An Urbanist Walks Into a Bar…

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Jane Jacobs?”

This is probably the first and last time anyone has used that line to greet a stranger in a bar. But today, during my break from gathering data at the train station in East Point, Georgia, it was an exceptionally adequate greeting.

My new friend, Michelle, is a regular at Chairs Upstairs, a local bar on Main Street. In her fifty something years of life, most of which she’s lived in East Point, she’s witnessed the town gradually change to become the place it is today.

Jane Jacobs, the mother of the Public Life study. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Bike Fed: http://www.bfw.org/2016/05/10/happy-birthday-jane-jacobs/

East Point is a working class town roughly 9 miles south of Downtown Atlanta.1 Its dense downtown contains several locally owned businesses, a post office, a CVS pharmacy, and a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train station. The train station has been my focus for the last two weeks while I’ve collected data about pedestrian movement and stationary activities and watching and listening closely. Very often, I am the only white person at the station.2

Meeting Michelle tonight was so special, because while I’ve been in East Point, I’ve felt very much like an outsider. We chatted about her favorite karaoke music to sing (“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor), how East Point has changed since the MARTA station was built, and the trials and tribulations of living without a car, which she’s done for ten years. She recounted being mugged while walking to the bar from Chick-Fil-A, what it was like growing up in the South during integration3 and our mutual frustration with MARTA’s lackluster level of service. Though she was a perfect stranger, I think our conversation was one of the most meaningful and personal I’ve had since leaving Chapel Hill in May.

I am glad there are perfect strangers in the world like Michelle. They have stories to tell. Just listen.