Great Atlanta mayors had great ideas
By Maria Saporta
For decades, Atlanta had the good fortune to elect several visionary mayors – larger-than-life leaders who catapulted the city to new heights.
Two of those mayors – Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson Jr. – are being honored through a public memorial at the northeast corner of Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue – playing off the title of Gary Pomerantz’ book “Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn.”
The book followed the separate legacies of white Atlanta’s Allen family and Black Atlanta’s Jackson (Dobbs) family highlighting how they were different yet intertwined in the evolution of the city. Pomerantz was in town Oct. 7 to be part of a conversation about the public tribute to the two mayors and to see the public unveiling of the conceptual design for the public memorial.
“The memorial is honoring two giants in our city,” said Clark Tate with Point Office, the lead firm selected to design the tribute as part of Atlanta Legacy Makers. “They are certainly deserving of this honor.”
Developer Gene Kansas, who hosted the discussion at Constellations on Auburn Avenue, said that back in 2018, he wanted to “explore Atlanta’s journey from the Civil War to civil rights. That’s when he invited Pomerantz to headline a talk, when the idea of a memorial to honor Allen and Jackson was first proposed. Pomerantz got the idea for the book when he was a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1988 to 1999.
“From the moment I arrived here in Atlanta, I was under its spell,” Pomerantz said of his connection to the city. “I felt the profound resonance of race.”
During the panel discussion, someone asked if Atlanta had a Mount Rushmore, who would be part of it from the perspective of today. Pomerantz, who has lived outside the city for about 20 years, said he did not feel he was the right person to answer that question.
It got me to thinking about mayoral legacies – especially at a time when we’re in the middle of a 14-candidate race of people who want to be Atlanta’s next mayor.
For starters, both Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson Jr. deserve to be on Atlanta’s pedestal of history.
Allen is best known for his leadership in steering Atlanta through the Civil Rights era, being the only white elected official from the South to testify before Congress on integration. But Allen’s leadership was multidimensional. He had a “Platform for Progress” that called on elevating Atlanta into becoming a nationally important city, including attracting professional sports teams and building a public transit system.
Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, is best known for integrating the city’s political and economic spheres. Jackson initiated the city’s policy for minority-majority joint ventures, which became a model around the country. But again, Jackson’s leadership was transformative in other ways. He successfully restructured City Hall so that neighborhood voices would be part of the decision-making conversation.
Other mayors who deserve to be celebrated include William B. Hartsfield, who had the foresight to make Atlanta a center for aviation. Hartsfield also was instrumental in securing Atlanta’s ability to draw water from the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier.
Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, who served for only one term – sandwiched between Allen and Jackson, was able to get legislation for MARTA passed while he was in office.
Following Jackson was Mayor Andrew Young, who helped turn Atlanta into an international city. As a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Young was able to build global ties, especially with African nations, a strategic policy that helped Atlanta win the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Young was able to travel around the world because he had Shirley Franklin as his chief administrative officer. Young has often said Franklin actually was running the city while he was mayor.
Shirley Franklin certainly belongs in the pantheon of Atlanta’s greatest mayors. During her tenure, she cleaned up City Hall, which had been tarnished by corruption during the administration of former Mayor Bill Campbell. She spoke of planting the seeds of trees that would provide shade in Atlanta 50 years from now.
Among her contributions included an unprecedented investment in upgrading the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, launching the effort to build the Atlanta BeltLine, securing the Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, leading the effort to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Franklin also established the Atlanta Committee for Progress, an entity that coalesced the top business and civic leaders to work on her administration’s big ideas, which included ending chronic homelessness.
The mayors mentioned above serve as models during a time when there’s been a void in leadership in Atlanta.
And the conversation is even more significant given that we’re in the middle of a mayor’s race.
It’s up to the field of 14 candidates, five of whom are generally considered to be leading the pack, to cast themselves in the model of Atlanta’s greatest mayors.
As we get closer to election day and the race narrows, I hope the leading candidates will be able to answer the following questions. Do you have a grand vision for Atlanta? What are your big ideas? Will you adopt the role of larger-than-life mayors, or will you be bogged down in the day-to-day operations of City Hall?
In a recent phone call, Mayor Shirley Franklin discounted the description she was a “big idea” mayor. For her, the big idea she was not able to execute was to consolidate local governments or at least build better working relationships with other local governments in the region.
“I wanted us to have a more regional approach on the big issues of water, transportation, air and economic development,” Franklin said. “We needed to think more about regional governance. It’s still needed.”
As the mayoral race heats up (and will likely go into a runoff), it would be wonderful to hear from the leading candidates about their big ideas of how we need to evolve as a city and a region.
Note to readers: Back in 2018, after Gary Pomerantz called for a physical way to remember Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson Jr. at Peachtree and Sweet Auburn, I wrote a column challenging the city to do just that. I envisioned a different kind of memorial than the one that currently is being proposed – one that was more descriptive of the two mayors.
Since then, we have seen monuments and statues come under great scrutiny both locally and nationally.
Samara Minkin, who who oversees special projects, public arts and culture for the City of Atlanta, referenced how the conversation around monuments has changed in recent years. “We know a lot of monuments are coming down,” she said at the panel discussion earlier this month. “This was an opportunity to tell a story in a new way.”
So, it is not surprising that the designers for the Atlanta Legacy Makers chose a more abstract way to commemorate the legacy of the two mayors. As Point Office designer Matthew Weaver said: “We wanted to create a monument that you experience, a work of art that you can inhabit.”
Certainly, it was not an easy design challenge.
“Here we are honoring not just two mayors but two streets,” Gene Kansas said at the panel discussion earlier this month.
I know art (and beauty) is in the eyes of the beholder. But I must admit I’m disappointed in the winning concept.
The circular structure feels too brutal for the theme of a coming together of two races and two streets. It doesn’t reflect the qualities of the two men I was fortunate enough to know. It also doesn’t convey the magic of the coming together of Peachtree and Sweet Auburn and what that has meant to Atlanta.