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Sunny optimism from the South

September 27, 2008

Chris Satullo, Philadelphia Inquirer



ATLANTA - I'm heading back from three days of "Welcome, y'all."


It'll take a while to digest all I heard and saw as part of a 100-member contingent of Philadelphians who visited the City Too Busy to Hate in a leadership exchange arranged by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

Here are some quick reflections, as I sit in the nation's second-busiest airport (a phrase you hear down here almost as much as y'all).


First, I'm surprised I didn't have to bring a passport. That's how foreign the reflexes of the Atlanta way are from the Philadelphia mind-set.


Atlantans intone the phrase "public-private partnerships" with a reverence otherwise reserved for the Bible and Georgia Tech football.


Civic leaders in the shadow of Billy Penn's hat like the phrase, too. In the Peachtree Street version, though, the private sector chooses the music and leads the dance. It decides what's to be done and how, then brings in the elected leaders to fulfill their secondary role.


Metro Atlanta has an outsize complement of Fortune 500 headquarters, whose CEOs have an impressive record of benevolent-cabal activism.


In Philadelphia, high-profile CEOs are a rarer breed, dragged only intermittently onto the dance floor, which is ruled by the rough tribes of city politics.


Atlanta is young and confident. It says "look what we've done" with an endearing pride.


Those accounts of success, whether about the audacious Olympic bid that has fueled a decade-long boom, or the handsome, multipurpose Woodruff Arts Center, all end with the same claim, "And not a penny of public money was spent on this."


Atlantans dismiss the idea of public spending for public purpose with a blitheness incomprehensible to Philadelphians, whose public life revolves around City Hall.


This place feels so different because, in the last 30 years, capitalism has treated it well (through a mixture of luck and wise bets, such as on the airport and the Olympics). Growth creates a can-do optimism, an openness to newcomers and a trust in corporate leadership that rings strange to Philadelphia ears. Our long buffeting by harsh economic winds have soured many of us on the very idea of capitalism.


Atlanta's growth makes its people willing to talk about race with a candor and optimism that we visitors found striking. As Mayor Shirley Franklin said, "We've gotten over a lot of our fear of each other. Not all of it, but a lot."

Milton Little, who moved to Atlanta last year to head its well-supported United Way, summed up the local attitude towards newcomers in three phrases:


"Welcome, y'all."


"What are you doing for lunch on Monday?"


"Why haven't you called me yet?"


Monday, Little explained, is when Rotary meets, and in Atlanta that businesspersons' service club is an elite powerhouse, not a quaint vestige. When people urge you to call them for help, they really mean it.


I tried to think what the comparable phrases might be in Philly:


"You moved here willingly? Really? Why?"


"Oh, there's a long story behind that."


"You want to wade into that mess? Good luck. You'll need it."


It's hard to imagine this trip having the same impact as the last such Economy League venture, to Chicago a few years ago. Looking hard at a sister city that had its act together touched off a civic ferment in Philly, and buoyed Michael Nutter's mayoral candidacy. Learning from Atlanta will be more complicated. It's just so different: Southern, sunny, hostile to unions.


It would be nice if Philly could quaff some of Atlanta's can-do juice. But we're far too scarred to get so happy-drunk on it. And Atlanta ain't perfect. It does sprawl and gridlock far worse than we, and the state of its schools and poverty rate are unforgivable in a city with its economic blessings.


Here's my own bit of civic boosterism: I'll take Philly's grit over Atlanta's gleam any day. If we believed in ourselves Atlanta-style, oh, the places we'd go.