Subverting the conference-industrial complex

The title is in jest.  I realize that conference organizers encourage attendees to stay in the conference hotel.  $200 rooms help to secure the space where the conference takes place.  It’s just that staying in the conference hotel completely insulates you from the surrounding city and its essential humanity.

What is the essential humanity of Atlanta?

I’m currently in Atlanta for the American Evaluation Association’s 30th annual conference at the Marriott Marquis.  The Marquis is a nice hotel, the soaring courtyard type.  It has all the amenities that a conference-goer should want, including a nice line at Starbucks.  But the design of the downtown conference district effectively walls-off the conference-goer from the surrounding city.  Wide roads with fast, aggressive drivers hem you into the fortress of concrete spaces that contain the conference, effectively warning you from venturing off into the surrounding environs.

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The Starbucks line.

In the past two years, I have taken to renting a room through airbnb.com.  Not only has this been less expensive, it has enabled me to get out into the surrounding city and experience the life and culture which it has to offer.  I enjoy my walks to and from the conference center.  My walk is 2 miles each way – which has meant that I need to get up earlier, and that I spend much more of my day walking.  But I have logged nearly 16,000 steps today, which has helped to keep me alert and engaged throughout the day.  (Airbnb has drawn substantial criticism, which I acknowledge below)

Walking to the conference center has also given me the opportunity to see aspects of the city that are less fortunate.  This morning, I walked through a large encampment of homeless folks.  The juxtaposition of human need with the conference district is striking, especially because if I never left the conference “green zone,” I wouldn’t be aware that accommodation of the homeless population does not seem like a vital concern here.

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A free dinner shuttle is available for hotel patrons.

Atlanta’s poverty is alluded to, if you can catch its subtle signals.  When I was searching for a good local restaurant, I found Poor Calvin’s.  The Yelp review noted that I could get a free dinner shuttle from midtown and downtown hotels.  A half-mile walk should not be prohibitive, but if the conventional wisdom is that the surrounding neighborhoods are not safe for conference-goers, then that is not good for business.  And although the walk is not inviting – a mostly empty streetscape with very fast one-way traffic – it does make me wonder about the conference-zone as a viable economic strategy for raising the fortunes of the surrounding community.  To me, it seems that the profit is most likely to stay in the conference zone and filter its way up to the large hotel and restaurant corporations, rather than being distributed amongst the small-business owners and citizens of Atlanta.

Poor Calvin’s was worth the walk – and I presume also worth the free shuttle.

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Southern fried chicken, collards, and lobster macaroni and cheese

NOTES

Airbnb.com has been criticized for driving up rent prices and worsening housing shortages in tight markets like New York and San Francisco.  Tenants may lease a small apartment, then rent it out through Airbnb while they crash on a friend’s couch.  In addition, there has been staunch critique that Airbnb cannot enforce a basic measure of anti-discrimination, given that it simply acts as a platform for business transactions between two parties, and thus cannot force renters to comply with anti-discrimination policies.

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