In the city

The Robinson College of Business is located at the intersection of Broad and Marietta streets in Atlanta. At that same intersection, directly across the street, is Barbara M. Asher Square and the MARTA Five Points station, a major public transportation hub and the place where I used* to catch the express bus home at the end of the day. It always struck me as a pretty dicey place to be, and in stark contrast to the generally clean, non-threatening atmosphere of the midtown/downtown area. Now an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (09/23/07; available here) pretty much confirms it.

The writer’s description of the area is pretty accurate, right down to those darn pigeons:

A group of girls, all sporting Mohawk haircuts, yelling at a group of young men. Animated, agitated and aggressive, they are inches away from each other’s faces. No blows are thrown. But only the truly curious in the square seem to care anyway.

Everyone else is sitting on any of the 12 concrete benches surrounding the square’s dozen trees, with seemingly no place to go or at least no reason to hurry. Beggars. Hustlers. Preachers. Homeless men and women. Hookers. Kids. Transvestites. Men in wheelchairs.

You can buy anything from fruit to bootleg music to sunglasses.

Pigeons swoop in dangerously close, while others walk through the square with impunity or rest on the huge statue called "The Phoenix."

The smell is a combination of urine, funk, incense and weed. And although a team from the city’s Public Works Department is vacuuming the place, one wouldn’t be surprised to find a drunk lying in the gutter.

In fact, there was a drunk lying in the gutter that day — less than 30 feet away from the bronze statue of Asher. They just cleaned around him.

Welcome to Atlanta.

The article goes on to say that everyone knows it’s a problem, but no one wants to claim responsibility for it. Since the square is a public place, people are free to hang out (or pass out, or yell incoherently) as long as they want as long as they aren’t doing anything overtly illegal. There are so many homeless people and drunks in Atlanta that it’s impractical to lock them up, so they just go wherever they want. Most people are content to ignore them, though it’s an interesting study in extreme contrasts to see businesspeople and academics walking nonchalantly among some pretty haggard and scary-looking folks, nearly all of whom are men. Many behaviors considered socially inappropriate are performed in full public view. Dumpster diving is one. The article describes some bathroom behaviors which I count myself fortunate to have not seen.

It’s interesting. I worked for two years in parts of South Africa that were a lot more dangerous than what I see here, places where people lived in hastily erected squatter huts constructed out of mud and tin and without sewage or garbage removal systems, places where I was the only white man for miles. But I can only think of one time when I was truly concerned for my safety. Not that I walk in fear here, but I definitely recognize the blessing of protection I received as a missionary by its relative absence in "civilian" life.

*For the record, about a week ago I scouted out a safer place to catch the bus home. It’s only a block and a half north of Five Points, but the difference in atmosphere is remarkable. I immediately feel much safer there.

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