July 2 , 2003

Do mayors make a difference in the development of a city?  Certainly, many people think about Daley in Chicago, Rizzo in Philadelphia, or more recently, Guliani in New York, and they believe all these mayors made significant contributions to their cities.

Indeed, Atlantans need go no farther than Hartsfield (the City’s airport) to find someone that most historians are convinced was instrumental to the future development of this city.  But are these urban legends?  Do voters select what is needed for cities that already are on the move?  As a result, the mayor captures the benefits of a city that already was advancing?

Atlanta was going to be a significant city whether or not Maynard Jackson was elected mayor.  Its location in the fastest developing region of the nation certainly was important.  Its tradition of more inclusion than other Southern cities increased the comfort levels of the northern investors who knew they needed a presence in the South. 

Atlanta grew from the terminus of a railroad line (from which it got its initial name).  No other city has three major interstates intersecting in its downtown (only a blessing once the connector was widened).  Once Hartsfield's vision solidified Atlanta's importance in air transportation, no other Southern city was likely to take the dominant economic mantle away from Atlanta.  

Atlanta voters did not select Maynard Jackson to perpetuate this heritage.  Instead, a major shift in political power was accented by Maynard's election.  Despite its outward appearance, Atlanta had not been as inclusive as it needed to be. 

Despite new hotels and a new merchandise mart, owing to the vision of John Portman, the city was losing many of its influential citizens to the suburbs.  A city population that approached 600,000 in 1950 was plummeting to less than 400,000 thirty years later.  The suburbs were booming, and even a few suburbs dominated by blacks began to emerge in DeKalb. 

When I arrived in Atlanta just before this momentous election, the business community was worrying about the growing donut hole in the middle of this vibrant metropolitan area.  Indeed, I wrote a paper showing that six of the ten largest metropolitan areas suffered declining population in the past decade, and all of those showed this center of decaying activity that eventually began pulling down the suburbs. 

Once the political power shifted from the entrenched business community, that economic power feared that Atlanta's future was in doubt.  To be sure, the city's service providers became majority black, as the population had been when virtually no blacks were used by the previous power structure.  City contracts were tilted toward black owned providers.  Previously, those contractors hardly had a chance with any city contracts. 

Yet, whites were not excluded from the Jackson administration.  Commissioner Davis ran the budgets under previous administrations and did it so well that Mayor Jackson used his talents as well.  The important airport operations were managed by George Berry.  Cultural affairs were emphasized.  Once opportunities began to surface, so did competent black leadership, such as Michael Lomax, Andrew Young, and our current mayor, Shirley Franklin. 

The business community cringed when Mayor Jackson said he would require a minimum black presence in the building of Hartsfield's midfield terminal.  Yet, the construction was completed on time and under budget. 

Indeed, the transportation significance that was apparent before Jackson became mayor was enhanced by his administration.  The connector was widened, Hartsfield was enhanced, railroad yards were approved and constructed.  And culture continued to flourish. 

The mayor who some remember for his insistence upon black presence in city affairs, who skirted the boundaries of official quotas in insuring that some economic power flowed to the black community, who boasted that he helped create more black millionaires than all the mayors before him (and he did), was actually a mayor of inclusion. 

Mayor Jackson gave Atlanta what it had lacked, a sense of progress for all its citizens.  The donut never opened wide.  Investors slowly returned to the opportunities provided by Atlanta.  While some white flight continued, a few in-town neighborhoods began to realize that black entrepreneurs added a desired flavor to their communities. 

Atlanta still has many problems to overcome.  Too many families are poor for several generations.  The public schools are not where they need to be.  Downtown continues to evolve (but we now see it as an evolution, not a destructive donut).  And sometimes, favoritism supersedes merit in political affairs. 

Perhaps Atlanta would be where it is without Maynard Jackson.  Certainly, we preferred the tone of Andrew Young.  But my guess is that mayors do make a difference to a city, and the difference Maynard Jackson made, in my mind, was very large and very positive indeed. 

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