Now and Then: The Periodization Lens

If Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure was Atlanta’s Old Testament, suggested Dana White and Tim Crimmins in their documentary series The Making of Modern Atlanta, then Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics was its New Testament.

A work of uncommon sweep, Regime Politics advanced a novel interpretation of biracial deal-making in Atlanta, and introduced “regime theory” to the field of political science. Here, in an essay based on remarks he delivered at last year’s Atlanta Studies Symposium, Professor Stone considers changes in Atlanta’s political economy since the book’s publication and suggests what implications they may have for the city’s future.

When Regime Politics was published a quarter of a century ago, I was much focused on the stability of Atlanta’s political order. With the region and the nation having undergone such profound changes, how to account for the durability of Atlanta’s arrangement for governing the city? Through a time of racial turmoil and economic transformation Atlanta’s governing order enjoyed a surprising degree of stability, though not absent surges of discontent and a potential for disorder. In “the city too busy to hate,” the biracial governing coalition survived a large and early annexation of territory; a later shift in racial balance among the city’s population; desegregation of the city’s schools, transit system, and public accommodations; and, perhaps most remarkably of all, a remake in Atlanta’s system of land use. Yet, with adjustments in particulars, the biracial coalition that governed the city remained largely intact. Regime Politics was an attempt to explain how this came about.

Without doubt, elements of the order that took shape in mid-20th century remain in place today. However, the winds of change seldom go still, and it is worth considering how its governance may have changed. How do features of Atlanta today differ from those of yesteryear? What has changed in Atlanta’s context, and what are the implications of these changes?

In their analysis of American political development, Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek call for privileging neither order nor change, but instead seeing them both as part of an ongoing process. Scholars sometimes debate the relative importance of internal versus external forces as a source of change. By emphasizing context I want to suggest that the most productive way of thinking about change and order is to focus on how exogenous and endogenous factors influence one another. Atlanta’s biracial coalition became possible because the federal judiciary ended the use of the white primary in Southern politics through a series of court cases and later reinforced that line of change with the principle of one-person, one-vote in Baker vs Carr. In turn, Atlanta helped reshape the South’s understanding of racial politics by casting off massive resistance, desegregating its schools, and making a pioneering call for ending discrimination in public accommodations. 1

In short, Atlanta’s political order is not best understood by separating forces at work into those that are endogenous versus those that are exogenous. The two do not operate in isolation; they interact. A wave of sit-ins originating in Greensboro, North Carolina (but nurtured through the wider civil rights movement) spilled over into the Atlanta scene as a powerful external force, but then stirred strong inter-generational tensions within Atlanta’s African American community. The external-internal interaction was no small matter; it was central in the city’s political development. 2

For purposes of exploring Atlanta’s experience, I want to make a case for viewing city politics through a cross-time lens of comparing political periods. From this perspective, I believe there is a strong case for a division between the period of redevelopment following WWII and the current time of the emergent post-industrial city, in evidence beginning around 1980. There is an underlying current of urban change (with both national and global aspects) that provides a context within which urban governance takes shape and undergoes modification. It would be a mistake to downplay the importance of context and equally egregious to assume that the context for city politics remains unchanged over time. Let us take a highly abbreviated look at Atlanta in the redevelopment period, bearing in mind that periods rarely divide cleanly from one another. Below are some of the key dates in Atlanta’s redevelopment period. They have to do with the formation of the biracial governing coalition and some adjustments within its significant run.

Broad Context

The redevelopment period ran roughly from 1945 to 1980. At its center was a need to respond to the decline of the rail-centered city and the onset of decentralizing forces with the automobile as a major factor. Importantly, black political mobilization intersected with redevelopment in a way that profoundly influenced both. In Atlanta the two forces joined in the city’s biracial coalition and its agenda, the latter captured in the slogan, “Atlanta, the city too busy to hate.”

The emergent post-industrial city extends from 1980s to the present. Sitting at its center is the arrival of the knowledge and information society. It is cross-cut by a clash between a widely recognized need, on one side, to respond to a legacy of social damage and neglect from the previous redevelopment era, and, on the other side, an anti-tax, anti-welfare movement. Atlanta and other cities have found themselves with little prospect for federal support for either redevelopment or civil rights responsive programs of the Great Society kind.

By comparing the two periods across several cities, we can see that broadly the players who make up the governing circle have changed. For instance, collectively organized corporate businesses, such as the Greater Baltimore Committee, now have a diminished role. Philanthropic foundations and the ed-and-med sector of universities, hospitals, and medical schools play a larger and more varied part than in the past. 3

Community benefits agreements, transit-oriented development, HOPE VI and other new policy instruments have come on the scene.

In “great inversion” cities like Atlanta where young and affluent residents are returning to the city, opposing policy strategies can come into play. One is to ride the gentrification wave and actively promote it with the aim of scattering the lower-income population and increasing the proportion of the city population that is affluent and middle-class. In some places the strategy is defined as courting “the creative class.” 4

An alternative strategy aims for the social reconstruction of the city as a place for inclusion, social peace, and equity. Specific policy targets extend over a spectrum that runs from affordable housing to education reform, from community policing to expanded job opportunities and more agile workforce development.

As I look broadly at the urban scene across the U.S., I see a shift in the governing order. In the redevelopment era political and business leaders pulled together around an agenda of remaking the city physically. Land use was the main battleground. Today, leadership at the top is fragmented. Some actors are primarily concerned about human capital, including educational opportunity for the masses. Others are focused on gentrification and attracting and holding the “creative class.” Many powerful business figures have no large vision of what the city is about or where it should be going; they are focused on ad hoc opportunities to make a bundle while getting the unsuspecting public to subsidize their profiteering in a big way. 5

“Fireworks Mark 1951 Expressway Opening, September 26, 1951.” Photo by Bill Warren. AJCP2939m, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

What, then, to make of Atlanta’s position in an evolving context? What does a post-industrial time promise or portend? Has the economic-growth imperative become both less urgent and more broadly understood? Do elite actors now see more room for maneuver?

Let’s start with the large context and ask about the underlying character of urban change. The redevelopment period was about responding to the decline of the industrial city and meeting the challenge of the automobile and other decentralizing forces.

Today the driver of change is the rise of the knowledge and information society, with its heightened emphasis on issues of human capital. Notwithstanding the mobility of global capital, today there is special value attached to face-to-face interaction. Re-centralization is at work; it adds pressure to gentrification, and is a force in the “great inversion.”

Urban change processes never operate in isolation. There are significant cross-cutting factors. For redevelopment the major cross-cutting force was black political mobilization. The intersection of these two sources of change played out across the U.S. In Atlanta the interplay yielded “the city too busy to hate” and the many complexities behind that slogan.

What cross-cuts the emergent post-industrial city? I see two forces. One is the legacy of neglect and social damage left by the redevelopment period. Reactions to this facet include such things as proposals for community policing, early childhood programs, workforce development, and urban school reform.

A second and contending force is an aggressive anti-welfare movement. It is evident in the Tea Party influence in the Republican party, in various tax-limiting measures, and in a supply-side ideology. The terms of the gentrification struggle, revenue scarcity, and the scope of investment in human capital and related needs are issues that shape and are shaped by local governing arrangements.

Let’s turn to some now and then particulars in Atlanta to see what they might suggest.

Few or no public housing projects remain in AtlantaPublic housing projects were key sites in registering and mobilizing black voters
Georgia State University is the main driver of development in and around the Five Points areaRich’s department store was the force behind MARTA and other development in what was known as the lower part of the business district
MARTA is the only mass transit system in the U.S. receiving no state supportThrough business elite backing, MARTA was a key factor in the city’s development plans and through Action Forum in promoting the racial integration of commercial life in Atlanta
One of the revitalization ideas for Underground is to convert the area to a site for the arts community; that is, studios, shops, residences, etc. (Does such a move offer the possibility of a new progressive force on the political scene in Atlanta?)Underground was made into a tourist site
High-brow culture like the Atlanta Opera has moved to Cobb County, soon to be followed by the move of middle-brow entertainment in the form of the Atlanta Braves baseball teamAtlanta’s civic and business elites were heavily engaged in creating a fine-arts district along Peachtree Street and in locating sports arenas near the center of the city
In a variety of forms federal actions are becoming a threat to the material well-being of African Americans, from poor through middle classFederal action was a major force in bringing an end to Jim Crow

From these and other tidbits and pieces I glean, I conclude that there is little to check a gentrification process that could remake Atlanta into a white-majority city. As the black poor are scattered, will there be any protection of their interest? Will they have a political voice? At the same time, there are indications that Atlanta elites are less deeply concerned with the vitality of the central city and its inner core and willing to see the build-up of an affluent, white preserve in the northern suburbs. While corporate business, high culture, and mass entertainment no longer constitute a growing presence in the city, ed-and-med institutions, along with government institutions and offices have increasingly assumed a large place in the economic life of the city. The move is far from total, but the city’s economic center of gravity is shifting.

The future has major uncertainties. If MARTA’s financial isolation is an indication, Atlanta’s business elite either has on its own written off mass transit or lacks clout with the state’s Republican leadership. Moving or even not contesting the move of major activities to Cobb County, which has always declined to make a MARTA connection, suggests elite disengagement from the region’s traditional central city.

“MARTA West End Station Under Construction, 1981.” Photo by Joe Benton. AJCP582-022s, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

For many years increased spending on education enjoyed a conspicuous place on the state’s agenda, but what does the future hold? As demands for retrenchment persist, is this the tip of an iceberg of decreased public spending that will move through the federal system? Consider that public sector employment and contracts have been a key to the growth of the black middle class. What happens if both state and federal spending for non-defense matters decline? Does it have a politically demoralizing and demobilizing effect with a special impact on the African American community? What are the implications of a shift from a Republican party led by Eisenhower to one in which the Tea Party is a core constituency with a high decibel level? As congressional politics and federal policy are being remade, how will this filter down to the city level? “The city too busy to hate” was a product of a political alignment that spanned all levels of the intergovernmental system. But what now?

Is there a countervailing political force to push back against the rightward movement of national politics? What can be learned from other cities?

In a forthcoming, multi-authored book on urban neighborhoods we found that, although much remains politically open-ended in many places there are allies for the task of socially reconstructing the city and bolstering its non-affluent neighborhoods. Such allies may be found in and among the faith community, among philanthropic foundations, in alliance with labor, and in some instances within the ed-and-med sector of universities, medical schools and hospitals. 6

Specific instances include the Urban Health Institute of Johns Hopkins University, the Los Angles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the Neighborhood Services Department in the municipal government of Phoenix, such contrasting entities as the labor-backed Front Range Economic Strategy Center and the Piton Foundation (both in Denver), the United Way in Toronto, Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, Los Sures in New York City, and the MacArthur Foundation’s New Communities Program in Chicago. 7

In our study of selected North American cities, we found that civic leadership by collectively organized business is somewhat in decline. In a related finding, the Steven Erie team studying San Diego found developers and kindred businesses to be active, not as a collective and far-sighted force but as “roving bandits” interested only in finding big-profit opportunities with little attention to long-term consequences for the city.

From our observation, progressive and pro-neighborhood forces are too fragmented to build much momentum. Still the civic and political terrain of cities contains some promising nodes of activity. They advance best: (1) when they have an institutional center, such as a policy-oriented department of neighborhood affairs as in Phoenix and Seattle; (2) or they are part of an organized and staffed multi-issue alliance, as in the case of LAANE, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy; and (3) they have a research capacity, as offered by the Piton Foundation in Denver (which is also the local affiliate of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership). In addition, focused on distressed and at-risk neighborhoods, our reform advice includes such aims as building capacity in individual neighborhoods and connecting neighborhoods organizationally so that they have a collective voice; put in place communication links among them to bolster a sense of a shared fate; build multi-issue alliances like LAANE in Los Angeles; hold city specific conferences and workshops that are action-oriented; embed a problem-solving policy orientation in local government (as Phoenix did); and develop cross-class and trust-building dialogue practices to connect neighborhood people with foundation officers and with key staff in ed-and-med institutions. Through attraction to the concept of “collective impact,” the philanthropic sector shows increasing awareness of the limits of intervening through ad hoc, disconnected initiatives. 8

The underlying idea is to be mindful of the importance of an urban governing order and the various ways it can influence who benefits and who pays the cost of an unfolding process of change. Like other cities, Atlanta continues to be constrained by its context of global capitalism. Partisan deadlock at the national level shows no signs of easing to allow funding of such programs as Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods. Regional government possesses only the most remote possibility.

The “great inversion” may, however, ease some of the revenue squeeze with which cities eternally struggle. It can be argued that, with the post-industrial weakening of tightly cohesive growth coalitions, robust cities like Atlanta have a higher degree of autonomy than they enjoyed in the redevelopment era. Current experience plainly shows that the structural constraints of global capitalism are not so confining as to preclude pockets of social reconstruction, backed by grassroots efforts. A question for the future is whether or not these pockets can be expanded, and, if so, whether they can begin to feed into one another to a degree to bring about a new political order in cities across the national landscape.

A prominent issue of the current urban experience concerns the role that universities, hospitals, and other eleemosynary institutions will play. Philanthropic foundations face the same question of what part will they take. At present these non-business players are a source of many social-reconstruction initiatives, but they tend to be piecemeal, stand-alone efforts. Yet, as John Kania and Mark Kramer argued in a recent article, “there is scant evidence that isolated initiatives are the best way to solve many problems in today’s complex and interdependent world.” “Collective” instead of piecemeal outcomes are held up as the path that funders should follow to bring about “a long-term process of social change.” 9

Atlanta Past and Future: How Will the Twain Meet?

Atlanta has changed and seems now on a path that could bring about a new political order. If so, will it be one conducive to social reconstruction or a city in some sense trapped in its past and the successes that past yielded? Although comparing Atlanta today with Atlanta at mid-20th century reveals change, a persisting pattern of steep inequality remains unbroken. Yet attacking that persistence is not a visible feature in the politics of governing the city currently. Why? The governing circle seems less tightly drawn than in the past, but the poor and disadvantaged have, if anything, become more scattered and marginalized. Although there are significant pockets of anti-poverty activity, such as Emmaus House, they seem isolated. Atlanta shows no signs of the kind of surge in progressive politics that many cities have displayed. There is no apparent explanation. A potential answer might be that a capitalist ideology is dominant. But, if that is the answer, why have several other cities—from New York and New Haven in the east to Seattle and Los Angeles in the west, from cities as different as Pittsburgh and Phoenix—experienced a dramatic rise in progressive politics? Like them, Atlanta has a diverse demography and an inflow of younger people. So what is different? 10

The answer could lie in attachment to a past that no longer has relevance for a post-industrial present. When Atlanta’s biracial coalition came together as a governing force, much of Georgia and the wider South was dominated by a politics that reflected what V.O. Key called “an agrarian economy almost feudal in character.” The politics of the region grew out of a context quite distant from an industrializing North. In Georgia and beyond, Key showed how state politics aligned with a rural, small-town context of large landowners, white supremacy, and cheap labor. Atlanta, however, rested on a different foundation. It had banks, Georgia Power, and other corporate entities tied closely to Coca Cola, headquartered in Atlanta but possessed of a wide international presence. At strategic points that company’s majordomo, Robert Woodruff, worried about how Atlanta would look in the eyes of the world. 11

Unlike the state’s big farmers, Atlanta’s corporate elites proved to be a group the city’s black leaders could engage in negotiation. Moreover Atlanta’s corporate “power structure” could hold in check what, in the case of Georgia, Key called “the rule of the rustics.” Whereas Eugene Talmadge and his fellow rustics were unapproachable and unyielding because they saw a way of life at issue, Atlanta’s business leadership operated in more cosmopolitan circles and saw a need to move Atlanta into a new age.

Floyd Jillson, “Woodruff, Robert,” Floyd Jillson Collection. Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center.
“Mayor Andrew Young Atop the 10 Park Place Building, Overlooking Woodruff Park, Atlanta, Georgia, April 23, 1987,” Photo by Andy Sharp. AJCNS1987-04-23l, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

Post World War II black leaders like “Daddy King” and Morehouse President Benjamin Mays had grown up in the rural, small-town South, and, when they settled into Atlanta, they knew that the city represented a different political reality. It was a political reality passed on to a younger generation of such figures as Andrew Young. Against this background the biracial coalition took hold as a governing force and remained intact even as Atlanta became a black-majority city. It proved to be an arrangement that opened widely a source of benefits and a changed social standing for the black middle-class.

The context today has undergone profound change. With the end of Georgia’s county-unit system the “rule of the rustics” is no longer a factor, and the Georgia political landscape, like that of the nation, has become heavily suburban. In the years after the Powell memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, corporate America has become less amenable to support for social reform, and the Republican Party has abandoned Eisenhower’s moderation. Conditions, notably expanding public-sector employment that widened opportunity for the black middle class, now face retrenchment. But there are few visible signs that Atlanta’s African American community has embarked on a rethinking of alliances or a pursuit of fresh forms of political mobilization. Nor do Atlanta’s white gentrifiers display signs of pushing for a new political order. In disparity between the well-off and the poor, Atlanta ranks at the top among American cities. Though not a new phenomenon, with the coming of a post-industrial age the implications of this pattern may have grown.

As a government center, the location for many nonprofits, and a concentration of ed-and-med institutions, Atlanta may find that the economic-growth strategies of the past serve the city less well as the times continue to change. At the same time, the city has ceased to be in the vanguard of political change in the way it once was. Political arrangements have made few apparent adjustments to a still emerging post-industrial age even as much else has changed and poverty remains a stubbornly persistent problem. One risk is that the city will become increasingly isolated as a political force, but that is not a predetermined outcome. The mix of a large governmental presence, a wide range of nonprofit organizations, and a sizeable ed-and-med sector has a potential that could yet be realized with careful attention to the collective impact they could have by acting in concert.

Cover Image Attribution: “Peachtree Center MARTA Station, Atlanta, Georgia, January 24, 1983.” Photo by Beverly Crawford. AJCNS1983-01-24a, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

Citation: Stone, Clarence. “Now and Then: The Periodization Lens.” Atlanta Studies. March 11, 2015.


  1. Jeff Roche, The Sibley Commission and the Politics of Desegregation in Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).[]
  2. For an account of the lengthy interplay in Black politics between national and local forces, see Tomiko Nagin-Brown, Courage to Dissent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).[]
  3. Royce Hanson, Hal Wolman, David Connolly and Katherine Pearson, “Corporate Citizenship and Urban Problem Solving: The Changing Civic Role of Business Leaders in American Cities,” (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Politics Program, 2006); Elizabeth Strom, “Rethinking the Politics of Downtown Redevelopment,”  Journal of Urban Affairs 30, no. 1 (2008): 37-61.[]
  4. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Alan Ehrenhalt, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, New York: Vintage, 2012; Derek S. Hyra, The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).[]
  5. See, for example, the experience in San Diego, as examined in Steven P. Erie, Vladimir Kogan, and Scott MacKenzie, Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2011).[]
  6. Clarence Stone, Robert Stoker, et. al. Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era: Revitalization Politics in the Postindustrial City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).[]
  7. Michael Jones-Correa and Diane Wong, “Whose Politics? Reflections on Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics,” Urban Affairs Review 51, no. 1 (2014): 1–10.[]
  8. See Michelle Camou, “Labor-Community Coalitions Through an Urban Regime Lens,”  Urban Affairs Review 50, no. 5 (2014): 623–647; John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011): 36–41.[]
  9. John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 2011, p.38, 41.[]
  10. Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Harold Meyerson, “The Revolt of the Cities,” The American Prospect, May/June 2014, accessed March 16, 2015,[]
  11. V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949).[]