Welcome to the Olympic Village

by Matthew Cooper | July 15, 1996

Atlanta

At the Peachtree Club, twenty-three stories above the City of Atlanta, the view unfolds and, with it, the history of a city and a nation. To the east is Stone Mountain, the largest exposed piece of granite on earth and once a favorite meeting place of the Ku Klux Klan. A bit south is the stretch of American history known as "Sweet Auburn." The street was the boyhood home to Martin Luther King Jr. and his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Auburn Avenue's shops and clubs and entrepreneurship made it a source of pride for blacks. Sweet, it was dubbed, because of the wealth it produced. Below, the streets thunder with the sound of jackhammers as the city readies for the Olympics.

But up here it is quiet. Dining with me is Kent Matlock. Bearded and bespectacled, Matlock, like me, is in his early 30s. We met six years ago when I lived in Atlanta as a reporter, a tour of duty that lasted three years. Dapper and animated, he is dressed in a fine black-and-white check suit that befits a man who heads his own company--Matlock & Associates, which, among other things, helps corporations market their products to blacks.

Before he was 20, Matlock worked for Georgia-Pacific, the paper giant. He got a foothold in their marketing operations, hired by whites eager to find talent, but especially black talent. He almost dropped out of Morehouse College but decided to finish. In 1986, he formed his own company, which is now housed in sleek offices. Born in a small Tennessee town, the son of a restaurateur, Matlock has arrived. A gorgeous Asian woman works at the reception desk. Attractive persons of every hue, including Matlock's brother and mother, work in the business. Matlock explains his commitment to multiethnic hiring: "If I'm a one-trick pony, I'm dead. I need the different perspectives." Being waited on by an expatriate British host, nibbling on shrimp, Matlock is the story Atlanta wishes to tell about itself--ambition, racial harmony, success. But Matlock is no fool. I ask him about Atlanta's much-touted image as "the city too busy to hate." The phrase comes from the city's late, lionized mayor William Hartsfield, who ran the city for more than a quarter century and helped ease the city through the civil rights era without the violence of a Birmingham. "I think it's something that we aspire to," Matlock tells me. "It's obviously not where we are."

Where is Atlanta? When the Olympics descend on this city, the world will focus on the home of Gone With the Wind and Coca-Cola, Ted Turner and Elton John. Two million visitors will attend, and more than 3 billion will watch on TV. Short of war, it's been said, there is nothing bigger that can happen to a city than the Olympic Games, especially these, the Centennial Games marking the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics. And each time the Olympics are held there is a parallel drama taking place off the field. How will the host city be seen by the rest of the world? The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were, of course, about the Third Reich. Other Olympics have made grand statements about the host city. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for instance, showcased Japan's rebirth after its economy was shattered by World War II. Before they were besieged by the thugs of Black September, Munich's 1972 games were about German democracy. Atlanta, then, will offer athletes to the world. But it will also offer itself. It is not the first time. The obsession with being "world-class" is woven into Atlanta's DNA. Burned in the Civil War, its symbol is the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Its motto: Resurgens. Its ambition can grate. Back in the nineteenth century a popular joke, to the east in Savannah, was that "if Atlanta could suck as hard as she blows, it could be a seaport, too."

I came back to Atlanta to try to see what had changed since I left in late 1992, to wonder anew about this city and what it can, and cannot, teach the rest of us. I confess to being soft on the place, perhaps because of what it meant to me. Having gone to college fifteen miles from my home in New Jersey, Atlanta was my India, my modest venture to a different culture. I liked its sublime aspects. Yes, its barren Sunbelt downtown, a crazy quilt of skyscrapers and empty lots, holds little allure--a fact to which millions of visiting conventioneers will readily attest. But Atlanta's leafy neighborhoods are another story. Nowhere near an ocean or a river, Atlanta is set amid a forest. When showing visitors around, I'd show them the wraparound porches and dogwoods instead of the cold planning of John Portman, the architect who devised the now infamous giant atriums you see in hotels and offices. I missed the ethnicity I had known in the Northeast. In Atlanta proper, just 13,000 of the 394,000 residents of the city are foreign-born. True, in the suburbs--the metro area has 3.4 million residents--mosques and taquerias are springing up, the new Miss Atlanta is a Korean-American, and the head of Coca-Cola is Cuban-born. Still, I liked Atlanta's common black-white Southern culture. At cafeteria-style restaurants like Thelma's or Burton's grill, run for many years by a preacher, Deacon Burton, there's a comfortable mixing found less often in the North. Over heaping plates of fried chicken and greens, you'd see black cops and white businessmen happily digging in. I liked Atlanta's Junior League-types. Never before had I attended a party where no less than three women were named Ginger. Even the thirty-two streets named Peachtree held an odd appeal for me.

How has the city changed since the Olympics? The frenzy had already begun when I lived in Atlanta. I remember the September morning in 1990 when the city was chosen. The city's bid was, Atlanta-style, the result of one ambitious sales job. Billy Payne, a suburban lawyer and former University of Georgia football star, sold the idea to city fathers. And they in turn sold it to the world. When International Olympic Committee officials visited Atlanta they found a city already decked out in Olympic flags. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, an avid weightlifter, was treated to a Nautilus machine in his hotel suite. Computer whizzes at Georgia Tech came up with a magic carpet ride that virtually "flew" the delegates through the city. Then Mayor Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador, parlayed his influence. He lured the swing bloc of Third World delegates, selling the city not only in terms of logistics--good phones, big airport and so on--but also as a racial statement. In one case Young hit up a delegate from Senegal who he had, years earlier, gotten an appointment to the Hague. The favor, it seems, was returned. When the city got the games the local paper, in one of its many commemorative editions, ran the front-page headline: "WORLD-CLASS!"

 

The desire to be taken seriously not just as a regional transportation hub but as an international city has long been an obsession here. In 1895, the Cotton States and International Exposition marked Atlanta's rebirth after the Civil War. Henry Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, used the forum to promulgate the term "New South." He hailed Atlantans for raising a "brave and beautiful city." That would have come as news to the city's blacks. Still, at the time of the exposition, the Constitution proclaimed: "We thoroughly and fervently hope that the Atlanta exposition would finally and forever put an end to the current misrepresentation of the South and the southern people." The same words could be written today.

The Olympics have brought about a sizable, but not complete, transformation of downtown Atlanta. It wasn't as if I didn't recognize the place. Still, the changes are substantial. There are the imposing new venues like the Olympic Stadium, where track and field events will be held, and the Natatorium, open on two sides, which will allow fans and cameras to gaze at divers and the city's burgeoning skyline simultaneously. Banners line the streets. New roads have sprung up. Gone is the once-laughable highway controversy in which the oh-so-saintly Jimmy Carter was at odds with neighborhood activists over a road leading to his presidential library. "Freedom Parkway," it's called. And, of course, the hyper-consumerism that is the modern Olympics is on display. You can buy a $15 doll of Izzy, the games' ugly mascot, which is not even an animal but a blue computer "morph." Saks Fifth Avenue is offering a $340,000 set of jewel-encrusted Olympic pins. Corporate pavilions have been erected in the new Centennial Park, the most prominent being, naturally, Coca-Cola's Olympic City, a mini-amusement park in which you can, through virtual reality, practice your jump shot against Grant Hill. At the park's center is a 165-foot statue of Coke's contour bottle.

I toured the city with Rick Allen, author of Atlanta Rising, one of several new books about Atlanta. It's a great read, by far the most concise and worthwhile for someone who doesn't want to slog through competing tomes that run upwards of 400 pages. A tall, preppy blonde who looks younger than his late 40s, Allen participates in a local version of "The McLaughlin Group," known as "The Georgia Gang." I sit in on the show's taping in which, of course, the first topic is the Olympics and whether Atlanta will be ready. This much has not changed. For six years, the city has been like a family holding a wedding at home, nervous that the band won't show and Uncle Jack will hit the Jim Beam. The idea of being embarrassed by logistical screwups scares this city. After all, it is not offering a glamorous backdrop a la Barcelona. Its greatest asset is its efficiency.

As Allen and I tour the changing neighborhoods, the venues do look pretty impressive. What's more startling is the way one is forever bumping into modern American history, the way one stumbles across great art in Florence. We drive down "Sweet Auburn" and happen upon Reverend Joseph Lowery, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc). This former King ally now heads King's organization, and on a hot June day--Atlanta style--he is on the street doing a photo-op, posing with a giant check being donated to the sclc's fund for burned churches. What are you doing during the games, I ask Lowery. "Going to Barcelona," he jokes. Forever the activist, though, he's quick to complain about the dearth of black faces he sees in construction crews around town. Statistics tell a different story, though. Fully one third of Olympic construction monies are being doled out to minority firms. Later in the afternoon, we take drinks at a bar adjacent to the catering business once run by the mother of Vernon Jordan, the Atlanta lawyer who went on to become head of the Urban League and, more recently, Bill Clinton's best friend in Washington. Jordan's brother, Windsor, occasionally stops in. Joining us at the table is Tom Watson Brown, an attorney, and the great grandson of Tom Watson, the turn-of-the-century populist and demagogue. Munching chicken wings, the heir seems less ferocious than the ancestor.

 

I ask Allen the question that's been on my mind: whether Atlanta's history of race relations can instruct other cities, for better or worse. In the books and articles on Atlanta there have generally been two themes. The first is a positive look, emphasizing the city's "too busy to hate" image and touting Atlanta as a model of race relations. The other view, which might be called "too busy to care," touts Atlanta as a fraud, basically a segregated, poor city with a patina of bonhomie but hardly in a position to lecture the rest of the country.

Allen is basically an optimist, preferring in his book to accentuate the glass-is-half-full side of the city's history. At the end of World War II, Atlanta and Birmingham were roughly the same size, competing for primacy in the region. Birmingham, whose steel mills were run by absentee landlords, fell into the hands of Bull Connor and other violent repressors of black aspirations. Atlanta, by contrast, had a series of mayors and corporate chieftains and an enlightened black leadership that got the city through the civil rights era without the bloodletting that befell other cities. "Time and again during the last century," Allen writes, "Atlanta took the right fork in the road."

History, the optimistic version goes, conspired to make Atlanta succeed. Prominent black universities and a wealthy black bourgeoisie produced an African American leadership to be reckoned with. When the white primary was abolished in 1944, blacks in the city became effectively franchised, and their votes became pivotal for Mayor Hartsfield, who owed several of his elections to black support. Accordingly, then, he was more responsive to black demands than other mayors in the South. In the late 1940s, he integrated the police force after black protests in which appeals to pragmatism were more prevalent than fairness. "NEGRO POLICE WILL AID IN LAW AND ORDER" said one NAACP banner at the time. Hartsfield conceded, albeit in token numbers and with the indignity of compelling the black recruits to suit up at a YMCA rather than with the rest of the force. Still, their mere presence in the South was impressive. That they made the same money as their white counterparts was extraordinary. In the 1950s, Hartsfield helped carry out the desegregation of some public facilities. The city's golf courses were desegregated slyly. Hartsfield, a boisterous showman, asked TV cameras to come down to the city's premier course, Bobby Jones (named for the fairway legend), and tape the golfers. The blacks, though, weren't there, and the cameras packed up. Meanwhile, across town, the black players, after an agreement with Hartsfield, took their swings on another course. Later they began to play at Bobby Jones, too. Whites dubbed Hartsfield's golf move "Pearl Harbor," but it worked. The city's swift response to the bombing in 1958 of the Temple, the city's most prominent synagogue, earned praise from President Eisenhower, and the editorial denouncing the bombing by the Constitution's editor Ralph McGill won him the Pulitzer Prize. In 1961, President Kennedy urged Americans to "look closely at what Atlanta has done" in desegregating its schools. In 1963, Ivan Allen was the only Southern mayor to endorse Kennedy's civil rights bill, the forerunner of the Civil Rights Act. A brilliant set of black leaders such as Julian Bond, John Lewis and King led the way. When King won the Nobel Prize in 1964, the city held an integrated dinner in his honor. Ticket sales were spurred by Robert Woodruff, the head of Coca-Cola, who did much to foster progressive race relations in the city. After all, with an increasingly global market, Coke could ill afford to have its image tarnished. Other advances came by accident. The Chamber of Commerce was integrated when a local contractor, Herman Russell, was sent a routine application to join. He did, and no one kicked him out for fear of embarrassment. Today, he's one of Atlanta's most prominent businessmen. "We're building, as you know, a new South, a greater South," Martin Luther King told a 1965 audience in Philadelphia. "And in a real sense, Atlanta is one of the brightest and most promising spots of that new South."

It is this ebony-and-ivory image that lured the games to Atlanta. For the other side to the story, I went to see Ronald Bayor, a historian at Georgia Tech who has just written a book, Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, that disputes the myth of racial harmony. "The Chamber of Commerce won't like it," Bayor tells me, sipping a Coke at a sports bar called Jocks and Jills. While Allen hails originally from tony Bronxville, Bayor is from the real Bronx, and has the New Yorker's accent to prove it. And with a Northerner's skepticism, he set out to show how the city had failed to live up to its hype. I should mention that several Atlanta books have hit the shelves. Imagineering Atlanta, by Charles Rutheiser, is a critical and terrific look at Atlanta's hype. Two well-publicized, wonderfully written but long books about Atlanta are Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Constitution writer Gary Pomerantz and The Temple Bombing by Pulitzer-winner Melissa Fay Greene. They take more nuanced approaches. Bayor's, though, may be the toughest. Only a few blacks were allowed into the schools, he notes. And, after the floodgates opened, whites abandoned the inner-city schools in droves. Hartsfield, he notes, was a segregationist who had to be pushed into making any accommodations to blacks. And Bayor shows how a myriad of social policies led to rigid segregation. Consider the city's roads. The highways, says Bayor, are a mean streak running down the middle of Atlanta. Three interstates converge on Atlanta, cutting off its black and white sides. "This didn't happen by accident," he says. Indeed, in a vestige of segregation, some roads literally change names to separate black from white. Monroe Avenue, for instance, becomes Boulevard. The Constitution has carefully documented the history of red-lining in the city.

 

A spin through Census data shows that there is much in contemporary Atlanta to merit the "too busy to care" thesis. First, its inner-city is in utter despair: 27.3 percent of city residents live in poverty, ranking it fifth among American cities. Atlanta has been ranked number one and number two in the nation in terms of crime. Boosters note that the central city is small and so, like reduced gravy, its poverty-and-crime statistics are thicker, more pungent. Still, there's no denying that the city remains geographically segregated, with whites stretching south and only a handful of neighborhoods in the city, like the historic Grant Park District near the Olympic venues, being truly integrated. Indeed, most of the population growth and virtually all of the construction of office buildings has pushed north toward affluent Buckhead rather than south, where more of the blacks are. Atlanta has the smallest central city of the nation's ten largest metropolitan regions--the hole in the doughnut, it is called. When it comes to education, Atlanta debated its school desegregation for years, but the fact is that the city schools are now virtually all black.

I saw some of this division firsthand when I lived in Atlanta. I heard respectable sorts deride the mass transit system, MARTA, as standing for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. And there were ugly moments of black prejudice. On April 30, 1992, the day after the Rodney King acquittals, a student protest marched from the campus of Clark Atlanta University toward city hall and the state capital. The confrontation soon turned ugly and before long, hundreds of black youths were parading through downtown, smashing windows, beating up whites, breaking into Korean stores. In the middle of this melee, trying to cover it, I found myself slipping into buildings, trying to avoid the mob. The crowds came up the street from the CNN Center and the Omni where the Hawks play, and I decided to call it a day. I'm glad I did. Moments earlier the crowd had beaten a white man severely, leaving him brain damaged.

Is there a middle ground between the optimistic and pessimistic views of Atlanta, between the rioting in the streets and Kent Matlock dining at the Peachtree Club? Clearly, the city doesn't live up to its hype. No city, of course, can be understood through its press releases. Still, the city's racial detente did make its growth possible. Part of it was dumb luck. The right people in the right places at the right time. Other cities can't hope to clone a John Lewis or a Ivan Allen, but Atlanta shows the power of forums where blacks and whites air grievances. These days, such "community groups" have a soft, fuzzy feel about them. But it was precisely groups like the Hungry Club lunch, a regular meeting of blacks and whites at the Butler Street YMCA that made a difference in the city's image and brought so much growth. Having major business elites involved in the shaping of public policy also mattered. Few cities have as imposing a figure as Robert Woodruff, who can create social policy. But it does seem to make a difference to have corporate honchos involved.

There is something to be said, too, for the power of myth. Every city cloaks itself in a kind of mythology. New Yorkers see themselves as blunt, outspoken, tough. Seattlites trumpet the aesthetic pleasures of their town, their unique mist of fog and cappuccino. New Orleans prides itself on its laissez les bons temps rouler hedonism and tolerance. All of these are myths with bits of reality to them. They give people in those cities a sense of communal identity. Atlanta is no exception. It has spun a myth of racial harmony that's been blown out of all proportion to everyday life. And, yet, is it not better to have such a myth? The myth brought the Olympics to Atlanta, and it will continue to bring businesses here as well. It may not solve Atlanta's problems, but it doesn't exacerbate them, either.

"It's something to aspire to," Matlock said. As he said that, high above Atlanta, I looked out at Stone Mountain and was reminded of one of the ironies of my time here: the summer concerts where laser-light shows are splashed on the side of the huge Confederate memorial--the world's largest sculpture--carved into Stone Mountain. The show included a tribute to King, his image beamed over Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. On one hand the juxtaposition was disturbing: the Civil War and civil rights had been rendered morally equivalent. But it was also a wonderful bit of myth-making, too. The city has superimposed King over the soldiers of the Confederacy, allowing both parts of the past to form the myth of a tolerant, biracial metropolis. Too busy to hate? Of course not. But there are worse ways for a community to think about itself.

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