Leon and Madalyne’s front porch at One Barksdale in Ansley Park was where so much of the magic happened. It was on that front porch that I met some of my closest friends, mentors and future project collaborators after I moved to Atlanta in the summer of 1996. It was on that front porch where we talked about Atlanta’s Jewish community and other projects critical to the city and the region. And it was on that front porch where I first learned about the profession of urban planning.
To say that those conversations and the Eplan family had an impact on me is an understatement. Leon is the reason I became an urban planner at the age of 40. There was no one more passionate about the profession and about Atlanta than Leon, and I never tired of learning from him.
So when Leon needed help sorting through his personal and professional papers, I was more than happy to help. All I remember about the summer of 2008 is piles. Leon would emerge from his office with a big grin having uncovered another document and ready with another story. The piles began to take over the room as he brought out one project after another and I shook my head in amazement as significant pieces of Atlanta’s history emerged.
If you ever needed a variance for a building project in Atlanta, you know Leon’s work. Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU), a model of civic participation created during his tenure with [former] Mayor Maynard Jackson, was his brainchild and to me represents what was so special about Leon as a planner and as a person. As those who knew him could attest, Leon could talk. But he also understood better than anyone that our city is better for listening to people in the community and giving voice to everyone. He created a system of civic engagement that lives on today in our city and that honors our city as a collection of neighborhoods, celebrates both our differences and our shared experiences. Leon understood and lived the practice of what we now call placemaking, light years before it was a buzzword.
And there was so much more. Leon also understood that transportation in a city like Atlanta should be about more than cars. He was integral to the creation and planning of the MARTA system and was proud that he convinced the engineers to put the airport station in the airport and not a shuttle bus ride away and locate the Decatur station in the square and not on the outskirts. He actively promoted high-speed rail between Atlanta and Chattanooga and a streetcar on the Clifton Corridor. Leon was a proponent of the 1996 Olympics and worked to bring attention to how it should provide some benefit for lower wealth neighborhoods. Leon’s leadership in brokering an agreement that created Freedom Parkway made sure that many beloved intown neighborhoods were not destroyed.
The list goes on and on and the piles grew and grew. There was a pile for his continuing work with AZA alumni and correspondence with lifelong friends throughout the Southeast. He was devoted to Boys High, now Grady High School, and the alumni association’s support to current students with financial need for college scholarships. Later in life, when Leon lived at the Renaissance [on Peachtree], he delighted in introducing me to other Boys High alums we would frequently see in the dining room, and there were still more papers and more stories.
I would go on after that summer of 2008 to get my master’s in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, to work for the City of Atlanta and for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. It is no coincidence that when I joined Federation in 2017, we landed on the name The Front Porch for our significant visioning and planning process. It’s on the front porch where we dream, talk about possibilities and also consider our history. On the front porch, like at One Barksdale, where we gather as a community and share our perspectives. Leon taught me and so many others to value being on the front porch and for that I am – and we should all be – forever grateful.
Jodi Lox Mansbach was the Federation’s chief impact officer until recently becoming principal of Living Playgrounds, a design collective.