Atlanta: Problems and Promise

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young prepares to take office here as mayor, this multi-faceted city abounds with signs of prosperity and promise - but also with signs of perplexing problems.

Atlanta's skyline continues to change, with a massive amount of construction under way of hotels, offices, and apartments in or near downtown. Many neighborhoods have been renovated and under the city charter have a stronger voice in both planning and budgeting than in most other big cities in the country. Cultural activities fill a hefty pull-out section of the weekend newspaper. The world's largest air passenger terminal opened here last year and another small portion of the rapid rail system is about to open.

But that rail system is hemmed in by three of the surrounding counties which have not yet approved a local sales tax to enable them to help pay for extension of the system into their areas. In these mostly white counties, the number of people, businesses, and jobs has increased rapidly, while Atlanta has steadily lost businesses and people since l970.

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In the past 20 years, Atlanta has switched from about one-third black to one-third white. The school system is predominantly black. Many whites have left. White control of City Hall ended with incumbent Mayor Maynard Jackson's election eight years ago; black control continues with Mr. Young's election. Many whites are still not accustomed to being a minority here.

About one-fourth of all Atlantans, most of them black, live in persistent poverty, according to the city's own estimates. Many lack a basic education and job training.

So far, contrary to President Reagan's thesis that the private sector will step into the gap left by reduced federal help, some analysts complain that the powerful (mostly white) business community here has done more talking than acting to help hire and train the hard-core jobless.

While Atlanta may be one of the most integrated cities in the nation from 9 to 5 workdays, some critics complains that it is one of the most segregated the rest of the time. Yet there is a large and growing black middle class. And race relations - still a major issue - are at least talked about openly. Black and white leaders sit together on numerous city panels and study groups tackling problems.

Talking with a cross-section of the city's leaders and residents reveals a mixture of enthusiasm and hope, discouragement and pessimism about Atlanta. But a common denominator among those interviewed is concern for their city. How that concern is translated into actions and how it affects attitudes will have a great deal to do with Atlanta's future.

'Atlanta is changing,'' says Leon Eplan, a local professor and past president of the American Institute of Planners. ''It's renovating, it's revitalizing,'' he says.

But he is not sure the jobless will get jobs and the untrained become trained. He sees the need for more downtown businesses and housing to add to city revenues which will be ''hurt enormously'' by federal budget cuts.

Nevertheless, on balance, Mr. Eplan sees more positive signs in Atlanta than negative ones.

''I think it is the self-deprecation of a city that hurts,'' he says. Mr. Eplan, a native Atlantan, says he believes the negative images of Atlanta as crime-ridden, racially divided, with whites and businesses fleeing to the suburbs, are counterbalanced by the arrival of young families, the opportunities for blacks, the cultural and entertainment life of the city, and the strong neighborhoods - black and white - that have more political clout than in any other city.

Atlanta, he says, is an ''exciting'' place to live.

The level of excitement, however, differs among Atlantans, depending on their present circumstances.

Mozella Alexander, a retired school teacher who lives in one of Atlanta's middle-income black neighborhoods, says she appreciates Atlanta's ballets and theater, but worries about the poor, especially the ''little children (who) are suffering.''

In a series of killings lasting nearly two years, which apparently ended last May, 28 young blacks were murdered. A black man has been indicted for two of the murders and officials here say he may be linked to more. Some people here blame poverty for making the youths more vulnerable to crime; quite a few of the victims were known to have been out on the streets much of the time - sometimes late at night and far from home - trying to earn money.

During the height of warnings for children not to approach strangers, plainclothes policemen conducted a test, trying to lure young black children into their cars with the promise of $10. According to Mayor Jackson, every child approached fell for the bait, a sign, he says, of their desperate need for money.

Mary Sanford is president of the tenants association at Perry Homes, the largest public housing project in the city with some 8,000 residents, according to her estimate. She is concerned about unemployment and hunger among the poor. Many low-income families on food stamps and welfare are beginning to feel the added pressure of federal cuts in those programs, says Mrs. Sanford. Even before the cuts, many families had gotten used to trying to stretch their collards and dried beans to last out the month until the next government check arrived.

Many taxpayers are reluctant to support welfare programs for people unwilling to work, and there have been cases of abuse in such programs. But many Perry Homes residents work as maids and travel long hours to and from affluent white neighborhoods. Black leaders here say many more would work if they could get work.

''If you can bring the dignity of working back to people, you can work on the other ills,'' says Mrs. Sanford.

Dan Sweat Jr. is excited about Atlanta - and concerned. As president of Central Atlanta Progress, an association of downtown businesses, he points with pride to some of the massive amount of new construction in and around downtown: Southern Bell's new office building for some 3,500 employees; the high-rise headquarters of Georgia-Pacific; a 500,000-square-foot office building just off the renovated Central City Park; several major new hotels and expansions.

The World Congress Center, the main convention hall, is being greatly expanded; so is the city museum. A 22-block section of downtown is being renovated with public and private funds, fitted with pedestrian malls, and spruced up. Some 2,200 housing units, the majority of them for middle-income families, are being consructed near downtown in the Bedford Pines area, where Mr. Sweat himself is moving from a suburb.

''We're still in the catbird seat for the future,'' says Sweat, between bites of a sandwich at his desk in a downtown bank building. But the city will be ''lost'' if the crucial problems of crime and unemployment are not solved, he says candidly. Atlanta is in tough competion with other Sunbelt cities to attract new hotels, offices, and other investments, he says.

''The thing that's hurting us more than anything else is crime and the fear of crime,'' he says.

Much of downtown Atlanta at night is deserted. Many city and suburban residents fear to come downtown after dark. Underground Atlanta, a cluster of attractive restaurants and other businesses tucked under some of the city's viaducts, has failed, partially due to this fear. So far the convention business continues to boom, but bookings are made several years in advance and the effect of recent problems may not have been felt yet.

There is no shortage of studies on Atlanta's problems and what to do about them. But, as newly elected city council member Myrtle Davis notes: ''Everybody's going in a different direction to solve the problems.''

How Atlanta pulls together to tackle the problems of crime, unemployment, and race relations will determine, in large part, what kind of city this will be in 5, 10, or 20 years: Crime

Atlanta's Public Safety Commissioner Lee P. Brown points out that Atlanta's rate of crime increase was actually lower in 1980 than national rates. FBI figures show that nationally serious crimes were up 9 percent and violent crimes increased 11 percent in 1980. Atlanta's serious crime went up only 1 percent and violent crime 3 percent in that same year. This news was obscured by the murders of black youths.

This year, Atlanta's serious crime has fallen for five straight months, including October, says Commissioner Brown. Homicides decreased from 150 the first nine months of 1980 to 142 the first nine months of 1981, an Atlanta police department spokeswoman says.

Brown attributes the turnaround in crime figures in part to specific anticrime plans for each major category of crime. He also praises citizen involvement, such as business and neighborhood crime watch efforts. ''Our city has not accepted crime as a way of life,'' he says.

During the mayoral campaign, crime was repeatedly raised as an issue. Mayor-elect Young promises to use a system already begun by the police department of assigning officers to specific neighborhoods for long periods, rather than rotating them often. And he hopes to get mopeds for police to use in downtown areas to be more visible and accessible to the public.

But Commissioner Brown claims ''a direct relationship between unemployment and crime,'' and predicts increased crime if the number of jobless increases. Unemployment

Numerous people in the business community strongly opposed the election of Mr. Young and backed white state Rep. Sidney Marcus. But Young knows he must have business cooperation to run the city and help spur investments that will increase jobs. Already he has met with some key business leaders to close the gap that had developed between Mayor Jackson, the city's first black mayor, and the business community.

The jobless rate among inner city black males is ''at least 18 percent'' and among black teen-agers it is ''at least 45 percent,'' according to a spokesman for the Atlanta Office of Economic Opportunity, the federal antipoverty agency.

Private industry makes substantial contributions to United Way, says Paul Morgan, deputy director for the Office of Economic Opportunity here. But when he has approached industries to solicit their help in employing the hard-core jobless, ''They thanked us for thinking of them, but said they didn't have the money at this time,'' he says.

Private efforts to help train and hire the hard-core unemployed have been ''miniscule'' to date compared to the need, asserts Alan M. Ross, executive vice-president of the Private Industry Council of Atlanta.

Winning private cooperation has ''been a very difficult nut to crack,'' he says, but adds that the nut is ''beginning to crack.''''

D. Raymond Riddle, president of First National Bank of Atlanta, says Atlanta cannot develop ''in isolation'' from the surrounding counties. Better transportation is needed for Atlanta's jobless to reach the increasing number of jobs in the counties, he says. ''I believe 99 percent of those people (the jobless in Atlanta) want to work,'' he asserts. He says government should take a lead role in training the jobless.

But government job-training funds are being cut by the Reagan administration. A federally funded job-training program run by the Urban League, which placed 10 blacks a month in skilled trades, has just been eliminated.

The program was just a drop in the bucket compared with the needs here, but now ''even the drops are drying up,'' complains Atlanta Urban League executive director Lyndon Wade. Joblessness is increasing and so is desperation, he says. ''We're seeing it in the faces and the eyes of the people who come to us for help.''''

Among the jobless are many educated blacks, trained for jobs with limited openings, says Mortimer Cox, the Urban League's employment director. The motivation for someone to find and work upward on a job has to ''come from within,'' he says. In the long run, some federal job fund cutbacks may spur greater self-reliance, he says.

One tactic Atlanta is using to keep jobs is to convince local businesses to stay. But one of the big lures was federal loans and grants for plant renovation and other needs, and those are being cut back sharply, says J. Russell Simmons Jr., deputy director of the Atlanta Economic Development Corporation.

The corporation is also helping establish several industrial parks in Atlanta , including one near the new airport. But, says Mr. Simmons, ''The private sector has got to come forward and do it (help train the unemployed).

Others here call for better focusing of vocational training to match the shift in jobs here toward computer and other so-called ''hi tech'' jobs.

There already is a need for trained clerical help. And according to downtown booster Sweat, some 3,000-5,000 hotel jobs will be opening before long in Atlanta, jobs many blacks are reluctant to take, he says. He predicts many of the hotel jobs will go to members of Atlanta's Asian and Latin communities who are eager for any work. Race relations

Although voting in the mayoral election was assumed largely along racial lines, it cannot be assumed to be a racist vote, says City Councillor-elect Davis. Race was a ''tremendous factor'' in the election, she says, ''I think Atlanta is far ahead of many other cities. It (the issue of race) is open; at least we talk about it.''

Actually, the election may have shown more biracial support of candidates than is generally recognized. Georgia State Professor Eplan says that about 1 out of 4 Atlanta voters may have voted for someone of another race.

City Council president Marvin Arrington was impressed that a few days after election some three-dozen white and black leaders came to a meeting he called to discuss working together for the city. ''The community stands together or falls together,'' he said, speaking of the need for citywide cooperation on tackling problems such as joblessness.

In a small but potentially much larger private effort, the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta has begun arranging meetings in black public housing projects that include white women from affluent areas. The participants talk and work on projects of common interest, such as crafts. The idea is to ''build bridges of understand between the races and sections of the city, says the council's executive director, the Rev. Donald Newby.

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