The Cultural value of a parking lot
We feel honored to be part of Atlanta’s transformation from a “gangly teenager” into the cultural powerhouse of the Southeast. We are hopeful and optimistic about this transformation. However, every now and then you get the wind taken out of your sails.
This past weekend, I got to see Anders Osborne, a hero of mine, play at Center Stages. Anders is a transplant from Sweden who came to New Orleans and found his home in the early 90s. His music is a powerful celebration of blues, rock, and New Orleans (and gratefulness for no longer being caught in the depths of a heroine addiction). Seeing him and his band kill it at Center Stages was a bit bittersweet. The entire show I was forced to reconcile the fact that I was not at Tipitina’s.
The comparisons of Tipitina’s to Center Stage is a very good proxy for comparing Atlanta to New Orleans. For starters, I know Atlanta will never be New Orleans, it is a completely unfair comparison in so many ways. However, folks care about places that matter, places that resonate, places with soul. These are the places that stick in our memory, that shape our being. New Orleans has so much soul that extra gets left hanging on the trees, like discarded Mardi Gras beads months after the celebration has passed. Atlanta needs to carefully cultivate every scrap it has. (Further disclaimer, I am a father with two young daughters, so my ability to get out and partake of the cultural richness of Atlanta is limited. I find that a good bit of my engagement now comes through watching Terry Kearn’s social media feed(s) to see what awesome, interesting things unfold. I know there is a lot of great stuff going on).
Obligatory concert shot. Luckily Anders is talented enough to make one (momentarily) forget the woeful urban environment outside (photo: Eric Kronberg)
But while I was standing at Center Stage, I couldn’t help but think of Tipitina’s. Tips is an amazingly simple venue at the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas in uptown New Orleans. It was opened in the 1970s by a few folks that really loved music and wanted to provide a place for Professor Longhair to do what he did best. Like most music clubs in New Orleans, It has no parking lot, provides not a single parking space for anyone. Bands park on the street for load in. Tips is the norm for music clubs in the city. No club I can think of is expected to provide parking for its patrons. Its job is to provide reasonably priced drinks and amazing music. And Tips is a simple building. A hall with a few strategically placed bars, a couple underwhelming bathrooms, an upstairs mezzanine, and soul and funk ingrained into every square inch of the woodwork. (Things you learn writing a blog, the building had past lives as a gym, a brothel, and a gambling house before becoming a music venue. This speaks to the adaptability of buildings when not saddled by parking requirements).
Center Stage is a very reasonably designed facility. It has an integrated parking deck below. It has stadium seating, convenient bathrooms and bars, the sound system is great. It is located in a soulless stretch of upper midtown, disconnected from everything. I really think I dislike the place because it is so adequate and reasonable. Seeing Anders hit home how much we are not New Orleans, and how the typical things we focus on in Atlanta will not, will never, build soul.
How much cultural value does a parking lot have? Far less than zero. Not only does a parking lot extract a significant tax on individual buildings, it forces them to be spread out and less walkable from other synergistic uses. The tax of parking is significant, and made much moreso by stormwater management requirements. Having a music club next to a bar, next to a few restaurants and stores, this is the core of a great neighborhood. Having a music club surrounded by surface parking lots at the edge of Midtown is a destination that you have to drive to, with no hope of hanging around afterwards as you have to make a long drive home. The tax of getting to and from there is a further drain on one’s soul.
If we want Atlanta to be great, to be a place with soul, should we put laws and policies in place to make soul illegal? How about laws that make it moderately challenging but achievable? A low hurdle that you have to demonstrate some passion, but you can get there without having to flagrantly flaunt a range of laws and ordinances to help make our city a better place? Soul does not come from convenience. It comes from richness and diversity. These are things Atlanta has in spades. We do not lack for the creative spirits to raise this city up. We also do not lack for crappy laws that make celebrating these traits illegal, except when large-scale projects have the financial wherewithal to overcome them. Quirky, eccentric, and artistic tend to get diluted in the large scale.
Rewriting our laws may never get us to New Orleans, but our current ordinances are a significant barrier to getting to a noticeably better version of what we have now. Mandating that every building, every lot provide adequate parking self contained on its own property is a recipe for a failed suburban state. It encourages driving as the best transportation choice, and creates undesirable environments for both cars and people. We can do better. We need to do better for our city to help it transform from the gangly teenager into the diverse, connected, walkable, leader of the South that is our potential.