The day before Darien Long, the Internet's favorite "kick ass mall cop," got arrested by Atlanta Police for kicking too much ass inside downtown Atlanta's Metro Mall, an altercation of a different sort took place between Long and an upset customer.
Unlike the patrons or loiterers stunned by Long's Taser gun in videos that have amassed millions of YouTube and WorldStarHipHop views over the past two months, this particular customer was dapper and articulate. "All the notoriety you brought to this place is destroying these businesses," he yelled, catching Long off-guard in the middle of the mall. The Duluth resident, who's been a Metro Mall customer for 10 years, had come to purchase a knockoff bag for his mother, and there were none to be found. The stalls that typically sold knockoffs were now closed in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon.
"I worked pretty hard for these people to have somebody come and tell me I'm responsible for their fucking problems," Long said later.
Earlier that day, word began circulating among the media that the celebrated onsite manager of Metro Mall had lost his job. His last day would have been Easter Sunday, March 31, if he hadn't been hemmed up by APD after allegedly tackling a mall patron without provocation on March 21.
In a matter of weeks, Long had fallen from folk hero to cautionary tale, with no immediate job prospects at press time. In a sense, he brought it all on himself. The police raids that followed his highly publicized videos meant to expose what he called "Atlanta's Downtown Criminal Culture" resulted in the loss of two Metro Mall tenants who were busted for selling counterfeit goods. To make up for the shortage, Metro Mall's upper management chose to fire Long, he says. It's a weird lesson in karma for a guy so thoroughly committed to carrying out justice on his day job, even if his efforts have been proven overly aggressive and antagonistic.
The story of Metro Mall is bigger than Long, though, and bigger than the mall located at 73 Peachtree St. It's about the stalled efforts over the years to revitalize downtown, and how Long's videos could serve as a catalyst to renew that conversation among the city's power brokers. But it's also about the cultural marginalization that occurs when those who will be impacted most by the change to come are excluded from the conversation. All of which begs the question: Is downtown dangerous or endangered?
A week later, another passionate dialogue takes place inside the Metro Mall. This time, it's between the owner of 911 Hair Braiding & Styles and a barber who rents a chair there.
"We have enough negativity," the barber, Jay Stylezs, says to owner Francisca Shokane after she begins telling stories of prostitutes who openly solicited johns in the mall before Long started the job a year ago. "Let's make the people believe it's OK to come down here and patronize us," he continues. It's the fearful perception of crime stoked by the media, he argues, rather than the culture itself, that's hurting downtown businesses.
It's easy to make generalizations about the people who populate south downtown's streets and sidewalks. Walk down Peachtree between Marietta and Mitchell streets, and a tableau emerges of Atlanta's hand-to-mouth hustler class — from panhandlers to street preachers, petty drug dealers and legit sidewalk vendors.
Beneath that stereotypical perception lies a reality much more nuanced — a ground-level economy where legal and illegal enterprise fill the void of economic development that has eluded these blocks for years; where reputable building owners are as eager to make a buck as the vendors and store owners to whom they lease retail space; and where a grander vision of downtown's future promises little to those seeking provisions in the meantime.
Two weeks ago, 52 people were arrested in the district south of Marietta — one of them was Long. "That's up significantly" for the area, according to Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Renee Propes. Though the APD denies that the exposure Long's videos brought has played any role in its recent crackdown south of Marietta Street, raids have increased substantially. "If people don't think that had anything to do with me, that had a lot to do with me," Long maintains.
A March 13 raid of Metro Mall was the second in four months, Long says. According to incident reports provided by the APD, the raid resulted in several arrests and the confiscation of counterfeit goods including brand-name knockoffs of Michael Kors, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Polo, True Religion, and Levi's.
Other recent raids in the surrounding area at 90 Broad St. and 155 Forsyth St. have netted multiple minor drug busts. That's negligible in the big scheme of things, says one shop owner who's been a Metro Mall staple for 16 years.
"The drug issues and the criminal activities that have been focused on throughout these last couple of months are not as prevalent as they used to be four, five, six years ago," says Ricardo Fludd, who owns the mom-and-pop CD retail booth the Funk Shop, which has employed such locals as rapper Gorilla Zoe. "Now you've got petty hustlers out here trying to make a living. That's all it is. When you focus in on that, it looks bigger than what the problem is. My problem is not drug dealers. My problem's not crime. That's not the problem right here."
Rather, says Fludd, it's the lack of economic development that's brought business to a crawl south of Marietta. "Let's not look at the small aspects of Metro Mall," he says. "That's irrelevant right now. We're looking at the struggle of businesses downtown."
The Downtown Development Technical Advisory Group, the latest city task force charged with reimagining south downtown, will likely consist of major civic players, including Keith Parker, general manager and CEO of MARTA; Georgia State University President Mark Becker; Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority; Invest Atlanta CEO Brian McGowan; and Central Atlanta Progress head A.J. Robinson. Based on the preliminary list of names being floated, few, if any, of the area's small-time business owners will be represented.