Atlanta Before and After the Olympics
Mary G. Rolinson, November 2006
From the Annual Meeting 2007 column of the November 2006 Perspectives
Atlanta has reinvented itself at least four times in its relatively short history. After General Sherman came through in 1864, the burned-out railroad hub became the capital city of Georgia and the New South. After the 1906 race riot it evolved into the cradle of the civil rights movement and "the city too busy to hate." In the 1980s, Mayor Andrew Young faced derision as he proclaimed Atlanta an "international city." Yet his claim received validation in September 1990 when the International Olympic Committee announced "It's Atlanta!" and awarded the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games to the capital of Georgia instead of to Athens, Greece. Atlantans suddenly found themselves facing a tight deadline for another image makeover. The stakes seemed inordinately high: here was an opportunity to showcase the city as prosperous, racially progressive, and cosmopolitan, while some worried privately that the city would fulfill every critic's expectation of inadequacy, bigotry, and provincialism.
Much-needed infrastructure was already in place: the airport, the convention hotels, the Georgia Dome, and the World Congress Center. The Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games, a private entity, raised millions to build the rest: the Olympic Village, which now houses 2,000 Georgia State University students; a completely renovated Herndon Stadium, Morris Brown College's premier sports venue; the Aquatic Center, now part of Georgia Tech's athletic facilities; and of course the Olympic Stadium, which after the games became the Atlanta Braves' new home, now called Turner Field. The construction was the easy part.
"Packaging" Atlanta's Image
How would organizers package Atlanta's image? During the opening ceremony, the global audience was dazzled by pyrotechnics, shadow images of ancient Greek athletes, and Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron. But the most talked about moment among Georgians was the fleet of silver Chevy trucks on monster-sized, off-road wheels racing around the Olympic track, thankfully without the standard accessory of a rebel flag in the rear window. Some found it hilarious, others appalling. Atlantans seemed reconciled to the permanence of the enormous relief carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson at Stone Mountain Park, home to the world's largest piece of exposed granite and a multi-use venue for the 1996 games. Never mind that the Ku Klux Klan was revived at Stone Mountain in 1915, because Atlantans could point visitors to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the Carter Presidential Center, both connected with humane and internationally acclaimed leaders from Georgia.
In Atlanta's characteristic progress-before-preservation way, bulldozers razed 21 acres in west downtown to build Centennial Olympic Park, complete with its kid-friendly Olympic Rings fountain, a focal point for city gatherings and sweaty summer concerts. The park now also contains a mosaic of paving stones, a "quilt of remembrance," near the site where Alice Hawthorne of Albany, Georgia, died and over 100 others were injured in a bomb explosion during the 1996 Olympiad. The Olympic Park bombing sobered giddy Atlantans and injected the inconvenience of reality into the surreal atmosphere of the world spotlight. Feeling frustration with the eyes of the world watching, law enforcement and the press alike subjected Richard Jewell, an attentive security guard who averted a much larger tragedy when he moved crowds away from the suspicious package, to investigations, repeated searches, and unfounded accusations that he planted the bomb himself. Years later, the pipe bomb materials were linked definitively to Eric Rudolph, the elusive wilderness survivor who dodged a massive FBI man-hunt for nearly five and one-half years.
It took only one rogue to remind the historically image-conscious city that the identity of an urban metropolis cannot be managed or controlled. Perhaps some good came from the hand-wringing over how Atlanta might be perceived leading up to the Olympics. The Atlanta community participated in an informal self-examination that primed the city for welcoming the world for the Games and subsequently in more permanent ways. Ultimately, the Olympics yielded a lot more than a two-week photo-op: the games provided an enormous engine for growth. A surging population is the most obvious marker of Atlanta's post-Olympic transformation. If you drive up Peachtree Street, the city's main artery, just north of the annual meeting's hotels you will pass an antiquated electronic marquee that tracks metro Atlanta's population. In the early 1970s it hovered close to the two million mark. By the 1996 Games the metro population had reached three million, and today the marquee flashes 4,458,253. Winning the Olympic bid marked a turning point that put Atlanta on the world's radar screen.
The "New" New Atlanta
Atlanta has attracted an enormous immigrant population because of its airport, its educational institutions, and the metro area's flourishing economy. Atlanta's international population represents every corner of the globe. For example, Rimma Kanopka left the USSR in 1989 to escape the toxic zone surrounding Chernobyl. Her refugee agency in Italy randomly placed her on a flight to Atlanta where she has remained and prospered. Many of Sudan's former "Lost Boys" make their homes here and attend Georgia Perimeter College, the state's third largest in student enrollment. Across the street from GPC's central campus, Clarkston High School enrolls students who speak 47 languages other than English.
The most established core of multi-ethnic Atlanta is found in the so-called International Village district that surrounds Buford Highway. In 1975, the only Mexican restaurant in Atlanta was located on this road, now a seven-lane corridor that hosts 18,000 single-family homes and apartments within a six-mile stretch. Practically all the residents and business owners of this area are Asian and Latino. More recently, Lithonia to the southeast has become home to thousands of transplanted West Indians who live in newly constructed neighborhoods carved out of the forests of southern DeKalb County. Nigerian-born Atlantans drive many of the taxis from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to downtown hotels. The Atlanta Link is an inexpensive airport shuttle owned and operated by an immigrant Bolivian family. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's granddaughter graduated suburban North Cobb High School.
To sample international Atlanta in two hours or less, take I-75 North to exit 13, follow Buford Highway in a northeast direction, and go shopping at any of the strip malls there. Another option is to head east on Ponce de Leon Avenue for about eight miles through Druid Hills and Decatur, ending up at the De Kalb Farmer's Market to eat, shop, and people watch.
Visitors in 2007 should also be aware that Atlanta, unlike prior to the Olympics, knows that it is an international city. But Atlanta is more self-conscious than other cities and works diligently on its image. Mayor Shirley Franklin and other city boosters want to market a revised image emphasizing Atlanta's "opportunity, optimism, and openness." You may notice banners and billboards posted around town promoting "the ATL," Atlanta's airport moniker and newly adopted brand name. "I Love the ATL," the city's theme song, was composed by hip-hop mogul Dallas Austin, and our new racy red and white logo looks suspiciously like the city's homegrown multinational Coke's iconic design; and brand Atlanta even has a slogan: "ATLanta, every day is an opening day" (for more information on this latest development, go to ATLopen.com )
—Mary G. Rolinson is a visiting lecturer in the Georgia State University History Department. Her forthcoming book (to be published by University of North Carolina Press) is Grassroots Garveyism : The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920–27. She is an Atlanta native and a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.