Our View: City’s effort to help ‘water boys’ could be problematic

Young men sell water at the corner of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Photo by Bill Torpy/AJC
Young men sell water at the corner of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Photo by Bill Torpy/AJC

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Details are few at this early point, but it’s easy to see potential risks with Atlanta’s idea.

Noble intentions are not always enough to overcome a flawed idea.

That is our initial reaction to news that the City of Atlanta is studying whether it should, in effect, go into business with the young men known as “water boys” – youths who have gained notoriety by peddling bottled water on city street corners. Their would-be customers are often motorists stopped at traffic lights.

Street vendors are part of American business history, and cities like Atlanta have long struggled with how to regulate these shoe-leather enterprises.

In Atlanta, the water boys’ assertiveness has sometimes turned to aggression – or outright violence. Last summer, one young man peddling water was shot and killed by a juvenile who police said was angry with the victim for setting up shop in his “sales” territory.

There have been other shootings and arrests resulting from disputes between those selling water and motorists.

Given those public safety concerns, the city and Atlanta Police Department officials have promised a crackdown.

All of which makes Monday’s decision perplexing.

The Atlanta City Council passed a resolution calling for a feasibility study into whether the city should start a water business that could formally employ the water boys. The profits from sales of bottled water could be used to support low-income communities in Atlanta.

It’s admirable to want to help and guide the development of youth who show a strong appetite for street-level entrepreneurship. And their fervor is a strong indicator that they – and their families – are likely in dire need of the dollars that result.

Details are few at this early point, but it is easy to see the potential problems with the city’s idea.

First, if the forthcoming plan keeps sellers on the street, so to speak, it could do little to nothing to address the main issue: young men aggressively – even desperately, at times – pushing water into the hands of people who do not want or need it at that moment.

If that’s the business strategy ultimately adopted, the city’s plan has potential to increase the already-powerful financial incentive that motivates the water sellers who hustle hard on city streets.

Secondly, given the steep spike in homicides that has taken hold over our city, it is hard to believe that developing an improved business model for a troublesome practice should be at the top of anyone’s to-do list.

It’s also odd that the city could find itself competing with one of its most significant corporate citizens, the Coca-Cola Co., which has several water brands in its product portfolio.

Indeed, there are many factors at play here.

But none of them adequately erase what could be one of the biggest flaws in such a plan: Allowing people to ply their trade at intersections and off-ramps, particularly in an age when many drivers are already distracted, is beyond dangerous. Pedestrian deaths here are already too high.

The safety of these young people and motorists alike argue strongly against allowing the status quo to continue.

At one point, the mayor and the city council seemed to understand that.

In October, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore wrote in a social media post: “I still stand on my position that water-selling must stop.”

And Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said: “We have seen an increase in unsafe and violent activity in some locations and cannot allow it to continue.”

So why this new plan?

Monday’s action seems to acknowledge that the city has given up and caved in to the old business adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Surely, the city and community can come together to address the problem.

Surely, there must be a better way to channel the energetic, if misguided, entrepreneurial enthusiasm of the water boys while keeping everyone safe.

A city that’s as innovative and as blessed with community resources as Atlanta must take another run at doing just that.

The Editorial Board.

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