Editor’s Note: Southern Comforts

The BeltLine, Atlanta, Georgia

A new TV show, bike share service and diverse racial demographics. Is Atlanta the next Portland?

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Travel, as they say, broadens the mind. 

I’m writing this column one week after returning from a 10-day road trip through the Deep South. My kids and I flew into Atlanta and drove west, retracing the Civil Rights Trail to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. Then we circled back east across Georgia, where we spent a night in the tiny town of Perry, home of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn.

The next morning we trekked through just a smidgen of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a 630-square-mile nature reserve, where we came within inches, literally, of tripping over alligators. We pressed on to St. Mary’s, the coastal gateway to Cumberland Island, a federally designated national seashore deeded to the state of Georgia by the family of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

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We also visited several of the Sea Islands off South Carolina, among them St. Helena, center of the Gullah, a community founded by former slaves.  And we spent a couple of nights in the inimitable Southern towns of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina.

I had never been to that part of the country before, and virtually every sight and sound invited comparison with the Pacific Northwest: the radically different racial demographics in a region where diversity is a reality, not a buzzword; the stunning natural areas; the oppressive heat; the ubiquitous markers of slavery and revolutionary and Civil War history.


I could have done without the unrestricted billboards littering exurban areas, as well as the blank faces that greeted requests for recycling bins at our hotels. But I came back to Portland wanting to preach the gospel of the Savannah city plan, a colonial-era layout based on a repeated pattern of streets bisected by parks and plazas. The resulting urban design rivals the Rose City in its intimacy and pedestrian scale.

If I were Matt French, I’d give serious thought to recreating a bit of Savannah in South Waterfront.

Speaking of urban planning: Atlanta may be the sprawl capital of the south. But city leaders are thinking big and bold. Downtown is densifying rapidly, plans are underway to expand the BeltLine bike and pedestrian trail, and MARTA, the city’s the lightrail/subway network is fast, convenient — and expanding.

And words can’t express the jumble of thoughts and feelings (white Portland guilt?) inspired by Atlanta’s downtown dining scene: restaurant after restaurant frequented by affluent African-American patrons. We’re not in PDX any more, my kids observed.

On the other hand, gentrification in inner city Atlanta may rival the displacement undereway in Northeast Portland. A walk through the Fourth Ward, former home of Martin Luther King Jr., showcases the new wealth reshaping the neighborhood: chic restaurants and food markets, yoga studios and spare modernist coffee shops serving Stumptown Coffee.

Is Atlanta the next Portland — for better and for worse?  I’m willing to lay bets. Judging from the critical reception, Atlanta, the new FX TV show, could easily usurp Portlandia’s place as a marker of the urban zeitgeist. 

(Not to offend our Southern brethren, but most of the restaurants did not rival those in Oregon — although the dining scene in Birmingham was a revelation. Brimingham and Atlanta also have zippy-looking bike share services, which I would have tried if it hadn’t been so damn hot.)  

It’s good to be home. It was also good to see how people in another part of the country live, work and play. Visiting a region that in many ways is the polar opposite of Portland — and Oregon — was for me a much-needed tonic, a curative, in otherwise divisive times.