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Welcome to Atlanta 

The city too busy for children

Tap, tap. Screeetttch. Tap. Hey, Boss, is this microphone on? It is? And I'm s'posed to say something, right? Like, about Atlanta?

Well, give me a hint. You want me to tell a joke? Maybe about how on my first day back in the Capital of the South, I watched the smog-shrouded sentient glacier of steel and flesh we call traffic inch along I-85?

What's that you say? Yeah, I agree. Everyone knows about the crummy roads.

Then, how 'bout I quip that there are so many FBI agents hanging out in City Hall, Congress is considering declaring the place a National Game Preserve?

Oh, all right, we'll come back to that. Let me think. OK, I've got an idea. Let me whisper it to you first.

(Buzzz, psstt, hubbahubba.)

Why are you running away? C'mon what's the worst that can happen? I'm sure those boys with sheets and ax handles in their car trunks are few and far between nowadays.

I'll tell you what. I'll throw the idea out to the audience here, and we'll see how they react. After all, this is the city too busy to hate or some such folderol, remember?

Here it goes. Hold on....

HELLO, ATLANTA! OF COURSE WE SHOULD PAY REPARATIONS!

Now that I've got your attention, audience, I'm going to hold you in suspense for a week. If there is any city where reparations should be debated, where that issue marks the fault line between races, ideologies and cultures, it's Atlanta. But I'd like to hear what you have to say first. Write, email, call. Maybe we can turn this into a dialogue.

In the meantime, I'll kick off this column with another urgent topic: Children. And how they've been snubbed by the state and city. And how Atlanta's bigshots, notably the Journal-Constitution, befoul themselves with boosterism rather than admit the sad plight of kids in Georgia.

First, I am compelled to admit a gross conflict of interest. I am definitely prejudiced on the subject of kids. Yes, I confess, I have children. Five, to be precise. Ages 10 to 15 and most numerals in between. In an attempt to reduce the several thousand years I'm sure to spend in Purgatory (see "Karma Cleanser" elsewhere in CL), my wife and I adopted the five sibs two years ago.

More to the point, the kids played a big role in our decision to leave Tampa and return to the Big Peach. The move offered the kids a clean break from some ugly past events in their lives, and Florida has for the last decade or so been quick-marching into the 19th Century in its treatment of children. I had heard (the info was decidedly wrong, as it turns out) that, kidwise, there was enlightenment north of the border.

So, we descended on Atlanta, awash in Barbies, bikes and basketballs, settled into a charming neighborhood in the 'burbs, and I arrived at CL's office for my first day of duty. A colleague handed me a study called "Kid-Friendly Cities: Report Card 2001." It looked like a lot of reports newspaper editors get, and I didn't pay too much attention until I noticed the ranking of how America's 25 largest cities treat children.

Atlanta was No. 25. Dead last, at the bottom, in the pits, not even an honorable mention. Zippo, squat, zero when it comes to children. Even urban hell-holes like Detroit topped Atlanta.

Atlanta bottomed out in the environment category - having treble the number of "bad air" days as the average for the 25 cities. Child health issues also scored a big black mark. Our SAT scores were the lowest of any of the metropolitan areas. (Did you notice last week how the AJC tried to declare a victory because Georgia had moved from No. 50 to No. 49 in state rankings on SAT scores?)

"Whoa," I mused to myself, "this is pretty scary. I wonder what the AJC has had to say about this stunning civic black eye." I thumbed through the daily. Nothing. The next day, nothing. Ditto the rest of the week. "Shucks," I thought, "maybe the AJC is prepping a major weekend takeout on kids, with mainbars and sidebars galore, not to mention pretty charts, heart-wrenching anecdotal tales, and thundering Ralph McGill-ish editorials denouncing how tykes are Georgia's forgotten population."

Apparently, children are also the forgotten 2 million-plus Georgians at the AJC. No weekend story.

Finally, on Aug. 27, a week after the "Kid-Friendly Cities" report was released, the AJC (Motto: No excess of coverage is too much for Atlanta's sports teams) found space for 98 words on the study. That's about one word for every 22,000 Georgia kids. Hell, newsprint is expensive nowadays. The little urchins should feel grateful for what they get.

At least the AJC is consistent. About once a year, some study or the other comes out that slams Georgia's treatment of children, and the newspaper reluctantly doles out a little story, 300 words one year, maybe 400 the next.

To be fair and to the AJC's credit, the daily marshaled its troops to give good coverage to mayhem in the foster-care system and the 1998 death-by-abuse of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson.

Other than that, however, about the only time in recent history when the AJC seemed a bit fascinated over the plight of children was after a national television report on the mass outbreak of venereal disease among just-post-puberty girls in suburban Rockdale.

Thus, it appears to take a tragic death or teen sex escapades to get a rise, so to speak, out of the AJC's editors. The mere day-to-day rancid lives of many Georgia children is irrelevant.

With the "Kid-Friendly Cities" study, the AJC heaped insult onto its usual neglect. The paper's itsy-bitsy article hardly took the report seriously. Under a headline that whined "Not 'kid-friendly?" (note the question mark), the item implied the report was so much hokum, and conclusively sniffed: "For some reason, more than 102,000 people moved here anyway last year...."

Aside from the stunningly faulty logic (if the newspaper doesn't report that Atlanta is a Dickensian civic Fagin, how the hell are new residents supposed to guess the truth - until they get here and it slams them in the face?), I was beginning to suspect a cover-up, a conspiracy. This is The State That Abandons Children, and no one wants to admit it.

Checking online archives and the websites of kid-focused foundations, I discovered that Atlanta and Georgia have been bouncing around at the bottom of more than one study on children.

For example, an annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore - much relied on by government agencies and the media nationally - pegs Georgia as No. 44 in its ranking of how states treat children. Georgia had soared to a heady No. 42 in 1997 (wheee!), but we've been in full retreat since then.

Now, coupled with the "Kid-Friendly Cities" study by Zero Population Growth that rates Atlanta No. 25 out of 25 cities, you'd begin to think that someone in the ill-defined group I'll call, by default, "leaders" would have taken up kids as a cause. And that the AJC would consider this real news.

After all, there seems to be plenty of money floating around in Georgia. Just look at all the cash spilling out of the pockets of lobbyists for the video poker industry - and into the pockets of legislators. Surely, there must be a pittance for children.

So I called up a "lobbyist" for children, Gustave Thomas of Georgians for Children. "How's your funding, Gustave?" I asked. "We're broke," he sighed. I thought: You should change your name to Georgians for Children Who Love Unrestrained Development and Fatcat Politicians, and then you'd get tons and tons of dollars. Under the table, of course.

When you look at the various reports on children, a pattern emerges. It ain't pretty. For example, the only category in the Casey Foundation study in which Georgia is even average is deaths by homicide, suicide and accident for children aged 15-18 (the state is No. 25). But, if you study the report diligently, you'll see we're so far below average in rankings of deaths of children under age 15 (No. 39 for infants, No. 36 for ages 1-14), there are probably just a whole lot fewer of them who can expire in their late teen years. Kill 'em early, and the teen numbers look better, so to speak.

The just released "Kid-Friendly Cities" report rated about 20 factors, ranging from SAT scores to unemployment. The researchers scored us with C's in health, public safety and environment; A's and B's in education, economics and community life. That doesn't sound too bad until you realize that no city garnered D's or F's in any category - a form of "let's not embarrass the politicians too much" grading curve. The top spots were won by Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis and New York, with Washington, Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta being the butt-end. Notably, the only Southern cities that scored above average were all in Texas - Fort Worth, Houston and Dallas. Maybe George W. Bush actually managed to do something right.

Georgia didn't do much better in the "Kid-Friendly" ranking of 140 smaller cities. Savannah was No. 115, Columbus scored No. 124 and Macon was fourth from the bottom at No. 137. Again, Southern cities were scarce among the top third and dominated the bottom third.

Part of this city's problem is undoubtedly mean-spiritedness. Atlanta is busy, busy, busy. Kids are an afterthought, if they rate that high. As I was writing this, I got a news release from an "activist" group in Inman Park. They're outraged, OUTRAGED, I say, at a planned playground near the MARTA station, between Hurt Street and Euclid Avenue. That struck close to home, in a way. In my last Atlanta incarnation, I lived on Hurt Street. It was at the beginning of gentrification, and the neighborhood was hardly a place for kids. I guess it still isn't, even though now it rates acclaim as tony and posh. The "activists" see a playground as only an arena for "smoking drugs, having sex, drinking in public, and graffiti." Clearly this group doesn't see much positive in having kids around. I certainly wouldn't want those activists in my neighborhood.

The heart of the problem with Georgia - and, in general, most of the South - is poverty. According to the Casey study, 41 states have a higher percentage of families where adults have fulltime, year-round jobs than Georgia. We're No. 37 (meaning 14th from the worst) in percentage of children living in poverty and No. 44 (seven notches up from the worst) in percentage kids belonging to families with a single parent.

Of course, poverty is just peachy with some folks. The economic development mantra of Georgia business shills is basically "cheap land, cheap labor" to lure new corporations. Interpreted, that means no natural resource is too precious to be spared from the bulldozer, and all unions are satanic. As it relates to kids, the message is poverty (low wages) is good for bidness, so bug off you little ankle-biters.

Also, it goes without saying that you can't ignore the racial divide. A recently published Georgians for Children fact book shows that about 51 percent of new families with children run the risk of facing poverty. Among blacks, that rate is 77 percent, while it's 40 percent for whites. Where power rests largely with one race and poverty with another, it's easy to understand the state's indifference to many of Georgia's children.

That strikes Thomas of Georgians for Children as ironic. "The economic future of Georgia depends on how well we take care of our children," says Thomas, truly a voice in the wilderness. "If people, the legislators, aren't concerned about kids, at least they should be concerned about the state's economy."

The Zero Population Growth report can be found at www.KidFriendlyCities.org. The Casey Foundation's study is at www.aecf.org. Georgians for Children is currently conducting a poll to determine its political agenda for 2002 - the key issues are safety, health, education and family security. The group's website is at www.georgians.com.

Senior Editor John Sugg, for whom childhood has been a lifelong pursuit, can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

A note from the editor
John Sugg is Creative Loafing's new senior editor. He adamantly claims the title has nothing to do with his age. Previously, Sugg was editor of CL's sister paper in Tampa, the Weekly Planet. At the Planet, Sugg won boxes of awards. "However," he adds, "journalists give more awards to each other than any other profession, so all you have to do is keep breathing and someone will hand you a prize sooner or later."

While an editor at the Planet, the paper's circulation increased from about 65,000 to almost 90,000. "Daily newspaper circulation is heading south," Sugg says. "Alternative papers like ours have readerships heading in the other direction. It's a good feeling."

Previously, he has worked at The Tampa Tribune, The Miami Herald, American Lawyer Publications and The Atlanta Constitution (before, he notes, media moguls took two fine, competitive publications and made one ghastly Frankenpaper out of them).

Sugg is a Miami native, and much of his family is from Key West, including several who never have committed felonies. He notes, defensively, that his clan is originally from the Carolinas and north Georgia. "I have, from time to time, uttered the phrase 'y'all hear,'" he says to illustrate his point.

Among the high points in Sugg's life are living on a sailboat for about 10 years ("I was really shattered when I found out Jimmy Buffett was not singing about me"), and finally getting married ("for good this time, I swear") and adopting five kids ("I did what!?").

Sugg is a graduate of the University of Florida, and has this to say to Dawgs: "Pfftttt." In the spirit of the video gaming business, he will accept bets on the Florida-Georgia game for $10 in "gift certificates" from the first three people who e-mail him. Co-conspirators in this ruse to skirt Georgia's anti-gambling laws must agree to be humiliated in this column after the above mentioned decimation of UGA by Florida.

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