Atlanta is losing its way
By Maria Saporta
Two veteran Atlanta business leaders – one white and one black – are concerned Atlanta is losing its way.
That is a stark contrast to Atlanta’s rose-colored past of what has been called “The Atlanta Way.” In short, the Atlanta Way can be defined as a community galvanizes its diverse leaders to tackle the city’s biggest challenges.
At a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, two dear friends shared their perspectives of the past and their hopes for the future.
Larry Gellerstedt, an Atlanta native, is the retired CEO of Cousins Properties who has chaired every major local civic and business organization over the years.
Egbert Perry, a native of the island of Antigua, is the founder and CEO of the Integral Group, a transformative urban developer.
Both got to know each other in 1980 when Perry was working with the H.J. Russell & Co. construction firm, and Gellerstedt with his father – Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr. – at Beers Construction.
“He was known as ‘Little Larry,’ Perry said with a smile.
“What has happened over the past 40 years, Egbert and I have developed as close to a personal friendship as I’ve had in my life,” Gellerstedt said.
And their bond has been both professional and personal. When Gellerstedt was out of work after dealing with depression and mental illness, it was Perry who offered him a job as a top executive of the Integral Group.
“When I joined Integral, I was the only white guy in the firm,” Gellerstedt said. “Race is a tough topic to talk about.”
But that was part of the Atlanta Way – to work through racial differences to keep the city moving forward.
“Does Atlanta get the Olympics without the civil rights movement? Hell no!” Gellerstedt said.
And then he quickly added: “There’s a lot left unfinished.”
Perry was more direct.
“I see the world as a world that really sucks for Black people. It wasn’t accidental. It was intentional,” Perry said of the consequences of slavery. “We need to understand the past and shape the world for tomorrow.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a willingness by the business and civic community to address the tough issues of the day with a goal of making Atlanta a shining city on the hill compared to its Southern counterparts.
“Here was a city that was willing to join hands,” Perry said. “We have lost our way in terms of coming together to build a wholesome nurturing community.”
Gellerstedt agreed. “We’ve got some hard work to do,” he said.
Perry spelled it out saying that in the United States, poverty is criminalized.
“That’s the challenge we have. You have to rebuild all the communities that we have,” Perry said. “When I told Larry I’m going to change urban America, what did you call me?”
“Communist,” Gellerstedt responded.
Later he added: “What Egbert did when I called him a Communist, he tackled Techwood Homes.” That was the oldest public housing community in the country, which the Integral Group redeveloped into a mixed-income community called Centennial Place.
“That changed the trajectory of people in public housing,” Gellerstedt said.
“We wanted to make sure everybody had a shot at life,” Perry said. “The people we write off, we are going to meet them in a dark alley at night. There’s no place that’s doing it well. I do feel we are losing our way. We need the energy to realize that grand vision. We need to find our north star. We have long-term problems, and we have short-term problems.”
Part of the problem is that leadership in Atlanta has changed with a much more transitory business community with many leaders running global companies.
“We haven’t been intentional about teaching what the Atlanta Way is all about,” Gellerstedt said. “Atlanta is a larger city. It’s a much more complex city and region.”
It reminded me of conversations I had years ago with Larry’s father, the late Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr. “When a new executive comes to town, a group of business leaders goes to welcome the CEO and let them know that in Atlanta you not only have to pay your office rent; you have to pay your civic rent.”
Today, several of the civic organizations that once kept the city on track have faded away. There was the Atlanta Action Forum, a group of Black and white business leaders who meant monthly to hash out their differences and find common ground. And there was the board of the Commerce Club, where top leaders met monthly to focus on the issues facing the region.
In follow up conversations with both, Gellerstedt and Perry said there is a void.
“There’s no vision for the city as a whole,” Perry said. “I fundamentally believe people are looking to be a part of something. We need a moonshot. We need servant leaders – people who are going into office to serve.”
Gellerstedt there’s a need to call the community together for Atlanta’s next moonshot, which could be around the issues of equality and equity.
But he quickly added it will be up to the current and new generation of leaders to galvanize around that north star.
“We have got to be intentional in telling the emerging leaders in Atlanta that the ball is in your court,” Gellerstedt said. “Here is what has been done in the past. Now it’s up to you. The future of the region rides on the new generation of leaders. They need to take ownership of the Atlanta Way.”