From Maria Saporta
Two veteran Atlanta business leaders – one white and one black – are concerned that Atlanta is losing its way.
This is in stark contrast to Atlanta’s pink past, which has been dubbed “The Atlanta Way”. In short, the Atlanta Way can be defined as a community that draws its diverse leaders to address the city’s greatest challenges.
At a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, two dear friends shared their views of the past and their hopes for the future.
Larry Gellerstedt, a native of Atlanta, is the retired CEO of Cousins Properties who has led all of the major local civic and business organizations over the years.
Egbert Perry, a native of Antigua Island, is the founder and CEO of Integral Group, a transformative urban developer.
They met in 1980 when Perry was working at the construction company HJ Russell & Co., and Gellerstedt and his father – Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr. – at Beers Construction.
“He was known as ‘Little Larry’,” said Perry with a smile.
“Egbert and I have developed such a close personal friendship over the past 40 years as in my life,” says Gellerstedt.
And their connection is both professional and personal. When Gellerstedt was unemployed due to depression and mental illness, it was Perry who offered him a position as top executive of the Integral Group.
“When I came to Integral, I was the only white person in the company,” says Gellerstedt. “Race is a difficult subject.”
But that was part of the Atlanta Way – to overcome racial differences, to move the city forward.
“Is Atlanta getting the Olympics without the civil rights movement? No way! “Said Gellerstedt.
And then he quickly added: “There is still a lot unfinished.”
Perry was more direct.
“I see the world as a world that really sucks for black people. It wasn’t a coincidence. It was on purpose, ”Perry said of the consequences of slavery. “We have to understand the past and shape the world for tomorrow.”
By the 1960s and 1970s, the business and civic community stood ready to face the difficult issues of the day with the goal of making Atlanta a gleaming city on the hill compared to its southern counterparts.
“Here was a town ready to join hands,” said Perry. “We have lost the way of coming together to build a healthy, caring community.”
Gellerstedt agreed. “We have a lot to do,” he said.
Perry spelled it and said that poverty is criminalized in the United States.
“That is the challenge we have. You need to rebuild all of the communities we have, ”Perry said. “When I told Larry that I was going to change urban America, what did you call me?”
“Communist,” replied Gellerstedt.
He later added, “What Egbert did when I called him a communist, he was tackling Techwood Homes.” This was the oldest public housing community in the country, which Integral Group converted into a mixed-income community called Centennial Place.
“That changed the careers of people in public housing,” said Gellerstedt.
“We wanted to make sure everyone had a chance at life,” said Perry. “We’ll meet the people we’re copying in a dark alley at night. There is no place that does it well. I feel like we’re getting lost. We need the energy to make this great vision come true. We have to find our north star. We have long-term problems and we have short-term problems. “
Part of the problem is that leadership in Atlanta has changed with a much more volatile business world, with many executives running global companies.
“We didn’t want to teach what the Atlanta Way is about,” said Gellerstedt. “Atlanta is a bigger city. It’s a much more complex city and region. “
It reminded me of conversations years ago with Larry’s father, the late Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr., about paying your office rent; you have to pay your civil rent. “
Today, some of the civic organizations that once kept the city on track have disappeared. There was the Atlanta Action Forum, a group of black and white business leaders who wanted to negotiate their differences and find common ground on a monthly basis. And there was the board of directors of the Commerce Club, where the top executives met every month to deal with the issues of the region.
In follow-up discussions with both of them, Gellerstedt and Perry said there was a gap.
“There is no vision for the city as a whole,” said Perry. “I basically believe that people are trying to be part of something. We need a moon shot. We need serving leaders – people who go into office to serve. “
Gellerstedt it is necessary to get the community together for the next Moonshot of Atlanta, which could be about equality and justice.
But he quickly added that it will be up to the current and new generation of executives to stir around this North Star.
“We have to make a conscious effort to tell the aspiring executives in Atlanta that the ball is yours,” said Gellerstedt. “Here’s what has been done in the past. Now it’s up to you. The future of the region depends on the new generation of leaders. You have to take possession of the Atlanta Way. “