Thursday, July 03, 2003

Lessons from the farmboys

Driving home on the connector tonight, I came up next to a group of 20-something guys in an old Ford Explorer with Kansas tags (for the record, there is no slogan or URL on the Kansas plate, and they haven't had a slogan since 1974-75, when they had "Wheat Centennial" on their tag).

The slack-jawed farmboy in the passenger seat had a video camera rolling and pointed out the front windshield. I couldn't quite make out what he was shooting, but I assume he was captivated by a) the traffic "Heck, Roy, you ever seen so many cars?"; b) the buildings downtown "Those things is big as 4 silos!" or c) the sheer size of I-75/85 "This road's wider than the parking lot at Wal-Mart!".

Such beautiful, ignorant wonder reminded me of my view of Atlanta before I moved up here for good 12 years ago (also for the record - I was born in East Point, my dad's family goes back 140 or so years in the area, but I grew up mostly in Louisiana and Alabama).

My memories of Atlanta up until about age 14 were mostly of my grandmother's house in East Point, my great-aunt's house in Jonesboro and my other grandmother's trailer (yes - trailer) in Athens. Once I hit my teens, and especially once I had a driver's license, I really began to see how Atlanta was different from my then-hometown (Baton Rouge).

The first thing that struck me were the roads. I hear people complain about Atlanta roads, and especially Atlanta traffic. But Atlanta's road woes are caused by too many cars, not too few roads. Atlanta freeways are huge and can take you anywhere you want to go quickly (aside from traffic problems). In Louisiana, I-10 and I-12 were until recently still just 2 lanes per side and didn't go anywhere near the places you needed to be. So you're stuck with surface streets for most travel, and they are also too small and clogged most of the day. A 10-mile trip in Baton Rouge is a guaranteed 30 minute drive.

And if you think Atlanta's roads are in disrepair, try driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans on I-10. A former associate of mine who lived all her life in Louisiana thought the road was SUPPOSED to go "thump, thump, thump" until she spent some time in Atlanta.

After my folks moved up here in the late 1980s, I'd make frequent trips up to visit them in Roswell. I'd usually get in late at night and I'd have a great time zipping across the lanes of the connector, just thankful to have more than two lanes to pick from.

So Atlanta roads - good.

The second thing I latched on to about Atlanta was the affluence. Granted, I didn't spend much time in the 'hood back then, but I was amazed (and still am) at just how many people there are in this town who make an assload of money. How many $500,000+ homes do you figure there are in metro Atlanta? In Baton Rouge, the "rich people" all live in two or three nice areas of town, and the place is otherwise lower-middle-class. In the northern suburbs of Atlanta, it's neighborhood after neighborhood of big fucking houses.

I saw that as opportunity, which just doesn't exist in Baton Rouge unless you are a lawyer or chemical engineer. I didn't know how these people made all that money, but I knew this was the place to do it.

Third thing - malls. Until about 3 years ago, Baton Rouge had one big mall and one run-down old mall. When I was growing up, I actually thought malls were something built by or at least controlled by the government. The government must allow only one mall and control where it is, or surely we'd have something better than Cortana Mall.

When I moved to Atlanta, there were about half as many malls as there are today. Perimeter was the everyday mall for me (I lived in Roswell at first), and Lenox, Phipps, Town Center, Gwinnett Place and Cumberland were all in pretty easy reach. The number and size of the malls really floored me. Again, a sign of an affluent town.

Last thing I'll mention are the office complexes. In Baton Rouge, there's Downtown - which has probably a dozen or so buildings of 20+ stories, Essen Lane - where there was one decent size building that was mostly empty, and Sherwood Forest Boulevard - which had one building about 10 stories high to represent their "business district".

Sometime soon after I moved up, a friend was visiting from Baton Rouge and we were heading down Ga. 400 going into town. As we got on to the Perimeter (remember the days when Ga. 400 stopped at the Perimeter), he saw the towers at The Concourse and around Ashford-Dunwoody Road and said "Hey, Atlanta's not much bigger than Baton Rouge". I had to explain that we were 15 miles from Downtown.

This, of course, was before the office boom in Alpharetta and all the new construction in Dunwoody, Cumberland, Buckhead, Midtown and Downtown. Imagine if all the big buildings in the metro area were built by each other. Might be a "real" city.

The list of things I was impressed by in Atlanta goes on, of course. But you get the idea.

Over the years you get used to these things. The connector is just a hassle; the NationsBank Building (I still refuse to call it by its new name) doesn't look as impressive anymore, of course everybody drives $40,000 cars and you forget how good the shopping is until out-of-town friends ask to go to the mall when they are in town.

But what's worse than living in a good place and taking it for granted is the situation my friends (and family) still living in Louisiana are in. They live in a shithole and don't know any better.

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