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What snow should teach the South

Editor's note: This essay was written about the first snowstorm that froze Atlanta in its tracks last month, not to be confused with the ice and snow that whacked the city last week. But the lesson — the danger when parochialism trumps a broad regional outlook — remains an important one for all of us in the Tampa Bay region.

The weather fiasco in Atlanta, which stranded thousands of commuters on glassy-slick roads and gridlocked the entire metro region for the better part of 24 hours, was caused by a freak snowstorm, they say. And this is true, in the same way it's true to say the Civil War started because some guys in Charleston, S.C., started lobbing cannonballs at Fort Sumter. But the real problem in Atlanta isn't snow; the real problem is history.

I grew up in Atlanta and still have scores of friends, former colleagues and family members in Georgia, so my Facebook feed lit up with snow news long before the first flakes hit. A friend whose office overlooks 10th Street in Midtown posted a picture of the snarled traffic as it was happening, and I knew this was going to be bad, bad, bad.

I also knew that I'd be hearing stories about folks coming out to aid stranded motorists, or inviting strangers in for a bowl of hot oatmeal or some such, because Southerners are like that. A New Yorker might go out of his way to help a stranger cross the street in a time of disaster; a Southerner is apt to take him home and cook him dinner. And in fact there were plenty of such vignettes, all of them reminding me of what I miss about living there.

"Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal ... such was the South at its best," wrote W.J. Cash in his classic 1941 work, The Mind of the South. So far, so good — but Cash goes on to describe some less appealing but still quintessentially Southern traits, among them being "suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too-narrow sense of social responsibility." And, of course, "too great an attachment to racial values" — or, so as not to mince words, racism.

What does this have to do with snow? Let us review.

"Exaggerated individualism" is a pretty good description of the Southern approach to politics — especially in Georgia, which has more counties than any state in the country except Texas. "Atlanta" is actually a 10-county metropolitan region that is home to more than 4 million people and 68 separate municipalities. In some places, such an amalgamation might make people think about consolidating services. Not in Atlanta: In Fulton County alone, home to most of the city proper, three suburban municipalities have formed their own governments just since 2005 in an effort to distance themselves from the urban problems of their big-city neighbor, and there's a growing push among residents of the affluent northern end of the county to form a whole new county, as if Georgia doesn't already have enough of those.

Secession movements have percolated in various metropolitan areas across the country for years, and lately western Maryland and the entire state of Texas, among other places, have made a lot of noise about seceding from greater Maryland and the United States, respectively. But in the Deep South, people don't just talk about secession; they do it.

Southerners love them some local "gummit," the local-er the better. But when regional disaster hits — whether it's the years-long drought of a few years back, or this snowstorm — that means umpteen local and state politicians have to work together on a deadline, putting aside their various ambitions and competing constituencies under adverse conditions in order to deal with a common threat. It could work in theory, I guess, but not in practice.

Then there's the part about having "too narrow a sense of social responsibility." Exhibit A here is the failure in 2012 of a massive $7.2 billion transportation initiative, which would have paid for sorely needed regional highway improvements and funneled $600 million into the Atlanta Beltline, an innovative proposal to link neighborhoods in the city by light rail, using 22 miles of abandoned cargo lines left over from Atlanta's heyday as a railroad hub. To which the voters of the metropolitan Atlanta area said: Hell, no.

Here is a region that even without freak snowstorms is choking on its own traffic, which has built its reputation on being a transportation hub, which is looking at a future when gas will never be less than $3 a gallon again, and all voters could think about was how much they hated government and paying taxes. They had their reasons — Georgia has no shortage of political corruption, and in 2012 the economy was still deeply in the tank — but even so, it was like watching folks refuse to get out of a burning house because they objected to the way the firemen were holding the ladder.

And, of course, there's race. Race is a recurring motif in the long history of the city-rural divide in Georgia politics, as well as the uneasy history of relations between the leaders in City Hall and the state Capitol just down the street. Much as white Southerners despise being labeled "racist" whenever they vote Republican — and I do understand why that makes them mad — it is still a fact that you cannot separate anything in the South entirely from the question of race.

I was a kid when then-Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. proposed a rapid rail system to link Atlanta to its surrounding suburbs, and I distinctly remember the joke circulating among white people back then, the one that said that MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) actually stood for "Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta." Plain and simple, it was white folks' fear of black folks that explained the failure of a sales tax hike to fund rapid rail in three of the then five counties making up the metro Atlanta area. Today, Atlanta's rapid rail map looks kind of like a crooked plus sign that doesn't venture outside Fulton County and part of DeKalb, instead of the web of rail lines connecting the entire region that was originally envisioned.

The results are not just suburban sprawl, which Atlanta is hardly the only city to suffer from; another result is widening income inequality — which Atlanta leads the nation in, by the way — since sprawl creates a dearth of close-in affordable housing and forces poor people spend a larger portion of their income on transportation. Today, Atlanta's affluent northern suburbs, which have no mass transit, stretch practically to Chattanooga — and south Fulton County, which does, is a sea of mostly poor, mostly black neighborhoods. But at least those black folks in south Fulton — who benefit from mass transit because they live close to Hartsfield International Airport — got to take the train home while everyone else was idled on storm-clogged roads, so there's that.

For generations, the South has been labeled a backward region, a reputation it has yet to completely outgrow, but I see it as the opposite: It's a region that has confronted enormous challenges, and results, as they say, have varied. Industrial, large-scale agriculture? The South pioneered it in the early 19th century, on the backs of slave labor, and we discovered that it strips the land of nutrients and enriches the few at the expense of the many.

Race? Still working on that, though arguably we've made more progress than other places — and here I'm talking about little-noticed but very active grass-roots racial reconciliation efforts across the South, not to mention the South's explosion in the number of black elected officials over the last half century. And now, here's a major Southern city confronting the problem of how to survive the 21st century.

I think it's safe to say that in this storm, Atlanta conclusively demonstrated what is never, ever going to work. The way forward is complicated, to say the least — but it's hard to know where you're going without a clear idea of where you've been. Southerners are notoriously poor at understanding our own history — there's so much of it, and so much is painful — but here, today, is a really good place to start.

Tracy Thompson is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and author whose latest book is "The New Mind of the South."

© 2014 Slate

What snow should teach the South 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 7:59pm]
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