Lessons from “Uncle” Leon: Metro Atlanta is All in the Family

by Lyle Harris

lyleLeon Eplan, the city of Atlanta’s long-retired planning commissioner, has been a mentor to many people. I know because I’m one of them.

We met nearly 20 years ago while I was working as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after moving here from New Jersey with my family. Then as now, Eplan was a relentless visionary who had an infectious belief that the city and the region were destined for genuine greatness.

Eplan, who’s originally from Florida, has lived here long enough to become a “naturalized” Atlantan. Like so many of us transplants, he shares an abiding sense that this city’s future will outshine its past. Whether you’re born with that native impulse or its bred into you, it helps having an “uncle” like Eplan to help make it plain.

A rare combination of enlightened principle and grounded pragmatism, Eplan understood “smart growth” before the phrase was cool or popular. He knew the long-term challenge was attuning our urban habits to the imperative of protecting and preserving green space. Likewise, Eplan’s ideas about mass transit and intown housing were years ahead of their time.

Still funny and dapper as ever, Eplan is 80 now. He walks with the insistent gait of all men who realize their steps are numbered but their work is undone. Eplan hasn’t abandoned his hopes for this city or this region. But he has no more time to waste treading old ground when there are new horizons to be charted.
While metro Atlanta has grown and matured in ways that few might have imagined, there are intractable challenges that continue to impede our higher aspirations. Eplan knows this.

For example, MARTA remains a regional transit system in name only and continues to suffer from a severe case of arrested development. Hamstrung by a recalcitrant state legislature that demands oversight without contributing to MARTA’s operations, the system is a pale shadow of what it should be. This year, as in the past, MARTA is contemplating service cuts and other money-saving measures that are ultimately self-defeating and run counter to its essential mission.

For those who are paying attention, there are other painfully frustrating reminders of the region’s unrealized potential. For instance:

  • Zoning and land use policies are still a hodgepodge of antiquated recipes for land-hogging, soul-sucking sprawl.
  • Entrenched race and class divisions also continue to divide communities, an ongoing lose-lose proposition.
  • And despite an economic recession that’s slowed development to a crawl here and everywhere, we’re still clear-cutting valuable tree cover with reckless abandon blithely ignorant of the environmental costs.

Through the lens of my relationship with Eplan, there is surely much disappointment. Looking forward, however, there are dim if distant signs of progress. Every now and again I glimpse them in Adia, my daughter. Although she has never met Eplan, their lives are joined.

Adia just turned 20 last month. She has spent all but her first two years of life in the south DeKalb suburbs where she was raised with her twin brother.
With no job and no car, Adia is relying on MARTA to travel to the places where she spends most of her time; classes at Georgia State University, the childhood home where she grew up and the apartment in Carrollton where she’s temporarily crashing with a friend from high school.

Although Adia is shopping for a dependable, high mileage “hooptie” to get around, the money she’s planning to spend on a car could be used to buy books, toiletries or earning interest in a savings account.

Even if she decides to purchase a car, parking it at home and using mass transit for most of her travels is a smarter, cheaper and less polluting way to go. An expanded MARTA system that provides affordable and reliable transportation isn’t a luxury for Adia and other young people in similar circumstances. They’re learning that it’s a necessity.

The work of Eplan and others has undoubtedly been a factor in helping to spawn a “green economy” with deepening local roots. Before long, we should expect Adia and other hyper-wired Millenials to figure out how best to put all their seemingly mindless texting and Tweeting to good use in the course of creating a sustainable new economy that will provide them jobs and opportunity. If and when that happens, the seeds of the environmental movement that have been dormant in our region will bear fruit.

As an African-American, I’m further heartened that persistent racial distinctions which consigned previous generations to a genteel form of voluntary apartheid seem absurdly obsolete to Adia and many of her friends. Race matters to them but not nearly as much as it did in my era, or in Eplan’s. Soon enough, mixed-race, mixed income communities may be the norm, not the exception.

To their credit Adia and other 20-somethings who are making Atlanta their home, are rejecting a future warped by the same breed of naysayers, bigots and backward-looking cranks who we’ve suffered long enough.

Instead, there is an emerging sense of community born out of mutual kinship and understanding. Amen to that.

I’m not suggesting there’s an easy road ahead for those of us who live and work in metro Atlanta and adopted it as our hometown. But I’m more confident than ever that with elders such as Uncle Leon guiding the way, we can’t go wrong.

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4 comments
Blue Cracker
Blue Cracker

Alas, Adia's investment in a car is the economical choice in this town once she's employed and her time has some dollar value: $2 one way on MARTA, extra $1 at park & pay, unproductive time waaaaaiiting for buses, can't go anywhere in the middle of the night, can't go hardly anywhere in the suburbs. Versus a 35mpg car: $0.07/mile, 24/7.

mariasaporta
mariasaporta

Readers,
Now you know why I'm so excited about Lyle Harris joining me as a partner of SaportaReport.
His column provides a multigenerational perspective about metro Atlanta's significant challenges.
But he also leaves us with a sense of optimism that the next generation might be able to figure out how to meet those challenges without as many of the socio-economic divides that we have faced.
Thanks Lyle,
Maria