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Building the Capital of the New South: A Review of Atlanta Rising

Building the Capital of the New South:
A Review of Atlanta Rising

Atlanta's civic pride, an otherwise friendly observer once remarked, "has acquired an almost religious quality, as if on the seventh day God hadn't rested at all, but decided to make Atlanta instead, and saw that it was surprisingly good."

Why is Atlanta?

What is Atlanta? is a much easier question to answer. Atlanta is a large, rapidly growing metropolitan area at the base of the Appalachian Piedmont. It is a pleasant enough place to live, but that could be said of many places that otherwise hold no claim to the title "Capital of the New South." The city exists without any particular physical anchor that is characteristic of most major metropolitan areas: seaport, source of energy or other uniquely compelling natural resource located nearby. It exists purely as a city, and a rather successful one. Why?

There is a class of cities in the United States that simply exist because they are already there—cities, mostly landlocked, whose locations were largely arbitrary, established as a transportation crossroads, and whose growth followed purely from straight economic theory: economies of scale and scope. We know that cities like Atlanta or Phoenix or Denver should, in theory, exist somewhere. Not everyone can live in port or coastal cities. There have to be some inland cities. But identifying the factors that early in its history separated, say, Atlanta from Birmingham, Ala., or Macon, Ga., is not so easy to do. Their different development paths are the cumulative consequence of a long history of small decisions that, on net, resulted in very different outcomes.

Atlanta Rises

It is against this background that Frederick Allen's Atlanta Rising: The Invention of an International City, 1946-1996 sets out to chronicle those things that happened in Atlanta to make the city what it is today. Rather than simply chronologically recounting facts, Allen frames those facts in terms of Atlanta's economic and social development, and more importantly, how certain events positioned and kept Atlanta on its relatively fast growth track. Rick Allen has worked as a journalist, as a political commentator for CNN and local Atlanta television stations, and is author of Secret Formula, a history of Coca-Cola.

Atlanta Skyline A problem with some "history-of-the-city" books is that the author merely recounts events and does not distinguish the implications of those events in a longer-term framework of economic analysis. Fortunately, this is not a problem with Atlanta Rising. While Allen is not an economist and does not explicitly make these distinctions, he never takes his eye off the economic development ball, which provides greater insight into what transformed Atlanta from merely a transportation crossroads to the flagship city of the Southeast.

To give away the book's ending: Atlanta grows rapidly, gains jobs, income and international stature, and ultimately is awarded the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games (to Allen, just the most recent step in the larger development process). To accomplish this feat, however, required that the city break out of the struggling inland southern city rut in the interwar period (1920-40), attract new capital from the rest of the United States as well as from overseas, and do so in the midst of a social period that was not conducive to outside investment in the South. These steps, in turn, required a specific type of leadership supported by a unique community, both of which were found in Atlanta after World War II.

Leadership and Community Distinguish Atlanta from Southern Counterparts

The focus of this part of the story is long-time (1936-40, 1942-61) Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield. It is Hartsfield's vision of what was necessary to make Atlanta a great city and his relationship with the Atlanta community, particularly its businesses, that distinguished Atlanta from its southern counterparts. As Allen describes, the business community was somewhat different in Atlanta from that in other cities.

Aside from Coca-Cola wealth, which the Candlers and later the Woodruffs funneled mostly into health and education, Atlanta's well-to-do made their money in banking, commerce, and transportation, not in oil, steel, automobiles, or other giant industries, and as a result, the city's elite tended to be millionaires rather than billionaires—modest patrons rather than benefactors.

One (mistake is) to think cities everywhere must be very much like Atlanta, with "power structures" that behaved similarly. (This assumption) missed the point that Atlanta had missing ingredients. Along with rich families and powerful corporations, it lacked organized crime, powerful unions, immigrant factions, and an active Catholic church, to name some of the things in the typical municipal stew. Atlanta's political machine consisted of the personal clout of Hartsfield, who operated without a genuine patronage system. The mayor and his businessman friends exercised power largely in a vacuum. Atlanta could be dismissed as a city led by its Chamber of Commerce—"a city of salesmen," in the phrase of one contemporary journalist—but what other source of leadership was there?

In Hartsfield's view, only growth could provide the wealth the city needed to become great.

Growth was Hartsfield's goal, but that objective was not very different from many other similarly situated cities' goals in the South at the end of World War II. In particular, Birmingham was similar in size and physical attributes to Atlanta at the end of the war, so many have asked why Atlanta outpaced Birmingham in such a dramatic fashion.

One major part of that difference—the Atlanta airport—is directly attributable to William Hartsfield. As Allen recounts, before Hartsfield was mayor, he served as a city alderman at the time when the U.S. Postal Service established an air mail route between New York and Miami. Atlanta was in the running for a stop on this route, but so was Birmingham. The route through Birmingham was desirable because it was in a geographical line with the Shenandoah Valley, and it allowed the small planes of that day to avoid the more mountainous areas. As such, Birmingham was the natural choice. Hartsfield, however, recognized that the city that got the air mail stop would become a center of air transportation, which he foresaw as a central part of trade and growth. After putting together a deal for an Atlanta airport that was capable of servicing the air route, Hartsfield arranged for an assistant postmaster general to inspect the facilities. Upon arrival, he was lavished with all sorts of attention, and a week later Atlanta received the designation.

Apart from the airport, though, there are more fundamental differences between Birmingham and Atlanta that became more important in later years. Allen offers this insight:

The differences between Atlanta and Birmingham were subtle but important. In Atlanta, thanks to Hartsfield's expansion drive, many wealthy whites lived inside the city limits and were forced to deal with racial issues if they hoped to preserve their property values. Birmingham's white elite, on the other hand, lived "over the mountain" in separate suburbs—Homewood, Mountain Brook, and Vestavia Hills—where it was easier to ignore the fate of the central business district. "Too late," a rueful Birmingham native admitted in Look magazine, "our 'nice people' learned that the whirlwinds of race hatred do not stop at suburban boundaries."

Atlanta's businesses, typified by Coca-Cola, tended to be home-grown and civic-minded, while Birmingham's steel mills were run by absentee owners slow to recognize their obligations. "The trouble with Birmingham is, the people who own it and run it don't live in it," one saying went.

Indeed, the bulk of Allen's text is devoted to the way Hartsfield and later Atlanta mayors dealt with the social forces that dominated economic development in the South in most of the post-World War II period. While in Allen's view the state and a series of governors were not especially socially progressive, Atlanta generally saw the value of good social relations and moved, as best it could under the circumstances, forward.

The more recent history, while critical in resisting social backsliding, is, economically, more a matter of keeping the rapid development on track rather than having to get on the track in the first place. Mayors Ivan Allen, Sam Massell, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young (and the present mayor, Bill Campbell) all kept their eye on the social/economic development ball as they governed the city of Atlanta, frequently struggling, but constantly advancing the city as a regional and international center for business.

Atlanta was a center of commerce because the region around it suffered crippling poverty after the Civil War and looked to Atlanta as a source of capital and salvation. The city had a reputation of good race relations because Ralph McGill and Martin Luther King, Jr., calibrated the pace and led the way to slow, certain change. The airport was a gateway to the Southeast because Bill Hartsfield saw it that way at a time when barnstormers still flew biplanes. The city was united in support of the Olympics because its people and its leaders had learned, occasionally with great difficulty, to trust each other over the years.
Allen describes many incidents along the path to integration in which the city could have suffered dramatic setbacks but did not. These mayors' ultimate relative success is built upon a foundation laid by strong and skillful social, political and economic leaders that helped make Atlanta, as the saying goes, "the world's next great city."

This book review was contributed by Tom Cunningham, research officer in charge of the regional team in the Atlanta Fed's research department.