Atlanta Lullaby

by Doris Lockerman
and Patricia LaHatte
Simon and Schuster, $2.95
The great provincial cities of the United States, usurpers that they are of our agrarian past, have themselves never quite become immune to that peculiarly American sickness they so often impart to their citizens, the identity crisis. Sometimes the lack of identity is institutionalized. Sometimes it is denied. Where is it that Superman and Lois Lane hang out? Metropolis, isn’t it? On the other hand, what a good sentimental cry we all got out of the pop song “Galveston.” Farm to city, South to North, migration notwithstanding, the situation has generated a country full of homesick exiles who don’t really know where or what home is.
Metropolis, as everyone knows, is very dull, but for the millions who imagine New York to be populated by bastard children of Adam Clayton Powell and Philip Roth, and who can’t breathe the air in Queens or read a subway map, there isn’t much place to go. Enter Atlanta as the great hope east of the Mississippi.
Doris Lockerman and Patricia LaHatte, two women whose experience in light journalism and public relations should qualify them well for the job, have written a city guide for the serious Atlanta visitor, especially the executive type interested in jobs, investments, or conventions. Though the book is mainly a chatty list of hotels, clubs, land prices, schools, shops, and other information useful to middle-class settlers of the seventies, buckets of hardsell pitch for the city’s identity have been splashed between the lines.
The image (one echoed in a huge national ad campaign backed by a Chamber of Commerce committee which Mrs. LaHatte has chaired) is not altogether wrong. Atlanta does have a good record. Residents, black and white, tend to be notoriously energetic and optimistic. Their generous patrons have built a new art center, supported a symphony, museum, art school, and amateur ballet, among other things. Industry booms. There are some good schools. The city has blessed itself with a mayor and a police chief who have steered it clear of major strife. Reformist institutions such as the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have made homes there. It offers the best examples of black education and entrepreneurship. There is a good underground newspaper, too, The Great Speckled Bird.
Nevertheless, as the book says in one of its distressingly innocent leaps of exuberance (it cheerfully states you can buy your way into society through charity balls), “Atlanta is not the somnolent South. It is not sorghum syrup, fatback and hoecake. It is camellias, corporations and cash.”That, in both good and evil interpretations, was indeed the bedrock of faith in Atlanta until so recently that some major tremors of heresy could hardly have registered when the book went to press. An identity crisis is at hand for the Florence of the South.
Since before the turn of the century, the plutocrats have called the tune and paid the piper. Transportation, wholesaling, and light industry have traditionally been the core of prosperity; and banking, insurance, retailing, and construction have all caught fire since the war and the renowned influx of Northern investment.
In 1961 the “big men" in these areas did not have much difficulty deciding over lunch at the Capital City Club that Atlanta needed a sober hand and a gentleman to meet the crisis of integration, and they led the coalition that elected Ivan Allen, Jr., whose success is legendary. In 1962 it was no trick to put together $13 million for the Memorial Arts Center. Last fall the Atlanta Arts Alliance raised nearly half-amillion dollars in two days. The strategy of such power is an old story. Both the predominantly black Atlanta University Center and the Lester Maddox gubernatorial campaign advanced on the largess of the same parties.
And the duplicity has not always led to evil, for when the heavily prohibitionist Georgia legislature recently came within nine votes of abolishing decadent Atlanta altogether as a political entity in favor of Fulton County, the thought that cash dollars might have held the line bothered few.
Yet, though the tumult and the shouting may be just beginning, and the captains and the kings have not departed, some of America’s more chthonic gods may soon haunt Mmes. Lockerman and LaHatte. One of the sergeant majors of progressive causes in Atlanta, Helen Bullard, said she “had the feeling there’s no one minding the store here anymore, no one to go to to get things done. We may just be at the point where image crosses the truth.” A pessimist’s journal might contain some of the following notes: Ivan Allen, mayor for eight years, is stepping down, and new racial forces have ended his coalition. Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution is dead, and the paper has lost a handful of staffers. Some of them left in protest over an alleged reaction from the Georgia Power Company to a column critical of adding the tax surcharge to the price of electricity.
In the congressional elections last fall, two solid conservatives, Fletcher Thompson and Benjamin Blackburn, beat James McKay, the liberal incumbent, and Charles Weltner, who was trying to regain the seat he did not defend in 1966 when running meant endorsing Maddox.
A proposed rapid transit system was voted down at the same time, although the construction business booms along on beaver-board Tudor housing projects that have made rush hour a mayhem second to none. The routes would have cut out black areas altogether anyway. The city was not prepared psychologically for Martin Luther King’s funeral either, for its enormity spelled the end of a blissful innocence and the beginning perhaps of a time of racial heat. Meanwhile, of course, the police are trying to make the poor Speckled Bird actually fly underground.
And the arts, never forgotten in Atlanta, saw two major projects fall flatter than anyone thought possible.
Last fall the Atlanta Municipal Theater began operations as tenants in the new arts center. The project included a repertory theater, professional opera and ballet companies, a second orchestra, and a children’s theater. Needless to say, national and local boosters cried out that the day of regional arts had arrived at last, and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce began to cackle and count those investing chickens that must soon hatch from the cultural egg.
But what an egg had been laid. In mid-January the general director of AMT, Christopher Manos, announced an astronomical debt including back withholding taxes and stopped all productions on a week’s notice without hope of resurrection. Thereupon the offices of AMT accidently caught fire. In the depths of the crisis, the Atlanta Arts Alliance did belly up to the bar quite admirably. The ballet reverted to amateur status. The children’s theater will survive. And the Alliance has decided to shore up the repertory company under a new name. Yet the aftertaste is bitter, and people like the orchestra conductor Jonathan Sternberg, who recently got sixmonths pay from a two-year contract, no longer crow about regional high culture.
Another repertory group, Theater Atlanta, started and ended last winter on a marvelous new thrust stage built by a local philanthropist. A mildly avant-garde season and an inability to rent out the store space in the building finally brought midseason eviction to them too. Most of the company retreated to Broadway with the satire Red, White and Maddox, and now a slick TV outfit is producing commercials and syndicated cooking demonstrations on the stage,
Charles Jagels, a retired department-store head and now president of the Arts Alliance, admitted in his candid but genteel way that “with the exception of the Symphony, which industry seems to favor, the performing arts do not flourish as they should in Atlanta.”
The reasons are elusive, though they involve the camellias-corporations-and-cash mentality more than the actual cultural richness of the town. The Maddox satire, for example, was a marvelous local response to a local situation, and it packed the house. Atlanta (and many other similar towns) is in fact full of actors, musicians, singers, and dancers, so full that New York agents protested strongly at the AMT use of local talent; but no one has yet discovered how to support these people on a professional basis. The Renaissance relationship of artist and patron is evidently impractical, if not doomed.
The fat cats of Atlanta, who for two nights with Aïda bought 9000 tickets to the Metropolitan Opera Company’s production, were not numerous enough to support the local company at $7.50 for the cheapest seat. Fifteen dollars is out of the question for a couple of unfat cats, and even at that rate the company needed a go percent house to break even. Theater Atlanta mathematically could not have survived except on full crowds of local money bags, and they simply did not show.
Public funds from state and local sources support artistic causes in Atlanta to the extent of around $290,000, much of which goes to the running of the Memorial Arts Center plant. By many standards this is small, but rather than yell about uncultured lawmakers, it might be better for Atlanta to stop dreaming of culture as grand opera on a golden stage, and dream up some original ways to make the arts part of the life of the city at large, for the city will need all the unifying forces it can muster. The Chamber of Commerce will take care of itself.
At some risk of overkill, one might point OUT that Liverpool is better known for the Beatles, and Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry, than Atlanta may ever be for Memorial Center at the present rate.
So runs the debate. One wouldn’t like to say a Southern Babylon has discovered its feet of clay but simply that it has discovered its feet, and other parts, and suddenly isn’t quite sure what lobe of its golden brain should do what or to what end. The decisions could be reactionary and materialistic, or inspiring and progressive. No one knows yet, though many fear the former.
An optimistic native used another metaphor. “We’re just a lot of people, halfway into orbit, looking around for a second stage of the rocket to ignite.” Well, if we don’t find one, we can of course be sure that Superman will fly out and take us all safely back to Metropolis.