“All the common areas of Atlantic Station including the streets, sidewalks, parks, and alleys are private property.”
Thus reads one line buried in the Rules of Conduct for Atlantic Station, Atlanta, Georgia: a marvelous city within a city. But it’s this one line that makes the critical difference. It’s why this one-square mile in the heart of this great city has done more to model beauty, prosperity, diversity, and happy living than 50 years of “urban renewal” and other government programs.
The entire community was built on top of the old Atlanta Steel Mill, which opened in 1901 and closed in the 1970s, leaving desolation in its wake. Atlantic Station opened 10 years ago as a visionary entrepreneurial venture — the brainchild of The Jacoby Group, headed by Jim Jacoby — funded mostly with private money (the city helped with tax breaks and some infrastructure funding).
It is not a gated community walled off from the public for only the elite. There is no charge to get in. Everything is public access, and subject to all the laws governing commercial property. The difference between the public and private city, however, is huge.
You can tell when you have entered the space. Whereas many areas of Atlanta struggle, this area in the heart of the city is clean, bright, ebullient, bustling with enterprise and life.
On an evening recently, on the way to the movies in the spectacular theater there, I sat outside on the patio of a Mexican food restaurant and watched adults and children playing games and having fun on the green space that serves as a mini-park in the middle of this urban experiment in capitalism. There were people from all races, classes, and ages. They listened to the live band and sang along.
As I sat there, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of a mini-utopia. It’s like an idealized scene you see in a commercial for soda or some happy vacation getaway. It was one of the most blissful city scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
It was a typical evening, and it was all taking place in a place that was, only twenty years ago, a burned out, low-rent disaster zone, the kind of place people flee. Now, the migration patterns have changed. Atlantic Station is a place where you want to live and work.
I was walking along and a uniformed police office greeted me good evening. I responded with delight, and we had a nice conversation. She wanted to know if I was enjoying the evening, made a few bar recommendations, we chatted about the weather, and I went on. She was uniformed, yes, and probably armed, but in a non-threatening way. She looked sharp and helpful, as well as official.
Then it struck me: the police in the community are privately employed by main stakeholders in the community, which are the merchants, apartment owners, and other service providers. (The streets are also private but public access.) For this reason, the police themselves have a deep investment in the well-being of the community and the general happiness of the consumers who shop there. They are employees of the free enterprise system. In particular, Atlantic Station owners contract with Chesley Brown for experienced service.
Sometimes in today’s overly-militarized environment, it is easy to forget: policing is a completely legitimate, useful, important profession. They are there to make sure that everyone is keeping the rules and to apprehend the vandals and criminals who break the rules. You might even call them the thin-blue line.
What makes the difference here is the private nature of the contract that employs them. Just as every other employee in this community, they have a direct stake in the value of the space. They are there to serve customers, just as every merchant in this community does.
The more valuable the community, the more valuable their own jobs. They have the incentive to do their job well, which means enhancing the experiences of rule keepers while driving out those who do not keep the rules.
The rules for Atlantic Station are rather strict, more so than I would have thought. There is a curfew for teens. You can’t wear gang-related or obscene clothing. You can’t carry weaponry. You can’t use indecent language. You can’t smoke. You can’t be boisterous. You can’t shout or be vulgar. You can jog, but you can’t just take off running through streets like an animal.
If rules like this were imposed by a city government, people would rightly complain about the violation of rights. So why aren’t these rules violations of rights? Because it is private property and the owners determine them.
More importantly, the point of the rules is not to control people and run their lives; it is to enhance the value of the community for everyone. They can be changed depending on circumstances. They can be imposed strictly or not. It all depends on what’s best for Atlantic Station, and, yes, what’s best for business.
But you know what’s interesting given all the rules? You don’t really feel them. They are not really posted anywhere. You just sense that they exist, and you feel a desire to behave well. The culture of cooperativeness and good behavior is ever present. And the rules have the effect of freeing you from annoying things, not restricting your behavior. It doesn’t feel like an imposition. It feels orderly. The rules are enforced but with gentleness and care.
The first time I entered Atlantic Station was about 18 months ago. I had some sense that something was different about the place, but I hadn’t understood that it was entirely private. I stepped out on the sidewalk and lit up a cigarette. One of these very nice private policeman came up and greeted me and politely asked me to put it out, on grounds that this was against the rules in this private community. I said, you mean by this building? He said, no, for the whole community.
I didn’t resent it. In fact, I was delighted to comply. I even thanked him for being so kind. There were no tickets, no yelling, no moments of intimidation. No one is taking your stuff, threatening to arrest you, or even giving you tickets. You have the right of exit. The rules themselves become part of a larger market for rules.
Another interesting feature is how Atlantic Station has marketed itself. It is not seen as an experiment in capitalist living. All the promotion uses all the usual lefty buzzwords about energy efficiency, sustainability, diversity, renewable this and that, certifications by various green groups, and so on. None of it matters in the slightest. This is about private property. Period. It’s ownership that realizes the ideals, whatever they are.
The lesson I derive from all of this is that institutions matter. You can have the same principles and laws in two places, one enforced publicly and one enforced privately. The code of conduct can be identical, but the results can be completely different.
Where monopolistic, tax-funded enforcement can be cruel, inflexible, and violent, the same enforcement brought about within the matrix of an exchange economy can yield results that are humane, orderly, and beautiful. The right to just walk away makes all the difference.
The implications for policing are perhaps the most interesting, given the current controversy over police abuse. When the police function is part of the market order, the phrase “to serve and protect” takes on substantive meaning. It’s this feature of public vs. private property that is decisive.
There must be many of these communities appearing around the country. Governments at all levels are out of ideas and out of money. When was the last time you heard of some hugely expensive urban renewal program, or massive public housing structure, that was to be built in a major city?
These visions are less and less part of our lives and our future, thankfully. With governments bowing out of the planning business, private enterprise is increasingly moving in with real efforts at restoring community.
Private enterprise is gradually bringing about what governments only promised to do, and it is happening without much fanfare. In fact, I’ve not seen a single headline story about this community, whereas there should be thousands that read something like “Private commerce saves Atlanta!”
Private property and inclusive commerce: it's the magic sauce that makes life beautiful. Come to Atlantic Station and see for yourself.