Golden age of civic progress

While our local history suggests we are loath to do so, we have an excellent opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other communities. A case in point can be seen with an issue unfolding in Atlanta, Ga. The problems concern proponents of a new stadium who hope to replace the aging Georgia Dome and opposition from a couple of small but historically significant black churches that occupy some of the necessary real estate.

While we are not presently in the throes of a fractious development debate, the lessons provided by the Atlanta situation hold some valuable insight about the tensions between our past and future selves. As we have embarked on a path to leave many of our old ways behind, we should seek the guidance of people and institutions who are navigating (or have navigated) similar waters.

As above, ambitious political leaders in Atlanta are advocating for a new stadium. The aforementioned Georgia Dome has never quite been what planners had hoped. It’s not what the resident Falcons NFL team had hoped for either.

The city is worried that the Falcons may soon take their metaphorical ball and go elsewhere. To stave off that possibility the city wants to build an enormous, modern stadium with many luxurious appointments. Their hope is that such a structure would revitalize Atlanta’s flagging western flank.

According to the New York Times, “The new stadium, to be run by a state agency, would be a shining link in a chain that connects the city’s massive convention center, the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park. And it is the best hope for securing a Super Bowl and a major league soccer team, supporters say.”

Most of the bill would be picked up by Falcons owner Arthur Blank (progenitor of the Home Depot store chain). Blank has agreed to put up $800 million. The city will issue bonds to pay for the remaining $200 million in construction costs, and it has committed what could amount to millions more in future hotel-motel tax money to the stadium.

This is all well and good, save for the fact that one more neighborhood will be flattened in the name of progress. This neighborhood just happens to be home to Friendship Baptist Church. Founded in 1880, it’s one of the most historically significant churches in the city. Among its congregants are folks like Juanita Jones Abernathy, the widow of Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, a close associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course it’s not just the sanctuary that’s important to the area. The church operates a clothing bank and a tutoring program; a 12-story apartment building for older people and a large apartment complex for the poor are nearby on church-owned land.

Atlantans have been down this “road” before. When the Freedom Parkway was built, it required the razing of countless homes — mostly in poorer black neighborhoods. They aren’t alone.

In Arlington, Texas, a football leviathan was constructed — under a similar premise — to house the Dallas Cowboys. It is as bright and shiny as a sports cathedral ever was. It also dominates the community. While it has brought countless jobs, increased taxes and a lot of joy, it is not without trade-offs.

The situation is a lot like bringing home an elephant. Sure they’re intelligent and magnificent creatures, but the shine wears off when you realize that you have to house it, walk it, feed it and clean up after it. In the case of Atlanta, the church folks are pretty sure where the “poop” will get stored. While they’ll be given golden shovels, the task at hand is pretty much the same.

As we here in Pine Bluff are faced with the prospect of choices (much smaller choices, but nonetheless important ones): a new police facility; a waterpark; community centers … we need to proceed with caution. Other cities have allowed themselves to be romanced by glittering promises only to have traded history and integrity for golden poop scoops. We need to make certain we don’t follow suit.