In his ambitious and influential "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles" (1990), the journalist and urban planner Mike Davis combined social science, geography, architecture, anthropology and urban planning to create not only a vivid recapitulation of L.A.'s history, but also to hypothesize its future. It was the kind of wildly original book that spawns imitators, and in Charles Rutheiser's "Imagineering Atlanta," we have what looks to be the first of many. (Similar books about Miami and San Francisco are forthcoming.) Rutheiser's book doesn't cover as much intellectual ground as Davis's did, but this Georgia State anthropology professor builds his tale into a precise look at the politicking behind preparations for this summer's Olympics.
Contrasting "Imagineering Atlanta" with "City Of Quartz" makes sense, too, because Rutheiser argues that Atlanta's growth over the last several decades has turned the city into a kind of Los Angeles of the Southeast. Atlanta is a "polycentered sprawl," Rutheiser writes, an "autopolis only comprehended from behind the wheel." It has its own racially segregated features (race-based zoning was law there in this century), its own gated communities, even its own Orange County. Also like L.A., natural boundaries do not impede Atlanta's growth in several directions at once; Rutheiser notes the city's "piecemeal expansion by annexation of its suburban fringe." What's more, Atlanta has recently seen a massive influx of immigrants who've almost immediately leapfrogged African-Americans in economic terms. And since political power there is based (like everywhere else) on money, minority representation in civic institutions belies the real power held by largely white corporations.
One of Rutheiser's more salient points is that Atlanta is expert at publicizing itself. He begins his study by eradicating some myths about the city. First, Atlanta was no more than a backwater railroad hub -- not even a major Southern city, more Nairobi than Charleston -- when General Sherman completed the Confederates' razing of it in 1864. The rebirth-by-fire metaphor has been reused to exhaustion by the city's leaders in their various efforts to rebuild and reorganize entire swaths of the city, both during "urban renewal" (a.k.a. "Negro removal") and in many other eras. Rutheiser chronicles these efforts and all their sundry corruptions and miscues in painstaking detail before sketching out the groundwork for the 1996 Olympics. In his view, the planning for the games seems no less misguided and blundering than anything else in Atlanta's history -- and brings its own cast of unexpected villains. (Note to Andrew Young: hire a publicist.)
It's too bad that Rutheiser, unlike Davis in "City of Quartz," doesn't move beyond the usual sources of journalism and historical studies to primary material such as police files, homeowners association documents and planning board minutes. "Imagineering Atlanta," while informative, lacks that creative research, as well as the vigorous prose and leftist vitriol that made "City of Quartz" so much fun. But Davis' is a tough standard to hold anyone up against.