Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens declared 2023 the “Year of the Youth” in his second State of the City address.
“I want Atlanta to be the best place in America to raise children,” he told hundreds of city officials, dignitaries, business leaders, and media who crowded into a ballroom at the Marriott Marquis downtown on Tuesday morning.
The 30-minute speech was short on surprises–beyond, perhaps, Dickens’ entrance behind a marching band playing the Herbie Hancock jazz-funk classic “Chameleon.” In keeping with tradition, the mayor’s State of the City address was largely a vehicle to trumpet his administration’s accomplishments and lay out a near-term agenda.
That agenda is heavily focused on public safety, policing, new infrastructure, and housing concerns, as well as funding for youth programs.
Despite local and national controversy over the city of Atlanta’s plan to construct a Public Safety Training Center on forest land it owns in DeKalb County, Dickens didn’t shy away from discussing the need for the project, known by opponents as “Cop City.”
“We love the uniformed personnel who serve our fellow citizens,” he said. “When I took office, I pledged that public safety would be my top priority as mayor. That’s still true today.”
“We need training facilities, and our police and fire training centers have been long condemned. That’s why we are building the state-of-the-art Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. Our firefighters will finally have a vehicle course to learn to drive those trucks through our neighborhoods to deliver lifesaving care. Our police will have a training course that will prepare them to address active shooters and domestic violence situations.”
Dickens praised the city’s efforts in lowering the city’s homicide rate by 56% over the past calendar year and reducing 911 caller wait times by 43%. He said those efforts were aided by 28,000 surveillance cameras installed as part of the Connect Atlanta system—triple the original goal.
The city is bolstering public safety with new funding for the Atlanta Police Department, Dickens said, including accelerated pay increases, cost-of-living adjustments, and additional bonuses, plus the ability for officers to take home squad cars.
In introductory remarks, Colin Connolly, chairman of Atlanta Committee for Progress and CEO of Cousins Properties, cited Dickens’ efforts as a reason for the decline in crime last year.
“He prioritized decisive actions that provided tangible results. On January 13, 2022, just 10 days after his inauguration, he announced a new police precinct in Buckhead through a creative public-private partnership,” said Connolly. Cousins donated office space for the mini-precinct located at One Buckhead Plaza in the heart of Buckhead, which has one of the city’s lowest crime rates.
The mayor also touted the city’s efforts to build or preserve 20,000 affordable housing units by 2030. Since Dickens took office 15 months ago, the number is at more than 1,900 units, with another 5,400 under construction, he said.
“We’re serious about this,” Dickens said, noting that the city of Atlanta has purchased the 2 Peachtree Street office tower downtown from the state of Georgia and will convert a “big chunk” of the 41-story skyscraper into affordable housing.
Dickens also announced a pilot program to freeze property taxes for 100 low-income seniors for the next two decades and discussed his recent partnership with filmmaker Tyler Perry to pay off back property taxes for other seniors. “I want to make sure that seniors who invested in our city are able to stay here,” he said.
He praised Felicia “Ms. Peaches” Morris, a former Forest Cove resident who’s advocated for tenants of the blighted apartment complex owned by Ohio-based Millennia Housing Management, which was condemned by a city judge in December 2021. “[Morris] had been fighting for years, telling anyone who would listen that the conditions of that complex were terrible,” said Dickens. Since last year, the city has relocated over 800 people from Forest Cove into “safe and decent housing,” he said.
Year of the Youth
“I want Atlanta to be the best place in America to raise children,” Dickens said.
To emphasize the point, the mayor shared the spotlight with teenage harp players, a youth choir from the Atlanta Music Project—and even his own daughter Bailey, who is graduating high school this semester. “Atlanta was a great place for me to grow up, and it was a great place for Bailey too. But I know that we have work to do to ensure that all young people in our city have the same opportunities,” said Dickens.
The mayor announced the city will spend at least $20 million on pre-kindergarten early childhood education using $5 million in funds from Atlanta Public Schools plus private contributions. He also noted that the city doled out $1 million to 23 youth organizations during his term, which serve about 6,000 young people.
“Mayor Dickens’ Atlanta dystopia”
Not everyone attending Tuesday’s festivities was so thrilled with Dickens’ tenure. Activists and community organizers presented a largely negative response to the State of the City address in a conference room next to the ballroom immediately following the mayor’s address.
Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders, which serves working class and poor Black neighborhoods, called the city “Mayor Dickens’ Atlanta dystopia,” due to rising inequality, gentrification, and the Dickens administration’s push to build Cop City, despite a lack of popular support from Atlanta’s Black residents.
“The state of Atlanta is not one you just heard with a pumped-up address, with marching bands, with a crowd to cheer him on. The real state of Atlanta is the people who are struggling everyday,” said Franklin.
“Atlanta is a city that is under the control of corporations and Buckhead,” he added. “Poor and working-class people—particularly poor working-class Black people—can no longer afford to live in Mayor Dickens’ Atlanta.”
Marlon Kautz, a spokesperson with Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which aids protestors arrested by the city, said Atlanta’s crackdown on Cop City protests is a major concern. Over three dozen activists have been arrested and charged with felonies for protesting Cop City under Georgia’s 2017 domestic terrorism law.
“Atlanta is a city with a rich history of protest. It’s the birthplace of the civil rights movement–Mayor Dickens and city leaders love to talk about how much they value protest and how much they celebrate and protect it,” said Kautz. “But the right to protest is far from protected. It’s under direct attack in Atlanta today.”