I detest Atlanta traffic. If you have lived in this city long enough, you too might feel a sense of dread when it comes to tackling the morning, afternoon or weekend rush hours. Despite the long commute times, stressful drives, and occasional feelings of social isolation, we drive. We view driving as a necessity, not an option...but the only sound choice. Yet, in making this choice, we miss out on fully experiencing the world. We miss out on community. We miss out on “seeing.” After all, who has time to contemplate the architecture, people or cultural landmarks at a stop light? We have places to be and people to see. We no longer live in the moment. The geography has become a distraction.
These words are not meant to come off as judgmental. Nor am I pointing fingers. These are merely observations. Consequently, as much as I am an avid supporter of MARTA, I too have become attached to my car. Since relocating to Atlanta, I have used the train three times. This is quite a stark contrast to the first time that I lived in Atlanta.
When I originally moved to Atlanta in 1999, I did so without a car. I grew up in Louisville, a city with an abundance of good, safe and reliable transportation. It wasn’t stigmatized. It was another option for one to travel throughout the city. I assumed that most cities operated in this way. Sadly, I was mistaken. The first place in greater Atlanta where I lived was in Tucker, Georgia, in DeKalb County. The nearest bus stop was a one-and-a-half mile walk away. The schedule was sporadic and infrequent, which created logistical nightmares since the bus had to connect with a train. However, once I boarded the train at the Avondale MARTA station, it was a relaxing ride into the city. During this time, I could unpack and be present in the moment. As I sat locked into my seat, I would gaze out the window and watch as the tree-lined residential streets transformed into industrial zones. Within these zones, I noticed the integration of functional and non-functional spaces. As the train moved westward, I considered how this small railroad town had morphed into a bustling city.
Upon arriving at Five Points station, I exited the train and headed to the street level of the station. This was a treat for my eyes. The massive amounts of people who congregated around the station, crowding the streets, made the city feel alive and vibrant. On days when I was particularly bored, I would walk from the Five Points MARTA station down Peachtree Street, crossing over Auburn Avenue into the “tourist district” of downtown. I marvel at the lines of out-of-town visitors who “ooh and aah” at the clusters of buildings and revel in the “New York City of the South.” I wondered what other areas of the city they had visited. I assumed they may have visited The World of Coca Cola, Margaret Mitchell House, and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. As I pushed through these groups of people, I continued my journey down Peachtree, always admiring and taking notes. Always feeling connected to the spaces through which I moved. On other days, I would simply hop on a local bus and grab a window seat and let the bus driver shuttle me through unknown destinations. On each trip, I would engage in the practice of acute observation: watching the people, watching the buildings, and watching the landscape change. I miss this experience.
I miss getting lost in the city; or jumping on a bus route and learning about the richness that the city has to offer. I miss riding the local bus, or catching the MARTA train from one end to the next. I miss watching people go about their day, or creating stories regarding their lives. I miss the discovery part: the ability to locate streets, abandoned buildings or “dead spots in the city which appear to be stuck in time.
I miss communing with the buildings. We often romanticize communing with nature, but the city also holds beauty. There are symbols and texts to read in the buildings. Can you see? Are you listening? Do you hear the sounds of the city in the background? What do they say?
These experiences happen so infrequently. When I’m in my car, I might see an interesting building or “find” a neighborhood that grabs my attention, but the flow of the traffic pushes me away from the site. I become a prisoner in my vehicle.
I believe this is one of the major problems facing today’s city dweller. We have become trapped in our cars. We have no curiosities regarding the city in which we live. Instead, we move through the city and life on cruise control. Perhaps it’s time to dismantle this routine. If we truly want to engage in the city...we must!
Aretina R. Hamilton