor-politician's construct. So as I was walking out the door, I asked him a few final questions about his own life:
What did your father do?
"He was an attorney and a businessman in Los Angeles. We've had black businesses for three generations now."
Where did you go to school in L.A.?
"Predominantly white Los Angeles High—[affluent] West L.A. "
Your siblings? Where did they end up?
"One's in China, teaching in a university. I have a sister who's an attorney in West L.A. in the Wilshire area. She lives up in the Hollywood Hills. I have a brother who works for the court system and he lives in West L.A., but in a predominantly white area. Another sister who's a dancer and who lives in West Hollywood. My mother lives in Pasadena."
Then, being an intellectually honest man, he saw where this was going. "None of them lives in a black community."
In the early 1990s, the new frontier for Atlanta-area developers was semirural land well outside downtown, and also south of those invisible lines which divide the posh Northside from the Southside.
Urban areas have been divided according to class for as long as there have been cities. Sam Bass Warner, Jr., in The Urban Wilderness, demonstrates that in Chicago the residential patterns by class were fully set up by 1894, long before race became an issue.
Around Atlanta, there are a lot of historical reasons, other than race, that Southside traditionally has been full of lower-income people, both black and white. Wealthy neighborhoods in every city on earth are generally upwind, uphill, and upriver from the center—to be cooler and to avoid noxious fumes. Southside has always had the problem of being at the wrong end of the Chattahoochee River. The wisdom of the ancients genuinely is enshrined in the motto—excrement flows downhill.
Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom at this time was that the Southside had become ripe for development. Air conditioning was as available there as anywhere else. If anything, it had less congested roads and more untapped sewer capacity than the booming Northside. (In the late 1980s, there were more cars and trucks in Gwinnett County, to the northeast, than people.)
Best of all, it had Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, with more non-stop flights to more American cities than any other airfield.
The noise was a serious drawback. But if you could get out from under the actual flight path, the Southside should be prime Edge City territory, all the real estate interests believed. The land cost a third of what it did on the Northside.
The issue then became: Would affluent whites live there? Among affluent suburban blacks? Or among semirural whites whom everybody stigmatized as "rednecks"?
To put it another way: what exactly was the home price that would do the trick? If the commutes were equal, how much extra would people pay to live on the Northside, when the same subdivision house was available on the Southside for $10,000 or $20,000 0r $30,000 less? What exactly was the price people were willing to put on racism, classism, and its long-time effects —such as the shopping on the Southside being substantially less than good, as were the available jobs?
When I was there, Peter Calabro was betting millions on an 850-acre planned community, Bridgport, in south Fulton County. It was on Camp Creek Parkway, a short, straight shot to the airport. Calabro was planning the development, which surrounded the deep waters of 146-acre Lake Cowart, to include a golf course, a country club, a conference center, shopping, and offices.
The single-family detached homes would range from $150,000 t0 $350,000. We're talking doors of beveled glass, here, in front of a two-story "lawyer foyer," with a mailbox out front embedded in a massive pillar of stonework.
These were ambitious plans. So although he raved about the "picturesque beauty" of the site, and the "skin-contact" quality of the lake's water, Calabro was not banking on the place selling itself. He had used "focus groups" extensively. That's the research technique in which you first analyze the market statistically. Then you go out and find human beings to match the statistics. Then you sit them down in small groups and grill them about their likes, dislikes, and behavior, videotaping the results for extensive analysis. In such fashion do you hope to divine the future.
Calabro had kept class constant, but divided his focus groups racially. In the black focus group, this is what he found: There were significant concentrations of black people who could afford the homes he wanted to build. That was not much of a surprise. In newly constructed subdiould 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.