Opinion - Don't be a tourist

Too many Atlantans sit on the sidelines when it comes to shaping the city. That needs to change.

One summer afternoon in 2012, I walked into a building off Marietta Street, rode the elevator up to the third floor, and sat down in the offices of a man named Harvey Newman. Over the course of an hour, the retired Georgia State University public policy professor walked me through the highlights and lowlights of Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics and the international games' lasting legacy 16 years later.

The conversation ended up being more of a history lesson than a formal interview. But it helped inform my first Creative Loafing cover story. Unbeknownst to me, it would land me a job as CL's news staff writer, requiring my immersion in all things Atlanta.

During my first six years in Atlanta, I had not attended any neighborhood meetings, stepped inside the bowels of City Hall, or stayed up to midnight for Sine Die. Like many transplants, I was slow to get my bearings straight in an unfamiliar city and watched as other people played more active roles within its 132 square miles.

Months after I joined CL's staff, Newman penned a guest column about the importance of voting in local elections, in which he recalled six words of advice he used to share with his students: Citizenship is not a spectator sport. As a staff writer, my assignments have afforded me the privilege of learning that lesson firsthand. It set me on an irreversible path toward civic engagement.

You don't have to be a reporter, a lawmaker, a lobbyist, or even a lifelong Atlantan to help shape this city. We have the ability impact the city's 242 neighborhoods in a way that's rarely possible in large American cities. In Atlanta, an aspiring urban planner can turn an ambitious thesis into a multi-billion-dollar public project, a public defender can become a MacArthur Genius for raising the criminal justice system's standards, and a college student can help spark the rebirth of a dormant civil rights movement.

More of that participation is needed. In recent years, officials have expanded transit, developers have erected high-rise condos, and corporations have relocated from the suburbs to the city — all in the name of future generations. Yet the men and women for which they build aren't always involved in guiding that vision.

Despite our collective interests, too many of us sit on the sidelines. Empty chairs frequently outnumber citizens and activists at City Hall. Voter turnout is abysmal: About a third of registered voters cast a ballot in Georgia's 2014 gubernatorial election and less than 5 percent mashed screens to decide if Atlanta officials should spend $250 million on road and bridge repairs.

Atlanta has long held onto dreams of becoming a world-class city, one worthy of international praise, glorious rankings, and shiny awards. But cut through the well-rehearsed narratives of City Hall and booster groups, and it's not hard to see a struggling city that has miles to travel before achieving that vision. We're a city with the nation's widest income inequality gap, in a region with struggling schools and an antiquated transportation system, in a state more focused on protecting the right to bear arms rather than the right to carry an insurance card.

Despite those realities, there's enough zealous civic participation to remain hopeful. Sure, not all preservation efforts have succeeded. But structures like the Atlanta Daily World and Historic Trio buildings still stand. A woefully outdated zoning code continues to undermine smart development. Yet packed zoning review board meetings can help prevent the wrong kind of big-box store from rising next to a transformative project like the Beltline. Eleven years after Georgia banned same-sex marriage, LGBT activists have fought back against further discriminatory laws and made some small gains toward equality, a once-unthinkable victory in the heart of the Bible Belt.

For Atlanta to overcome its struggles, we each need to take action. Don't wait for the right moment: start a blog, voice your concerns at a meeting, or raise hell at a protest. Your actions will not go unnoticed. Atlanta is not a city where noise drowns out its participants. It's a place where the participation of newcomers is acknowledged and embraced. Those who have stayed the course — civil rights activists like Rev. Joseph Lowery, neighborhood leaders like Mother Mamie Moore, and cultural ambassadors like Baton Bob — become revered figures in their respective communities.

Over the next few months, Atlanta residents will be able to weigh in important debates over the city's housing policy — here's your chance to do something about affordability — and vote on the financial stability of its public schools. Atlantans will also have the opportunity to elect a new mayor and councilmembers in 2017. Residents have no shortage of moments to play a vital role on these issues or in elections. But are they willing to do so?

Though this is my final week at CL — I'll be headed to Atlanta magazine — it won't be my last as a journalist documenting Atlanta's continued evolution, for better and for worse. After a slow start to my own civic participation, I found my role in a city attempting to become something bigger, whatever that might look like. For those of you sitting on the sidelines, it's not too late to help shape the city.

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