News & Views » Humbug Square


In the new live-work-play Atlanta, who will do the work?



The Georgia Aquarium! Atlantic Station! The Beltline! Streetcars on Peachtree! The new High Museum! Something or other at Lakewood! A parking deck for Piedmont Park! The new World of Coke! Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

It's a gingerbread holiday fantasy! A wonderland of fine new attractions and transportation options and most excellent intown living and working and playing and shopping and parking for all of Atlanta!

Too bad the economy is collapsing.

General Motors is going to close the Doraville plant. Ford might follow suit if the Hapeville plant doesn't land a new model. Delta Air Lines is in bankruptcy court. Fort McPherson is going to close. The right-wing Kook family is buying out Georgia-Pacific.

Wait. That's Koch, pronounced "coke," not "kook." My bad.

Cisco, the king of watered-down stock with more than 6 billion shares outstanding, is buying out Scientific-Atlanta. Layoffs at GP and Scientific-Atlanta are almost inevitable because Koch and Cisco each paid a bundle.

Still, we are positively bubbling over with new projects.

City officials say Lakewood could become a live-work-play development like Atlantic Station. DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones moved in on the Doraville plant before the tears dried and declared it could become a live-work-play place like Atlantic Station, too. We'll have three Atlantic Stations! And what about Fort McPherson? Wait, FOUR Atlantic Stations! We'll have an Atlantic Station on every block! And condos! Always more condos!

This started out all good -- the kind of development that we liberals have been advocating for years. Except, you know, for the Piedmont Park parking deck, which Atlanta's corporate masters are jamming down our throats. But now that we're getting much of what we wanted, the economy is tanking, at least for some in the middle class and all of those further down the scale.

So, who will work in all these live-work-play Atlantic Stations? Who will have the money to play and shop? Who will be the consumers that do all the consuming?

Chief executive officers, that's who!

Pete Correll is making $170 million from the sale of Georgia-Pacific. Former Delta CEO Leo Mullin walked away from the crippled airline with $16 million, which is roughly $1,000 for each Delta employee laid off during his ruinous stewardship. I know he's living it up. I saw him at the movies at Phipps Plaza one evening. He walked toward the front like he owned the place. He probably does! Now he can go to the movies at Atlantic Station, too!

And you don't even have to be the CEO. You can be the chief financial officer, like M. Michele Burns, the Pirate Queen of corporate Atlanta. She was CFO at Delta and part of the executive raiding party that cashed in on an outlandish package of bonuses and pension guarantees that cost the airline millions. After leaving Delta, she became CFO at Mirant, the bankrupt energy company that was Atlanta's answer to Enron. Now she's leaving Mirant and is hitting the road with severance worth another $4.1 million. Plus, she gets free airline flights for life from Delta.

"She's done well for herself," says Richard Ray, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO.

I saw Ray the other night at the Rialto, where we watched the new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. I talked to him later about the problems bubbling up in Atlanta's economy at the same time most people are drunkenly ebullient about the fish tank.

"Our unemployment in the state of Georgia is higher than the rest of the nation, anyway," he said. "Delta is going to lay off a bunch of people. We don't know which way this is going to go. We're not sure of the Ford plant. We're not sure it's going to get another model. Georgia-Pacific is being bought out and when buyouts occur, people lose jobs."

It's not limited to Atlanta, of course.

"These things are happening all over America," he says. "The middle class is collapsing. More people are slipping into poverty each year. Layoffs. Outsourcing of jobs. It's a multitude of things. America's in sad shape, having to borrow money from China to pay on our debt."

We started talking about Delta, where unionized pilots are being asked to make more sacrifices to keep the airline flying.

"They've had some bad management," he says. "Remember, Delta was more like a family-owned business. People were loyal. The management was good. Then they started to bring in top management from outside of the family. They looked after themselves more than they looked after the airline."

One of the problems with our economy is that Americans don't really make anything anymore. We consume. We buy and sell houses and then we refinance the houses. And our local economists and political and media leaders pretend we have a freaking economy instead of a Potemkin village built on credit card debt.

I called a friend who used to make things. In fact, he used to make the greatest product ever built in America: the 1957 Chevrolet, which was produced at the old Lakewood GM plant (RIP: 1928-1990).

"It was the prettiest damn car and one of the best cars GM ever made," says Hugh Spake, 85, of Marietta. Hugh is the father of one of my college friends, who lives in Washington. I check in on Hugh from time to time. "It had the power. You could hardly start off on a dirt road or gravel road without spinning the wheels."

Hugh was a union man who worked at Lakewood for nearly 25 years. He is a World War II veteran who earned a bronze star in the Army Air Corps. He was a master sergeant, which suggests he was the meanest son of a bitch in the valley. I asked him about the economy.

"Oh, people think the economy is going along real good and everybody's got money," he says. "But the sons of bitches ain't. They're living on credit. People just went crazy over these credit cards. I listen to Clark Howard and according to him, it's not unusual for an ordinary damn person working at Wal-Mart or one of these hamburger places to owe [from] $10,000 up to $100,000 on credit cards."

Throughout his working life, Hugh spent less than he made. He paid cash for cars. He built his first two houses and paid cash for the third.

"I lived frugally, but I got all the pussy I wanted," he says.

No wonder they call it the Greatest Generation.

Hugh grew up in the Depression and had some tough times.

"When I was 15, I earned $9 a fucking week," he says. "I knew how hard it was to make money. I knew that you can go to bed one night and everything is running just fine, and you wake up in the morning and everything could be shot to hell."

For the last 70 years, he's heard people say America can never have another Depression.

"I don't know," he says. "But I do know one thing: If things keep going like they're going, this whole goddamn country is going to collapse."

Senior Editor Doug Monroe is a former member of the Wire Service Local of the Newspaper Guild (AFL-CIO) and the National Writers Union, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers.

Add a comment