The American Dream gets another bashing

Chris Cramer, the former head of BBC Newsgathering, left Britain three years ago to become president of CNN in Atlanta. He finds a city that took immense pride in its achievements is now hanging its head in shame
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The Independent Online
I STOPPED the car on the way to work on Thursday morning to enjoy the delightful sight of 20 or so kids dancing under the fountains in Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta, just a few yards from CNN's headquarters. As they jumped and shrieked in 100F temperatures I remembered that it was exactly three years ago this week that some maniac, still at large, planted a pipe bomb in the park during the 1996 Olympics, killing one person and injuring 100.

When violence strikes in Atlanta it comes shockingly fast and seems to leave the city stunned at its own viciousness. It is fair to say that Atlanta is again in shock this summer weekend.

This place moves at warp speed during the day. For many citizens (though not this one) the morning starts with a jog in the dark at 6am. They are at their desks by 7.30, eat lunch in the office, jog again in the evening and are safe in bed by 10. During the week the streets are empty by 9pm and you can't buy alcohol on Sundays.

Buckhead, the scene of this week's massacre, is one of the smartest parts of town. Towering office blocks and condominiums are surrounded by tree- lined side streets and detached houses which start at pounds 200,000 and pounds 300,000 apiece and go much higher. I went to a party at one recently where the owners arranged valet parking at the bottom of their driveway for each arriving guest. And golf carts to carry them to and from the house.

Bars and restaurants attract Atlanta's well-heeled youth on Fridays and Saturdays. And the community has more churches than I have ever seen anywhere. So many in fact that each one has a traffic cop on duty each week to keep the cars moving.

Elton John has made Buckhead his home for the past few years, though, not in his income bracket, I could afford only to rent an apartment there and eventually left the district to buy a house a few miles north.

Atlanta is a city built around the American Dream. There is nothing you cannot do here if you have the wit and the will. Prices are among the lowest in the States, petrol at around 60p a gallon, unemployment a tiny 3 per cent. The only people out of work here, they say, are the ones who don't want to.

It is a showcase for white and black achievement. The city has a black mayor and a black police chief.

The irony of events such as this week's carnage is that I have never felt safer that I do now living here in Atlanta. I rarely lock my car. I stroll the streets in Buckhead. Travel on the carpeted underground trains and revel in the genuine politeness and efficiency of the shops and restaurants.

Unlike London, there are no winos to abuse you, no lager louts to avoid in the street, and at baseball or basketball events families picnic in a crowd of 30,000 without the slightest fear. This weekend I'm going to an open air concert - just a mile or so from the scene of the shootings - where they they sell beer in glass bottles without any risk of them ever being thrown or broken.

Atlanta is a city which celebrates success rather than the European habit of taking pleasure in your failure. At CNN there is spontaneous applause when someone is promoted, birthday cakes for newsroom staff and small acts of remarkable kindness when someone is in trouble.

The talk in Atlanta before this week's rampage by Mark Barton was about the heatwave, the increasing traffic problems and the consequent pollution. Thousands of folk have been moving back into the city from the surrounding suburbs to cut down on the daily commute, though it is nothing to compare with London and elsewhere in the world.

This weekend there is a feeling of desperation in the air, palpable even to newcomers. Talk is not just of gun control, security and the randomness of violence but of the shame this massacre has brought to the city of Atlanta. And the damage again caused to the American Dream.