Transportation, Arts & the Long Commute to Nowhere

Guest Post By Rebecca Holohan, C4 Atlanta Artist Member

The ladies on the #5 bus take their places

Photo of the inside of a MARTA train.
Photo: Marge Curtis

every morning, trade gum, mints, cookies,
scratch tickets, Kleenex as we lurch
down Piedmont Road. One’s always telling
the others some story, like the time she fished
with gummy worms as bait, you shoulda seen their faces…

When they laugh it’s a sharp loud chorus
punctuating the groggy morning commute
there’s one who always whoops
and one who cackles
and one who snorts
and that lady in the corner who always chuckles
not sure if she’s in on the joke…

The mist covers the heavy skyline,
blurs the harsh buildings of Buckhead,
as our bus rattles on, cackle wheeze
snort whoop, a morning holler,
a groaning bus, the ding of the line you pull
for your stop, traffic swimming around us,
this wide rusty ship that carries us all to work, or somewhere…

I moved to Atlanta a year ago as a recent college graduate and young writer and artist. I couldn’t afford a car when I came here, and relied on MARTA buses to find my way around the city.

I realized early on that navigating the public transportation system of Atlanta was a journey through the race and class landscape of the city. To understand the situation, I had to understand the context of MARTA, its funding, its legislative battles, who it was meant to serve and who benefits from its failures to provide true access to the city for those who cannot afford a car. Unlike other cities I had lived in, where people of varying races, genders, and economic classes all rode public transportation, Atlanta’s transportation was strongly segregated.

Photo of inside a MARTA station. Artwork over the Breeze Card Machines.
Photo: Marge Curtis

I was often the only young white woman on the buses, and depending on which bus line I rode, the other passengers seemed somewhat puzzled when they noticed me. A few times people asked if I was a student, attempting to “place” me. Many white people I met seemed even more puzzled by my situation—I was college-educated, white, from an affluent background, and yet rode the buses? They wondered aloud how I could even live here without a car. They asked why my parents wouldn’t help me buy a car. They were confused, sometimes incredulous, or pitying. One person joked, “I guess you don’t know what MARTA really stands for…Moving African-Americans Rapidly Through Atlanta!” This remark further confirmed for me that the historic legacy and present reality of racism deeply shape the discourse around public transportation in Atlanta. The Atlanta Transportation Equity Project  at Clark Atlanta University cites “transit racism and transportation apartheid” as “major factors that have kept [Metro Atlanta] racially, economically, and spatially divided.”

What does all of this mean for art and the creative economy? How is the art scene in Atlanta shaped by segregation, poverty, and lack of access? The poem above was one of the only pieces I wrote during the winter months, when the stress of little money and reliance on MARTA drained my creative energy and left me with a writer’s block the size of Texas. The art we produce when we are in survival mode is different from art birthed from a place of support, resources, artistic community, and inspiration. Not having a car limited my access to arts venues, arts organizations, and other resources. During my first weeks in Atlanta, I tried to pursue opportunities as a teaching artist. These efforts were futile, however, because I needed a way to get to schools, a way to be there on time, and a way to transport materials. I discovered that in Atlanta, as a young artist without a car, I was unable to contribute fully my talents and skills. My story is far from unique, given the systemic inequities that exist here in Atlanta and across the nation.

Wonderful art comes from Atlanta, and it comes from artists and communities across the spectrum of race, gender and socioeconomic class. I write simply to highlight the important intersection of two questions: 1) Why does public transportation inequity in Atlanta matter? and 2) What conditions foster a thriving, bustling creative economy in a city? These questions are inextricable because public transportation creates and reinforces social and economic divides, which influences who can participate in the creative economy and in what ways. I envision the vibrancy, diversity, and deep expansion of art and artistic community that is possible when everyone can access, create and share art and artistic community.

I care about public transportation in Atlanta not only because of my own experience struggling to access the city, but because the questions about MARTA and access are part of a much larger conversation about entrenched institutional racism, the violence of history, how we define who is in “our community,” and what kinds of artists and artistic expressions we value. By limiting who can afford to create art, experience art, and share their art with the diverse Atlanta communities, we deprive ourselves of the true richness that comes from having everyone’s voices at the table.

There are many opportunities to address the transportation crisis and questions of access to the creative economy. For arts organizations hosting classes, workshops, performances, and other events, consider whether the locations you choose would be accessible to someone riding MARTA. What communities and potential audiences in Atlanta have you overlooked? What barriers exist to the public accessing your organization or performances? Do you feature artists and performances that appeal to a wide range of audiences?

On the legislative front, residents across the 10-county Atlanta region including Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties, as well as the City of Atlanta will have the chance on July 31, 2012, to vote on a referendum that would fund $8.5 billion in transportation improvements through a regional one percent sales tax. It is an investment in the arts, the creative economy, and the city and people of Atlanta to join the conversation about transportation and vote this July.

Riding with the ladies of the #5 bus, I understood that creative people find expression everywhere. We make art to understand our communities, our world, and ourselves. We make art to tell the truth and to explore the edges of our human experience. Inclusive and accessible artistic communities serve the same function as great works of art: they wake us up to the beauty and pain of our lives, ask us hard questions, and offer us immeasurable gifts if we are willing to do the work to receive them.

Train coming into the MARTA Station
Photo: Marge Curtis

Rebecca Holohan is a poet, writer, activist and youth worker originally from Boston, MA. She loves exploring new places, building community, and creative collaborations with passionate people.

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