The uses and abuses of diversity in Decatur, Georgia

Earlier this year, the National League of Cities named Decatur, Georgia, a 2017 winner in its City Cultural Diversity Awards program. The membership organization then gave Decatur a platform on its website to describe the municipal program for which the award was given. The June 2017 CitiesSpeak blog article written was by Linda Harris, an employee in the city’s economic development department and one of the Atlanta suburb’s chief spokespersons. It detailed initiatives that the suburban Atlanta city began after a confluence of events spotlighting race-related tensions forced municipal leaders to confront diversity and inclusion. The CitiesSpeak article described Decatur’s “Better Together”

Decatur Square, 2016.

initiative and its objectives to increase community engagement and to introduce more diversity to spaces where civic issues, from affordable housing to police racial profiling, are discussed and decided.

Gentrification is one word missing from the Decatur article. And, perhaps more importantly, the city’s key role in creating an environment that promotes gentrification, displacement, and inequity is conspicuously absent from the CitiesSpeak essay and other city-produced and promoted narratives about the Better Together initiative.

Gentrification in real life. Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood, April 2012.

Awards such as the one dispensed by the National League of Cities provide Decatur with cover for policies that promote uneven development and gentrification. City leaders routinely tout the awards and wide reaching press coverage of Decatur’s environmental sustainability, community engagement, and smart growth planning policies. The city’s hipster-friendly bars and restaurants regularly are featured by local newspapers and broadcast media and by national publications such as The New York Times.

Banner celebrating one of Decatur’s branding wins, June 2014.

The awards are part of a carefully crafted municipal branding and marketing strategy, says former Decatur Historic Preservation Commission member John Keys. “We’ve got a great reputation statewide, probably nationwide,” Keys told me in a 2014 interview. “And we give a lot of lip service to – we’ve got all the checklists for the National League of Cities … Check the box and you get your award from the National League of Cities and others on a periodic basis.”

After the National League of Cities published the Harris article in CitiesSpeak, I submitted a rebuttal article and the organization’s editor emailed an effusive response. “This is a great response piece; I love it,” he wrote. “I’ve tentatively placed it on our editorial calendar for publication on Friday, July 7.”

But there was one caveat embedded in the editor’s email: “I would be remiss to not mention that an article slamming the city’s diversity practices (or lack thereof) after we’ve given them an award would not reflect well upon our organization.”

Decatur’s historic courthouse square has become a hipster haven. September 2016.

One month later, after several emails and a long telephone conversation with the editor, he informed me that the National League of Cites could not publish my article. The organization’s leadership expressed concern that the article focused too much on Decatur.

Huh?

I thanked the editor for his time and his comments and I declined his invitation to write a puff piece that ignores two important issues: cities that manipulate and commodify diversity to burnish a municipal brand and the role dubious awards can play in enabling harmful municipal policies. Decatur is a sublime case study for both issues.

The original CitiesSpeak article and the National League of Cities response confirm what former Decatur officials and many residents told me in my research: that Decatur invests heavily in its image and brand and awards such as the National League of Cities one deflect attention from the real issues created by municipal policies. “The only thing the NLC award does for Decatur and other places where gentrification, displacement, and inequity have been embraced as municipal policies is exacerbate inequity by validating the practices that cities like Decatur uses to conceal them from public view,” I wrote to the editor in our final exchange.

My take on diversity, its uses and abuses, did find an outlet: NextCity. Now that you’ve read the backstory on how the NextCity article came to be, read the article itself, Why Diversity Initiatives Rarely Make Gentrifying Neighborhoods More Equitable.

Postscript

Shortly after violence sparked by white supremacists erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, and after the lengthy exchanges between myself and its staff staff described above, The National League of Cities doubled down on its endorsement of Decatur’s approach to diversity by reposting the earlier article, “6 Ways the City of Decatur Became a Model of Inclusion,” along with this introduction:

In response to the tragic events in Charlottesville, the National League of Cities is celebrating #InclusionWeek to support diversity, inclusivity, and hope in America’s cities. This guest post by Linda Harris originally ran on June 8, 2017.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

One thought on “The uses and abuses of diversity in Decatur, Georgia

Leave a Reply