The other morning, while catching up on the world, I came across a New York Times article that caught my attention. It was linked to a tweet that mentioned the outrageous commute times that many New Yorkers are having to deal with in order to get to work. My first reaction to the tweet was that this is due to the inordinate number of persons being enamored by "big city living and a voodoo woman named Phyllis." Reading the article added another dimension to the problem entirely. The swelling of the American city due to the never ending quest for wealth and power is still very much involved. But the people in this particular article are the victims of this quest rather than the perpetrators.
The article tells the stories of service workers, security guards, laborers, good honest blue collar folks, who find themselves moving further and further from their jobs in order to have rents more in line with their incomes. Some of these people have had to relocate so far out that they are commuting up to 2 hours one way to get to work. This isn't your typical Atlanta commute. These people are using transit - buses, subways, combinations of the two, often having to switch back and forth more than once. People putting in eight to 10 hours a day making $11-$15 an hour simply cannot afford to live near their job...anywhere near their job. Throw in a two way commute that might equal as much as a half of their work shift, they've lost more than 12 hours just to pay the bills. An 8 to 5 worker could lave home at 6 am only to return around 7 pm.
As cities continue to drag in more large employers that pay high salaries and property values climb in response to the housing market shifts, the problem continues to worsen. And transit isn't making the situation any better, so it can't really be the answer.
Closer to home, we see Atlanta trending that way with many claiming that transit will ease the pain and make the problem evaporate. People float the ideas of minimum wages and rent control and a thousand other schemes to try to solve this issue. But there are resource issues - water, energy, air pollution, affordable food, disposal of refuse, all of these are stretching the capacity of Atlanta and nearly every other American city. Throw in the regional types of natural disasters (i.e. Los Angeles fires or flooding in Houston) and the cities don't have the resources and infrastructure to deal with what they have, much less more.
It isn't sustainable.
There is only so much urban sprawl that a plot of land can withstand. I've mentioned before that we need to be using our new connectivity and new technologies to spread out some, use our resources more wisely, and create more sustainable communities. We don't need a mom riding a subway for two hours to make a living and then ride two hours back, missing PTO meetings, dinners with her family, and whatever practices or activities she can afford for her kids to be involved in. She can't have an effective family this way. This isn't life. This is survival. Nothing more.
We have to change our thinking - as individuals, as a society, as a nation. No one is ever going to win the Rat Race. The only way to not lose is to not run. It is time to look for us to quit chasing shiny and start pursuing meaning. Why are we doing what we are doing?
By Sam Burnham
While the mainland was either taking a knee or cussing about the people taking a knee, the people of Puerto Rico were running around int the dark try to find something to feed their kids.I was blindsided today by stories of American citizens sitting in a sweltering airport waiting on relief flights to arrive. They were too scared to go outside where it was noticeably cooler because they might miss out on the relief flight. There are also stories of people lined up at depleted gas stations, just waiting for a tanker to arrive to fill up the empty storage tanks. This is not some random third-world country were talking about. These are American citizens.
Without going into a major history lesson, Puerto Rico, like our federal government, is loaded down with debt. With a struggling economy and crumbling infrastructure, they weren't really ready for the lesser impact of the season's earlier storms. They we most definitely not ready for Maria.
But I read an article from the New York Times Monday night and it just slapped me. I was sitting there staring at all the things ABG stands for lying in crumbles on the ground in Puerto Rico. I knew it was rough. I knew the storm had hit them and their electrical grid was struggling. But when I saw this quote by Jose A. Rivera, a farmer in Puerto Rico, it hurt my heart, made me feel just terrible. “There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won’t be any for a year or longer.” I'm sitting here looking at a Spanish-speaking version of South Georgia that has just been decimated in a matter of hours.
Puerto Rico has a four century history of agriculture. They industrialized after World War II, just like the rest of America. That industrial economy collapsed, just like the rest of America. But Puerto Ricans went back to the farms. They were having a bit of a farm-to-table renaissance and agriculture was becoming a way of life for many people once again. While the island still has to import 85% of its food, they were on a track to lessen that. If their food production allowed them to begin to sell that food (plantains, bananas, sugar, coffee, etc) to the mainland, it could help offset the cost of the food they have to have shipped in. This could become a major industry for the island.
But the storm leveled all the agriculture they had, Trees are gone and their produce with them. Even if they started back today, which they can't, they would still be months, perhaps years, from being back on the right track. They have got to get the storm and the destruction behind them so they can begin to rebuild. With their economy as it is, they can't do that alone. They are going to have to completely rebuild their electric and telecommunications grid. They are going to have to rebuild the majority of homes and businesses. Most of the island is starting from scratch.
The government is sending aid and that's great but 1) it's the government and 2) it's the government. So here are some handy-dandy links to reputable charities working on relief to Puerto Rico if you'd like to help these folks get some more help getting on their feet. I think they want to walk on their own, let's just help them stand back up:
United for Puerto Rico (led by the First Lady of Puerto Rico)
Hispanic Federation "Unidos"
Catholic Relief Services
Save the Children focuses relief on families with children
By Sam Burnham
There is a lot of buzz being generated right now over the possibility of Amazon opening a secondary headquarters campus (HQ2) in the Atlanta area. There have been several rumored sites for the theoretical Atlanta location. There area several other cities in contention and each has its own strengths and weaknesses based on a list of Amazon's preferences in regard to infrastructure and quality of life.
Many Georgians living outside the metro are casting a skeptical eye on this development and not because we think Atlanta can't pull this off. On the contrary, it's because we know Atlanta is the best choice on the list.
When you look into the quality of life -museums, concerts, entertainment, sports, restaurants, bars, Atlanta is a magnet. Georgia's business friendly laws and regulations are specifically geared for this campaign. The presence of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the portion of Kennesaw State formerly Southern Polytechnic offers an Amazon River of entry level employees just minutes, perhaps only blocks, from the proposed locations. Atlanta's airport puts the employees of the new site within two hours of 75% of the US population and most major US business centers.
This leaves only Atlanta's traffic and relatively meager transit system as a drawback for Amazon, who includes ease of commute and transportation in their list of preferences. With the City of Atlanta and Governor Deal both scrambling to do whatever it takes to get this deal done, the upcoming push for improved and expanded transit is all too predictable.
Who Stands to Benefit
As with all economic development in the Peach State, Atlanta stands to reap major benefits from this deal. While Cobb, Dekalb, and other metro counties could actually be the host of the site, the amenities of Atlanta are the draw and will be raking in the cash spent by an estimated 50,000 employees averaging $100,000 annually.
If we do see the expanded transit it will take to seal this deal outright, Cobb, Dekalb, (wealthy northern) Fulton, Gwinnett, and perhaps Hall counties on the north end will see new transportation options to better connect them with the new jobs and the amenities we've mentioned. There would be similar benefits for Douglas, (growing) southern Fulton, Clayton, and Henry counties. These counties are where the incoming Amazons will live, work, and play.
The annual influx of $5 billion in salaries alone would be a economic boom for the state. There is no denying the actual numbers of the deal. Add in the operational costs (theoretically spent locally) for maintaining such a campus would fund vendors and other businesses in the area well beyond the foreseeable future. This is a very big deal.
The Unseen Costs
Georgia Changed forever on September 18, 1990. An announcement in Tokyo, Japan proclaimed Atlanta as the host of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta was a growing city and showed much economic promise. But the Olympics changed the game forever. In the years leading up to the games, Atlanta grew rapidly. The city was on the map. The whole world was talking about it. Businesses and people came in droves. They loved the climate, the economy, and everything else Atlanta was coming to offer. They stayed. And more came behind them. In 27 years Atlanta has gone from a big city by the standards of the South to a world class metropolis. It has been an amazing transformation to say the least.
But what people living in the non-metro areas have learned in that time is that there is no wall around that metropolis to keep it in. While many other world class cities have grown up and up towards the clouds, Atlanta has grown up and out, spreading across the landscape like a patch of concrete kudzu, covering everything in its path.
This is where the perceptions of the people of outlying Georgia come into play. This is where understanding the concerns of "fly-over" or even "drive-past" Georgia will make a difference if there must be a state-wide push to make this deal happen.
Everyday, Atlantans sit in traffic possibly thinking that they are beginning or finishing a day of productive economic activity that benefits the economy of the state. What they don't know is that there are a multitude of people in the TV market area that are watching the traffic updates on channels 2, 5, 11, and 46 and laughing at the "fools" sitting in traffic. It is like the zoo where people observe captive species and wonder at their mannerisms and behavior. But mostly they just hope to never live in such a manner. Pile on the crime, lack of affordable housing, the small building lots, and lack of exposed earth, count us out. We don't want that. Not in our back yard.
But that is what we see every single time the strip malls, overhead superhighways, and office parks pop up just a little closer to the house. And there is no Roundup for that sort of kudzu. There is no way to resist it as farm after forest falls under the bulldozer, never to be seen again.
Ironically, the people in the bulldozers and those who follow, immediately begin to lecture us on the environment, climate change, emissions, recycling, "sustainability." It becomes the Once-ler giving the Lorax a good lesson on conservation.
This is what folks outside Metro Atlanta hear when Atlantans tell us about the economic benefits of this deal. When Atlanta booms, it lands on us. And we don't necessarily want it.
Reaching for Cooperation
I don't want to finish this article without covering a Twitter conversation I had on Thursday with Teri Anulewicz on this very topic. Teri is a Democratic candidate for Georgia House District 42 as well as the former Smyrna Ward 3 representative and Mayor Pro Tem. She was reaching out to me in search of understanding after I had tweeted about my diminished enthusiasm for the Amazon HQ2 Atlanta plan. This was a honest search for understanding and the genuineness of the conversation was refreshing in these times.
The transit improvements will require some regional, if not state-wide, cooperation. Atlanta cannot do this alone. But selling the plan to the outlying areas is going to be difficult. There would be some greater access to transit for many Georgians. But will the cost be worth the amount of times we plan to use the improvements? As long as we see Atlanta transit (again, perception) as a place to pay to get mugged on an inconvenient time schedule, we're going to drive our own cars and pay to park. If the parking disappears, we just won't go. It won't be worth it. If you want to sell transit improvements to us, show us how it makes our lives better directly or we will never agree to help pay for it.
That is where the conversations like the one Teri and I had this past week become vital in our future. Metro folks need to listen to our concerns, understand that we don't always see their idea of economic growth as beneficial to us. We often see it as counterproductive and dangerous to our communities and our way of life.
It also won't hurt us to listen as well. Perhaps in doing so we develop a better relationship between the "two Georgias" and can find benefits for both sides in the discussion. For example, in our discussion Teri and I agreed that the expansion of the Port of Savannah benefited the whole state. Projects like that can be cooperative and everyone can win a little. Both of our ideas of good economics are represented.
If we can create new ways for Atlanta to thrive without paving the entire state, that can be a similar situation. I don't think we have to have it one way or the other. Honestly, I think Atlanta is too far gone for us to ever have it "our" way. I don't think our economy or environment can withstand having it only "their" way. So now we are faced with the reality of the metro and the rural partnering for a healthy coexistence. But that requires respect, trust, communication, and some willingness that I saw Thursday. And thank you, Teri, for being a part of that.
Let us look to the future: trust but verify.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire