The Disposable Olympics Meets the City of Hype
By Preston Quesenberry
Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 3-14
Not since the height of the Civil Rights movement have the Southern states, and Atlanta in particular, received as much extended media coverage as they are due to receive in the next month. The 1996 Centennial Olympic Games will draw not only fifteen thousand members of the press covering the athletic events, but also an anticipated live to ten thousand additional national and international journalists looking to use the Olympics as a backdrop for human interest stories and feature articles on Atlanta, Georgia, and the South.
Anticipating this incoming media wave, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, along with other trade and tour-ism organizations, has established a press information center at the site of a former bus station in the middle of downtown Atlanta to assist international reporters re-searching, among other things, “Southern lifestyle and culture.” The world’s journalists are not likely to settle for a South viewed through the Chamber’s lens, but those who drop by the center will receive press kits presenting two central images. One is an “Old South” of “genteel Southern plantations,” “Southern hospitality,” “nostalgic, charming towns,” and “tastes of the region like sweet tea, cornbread, black-eyed peas, barbecue, and peach pie.” This evocation of a “region rich in tradition” is then juxtaposed with depictions of a forward looking, rapidly progressing, economically booming “New South.”
Of course, pre-packaged images of Southern traditions iron out all of the diversity between different regions of the section of the United States known as the South, while denying or harmonizing historical and existing tensions which exist among the different populations who live across this broad geography. Appalachia is not the Delta is not the Carolina Piedmont is not the Gulf Coast, and so on. Nor can Atlanta stand in for the diverse historical realities of any old or new Souths. And as for generalized depictions of an “economic boom,” such talk obviously ignores a great many people who have not shared in the supposedly ubiquitous prosperity.
Questioning the oversimplified portrayals of Atlanta and the South leads us to voices other than those of business and tourist promotion or of the Atlanta Commit-tee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and its list of proud sponsors. Atlanta, rather than the South at large, is the subject of this essay which seeks to locate some realities underneath the city’s current image-making and asks what we can learn about this Olympic city from local activists, advocates for the homeless, and public scholars who have been dealing with and thinking about the coming of the Games for many months.
While the Chamber of Commerce may boast that Atlanta was voted number two in Fortune’s 1995 “Best Cities for Business” list, the city also ranks number two in the nation in income disparity between blacks and whites, number two in the percentage of the population living in public housing, number two in violent dimes per capita, number two in total crimes per capita, and number nine in the rate of poverty. While the voices for business say that the Atlanta metropolitan area leads the nation in in-migration because of its “unmatched quality of life,” the population living in the city itself (now generously estimated at 424,300) has been shrinking for more than twenty years. An estimated fifteen to twenty thousand people in this urban-core population can’t rind any place to live, much less a place “unmatched in quality,” and an additional fifty thousand live in public housing with seven thousand qualified applicants waiting to move in.
The world of journalists descending on Atlanta for the Olympics will find it particularly difficult to ignore this poverty because so much of it is concentrated in and around what is known as the Olympic Ring — a three-mile wide circular area in Atlanta’s downtown core which contains nine major venues holding sixteen of the thirty sporting events. According to data collected in 1990, ninety-two percent of the 52,000 people living in the Olympic Ring neighborhoods are African-American, and most of them are poor. The median household income in these neighborhoods is just $8,621, the median per-capita income is $5,702, and labor participation rates are no higher than seventy percent and as low as thirty-five percent. Does ACOG expect journalists not to address this obvious poverty in their descriptions of the city? As Reverend Austin Ford, who works in the neighborhood surrounding the new Olympic stadium, puts it, “The Olympic stadium is in a very depressed community, and
I don’t know that the journalists will need for that to be pointed out to them. They might say, `Well, I can see!”‘
Father Ford heads Emmaus House, a community center located just south of the stadium. He says he first came to work in the area in 1967 because of problems created by the 1965-66 construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves. While the Braves stadium was touted as an economic benefit to the area, the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium– Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown–declined dramatically after its construction. The initial erection of the structure required the destruction of thousands of households and the displacement of 5,500 residents. By 1990, Summerhill’s population had dwindled from 16,000 to 2,746 and Mechanicsville’s had plummeted from about 15,600 to 3,900. As of 1992, unemployment in Summerhill was sixty-six percent and the median household income was $7,670. In Mechanicsville and Peoplestown, the median household income as of 1990 was $5,598 and $11,563, respectively.
Given the adverse impact of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the proposed construction of a $209 million, 85,000-seat Olympic stadium on the old stadium’s south parking attracted immediate and vehement opposition from Father Ford and other community activists in the Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville neighbor-hoods. ACOG–the “non-profit,” exclusively private organization supposedly responsible for all aspects of financing and staging the $1.7 billion Olympic spectacle, including all venue construction–promised these activists that the new stadium would serve the best interests of surrounding residents and set up an Olympic Stadium Neighborhood Task Force to give local community leaders a role “in planning an Olympic stadium in your neighborhood.” Father Ford refused to join, telling the local newspaper, “I’m not planning on an Olympic stadium–I’m hoping against hope they don’t put it down here. I just think they’ve got to keep it straight: We can’t be co-opted.”
So far, Father Ford says that, despite ACOG’s promises, he has “really seen no positive impact on the people who live around here. Their lives haven’t been improved but actually quite the reverse because rents have gone up. One week we had seven evictions because the rents have gone up so. The owners are fixing up these old houses, you see, to rent them out to people who want to be around here during the Olympics. A lot of people have been moved. There’s also been a lot of demolition around here–mostly in Mechanicsville to make room for parking. They considered the structures they demolished to be bedraggled and run down, but people were living in those places.”
Summerhill residents currently have no legal recourse against these evictions because Atlanta, according to former Atlanta Tenants Rights Association President David Bass, has “one of the worst renters’ rights situations of any major city in America.” Landlords can raise rents to whatever amount they like and as often as they like, they can set the security deposits to whatever amount they want, and they can force tenants to sublease their apartments. Despite the attempts of Bass’s and other organizations to push for legislation to remedy this situation, all three of the proposed bills (including a temporary anti-rent gouging bill which would have capped rent increases at ten percent up until August of 1996) died in the state legislature.
Although the Olympics have brought rent gouging, housing demolition, and other negative consequences to the neighborhoods surrounding the new stadium, Father Ford says the effects could have been worse if not for the work of Ethel Mae Mathews, president of a residents’ rights group based in Peoplestown called Atlanta Neighbors United for Fairness (ANUFF).
Having first learned of the Braves’ stadium site thirty years ago when her landlord evicted her from her Summerhill apartment, Mathews immediately mobilized ANUFF after seeing a story about the proposed Olympic stadium site on the television news (a source she was forced to rely on, she says, because city and ACOG officials never notified residents in the surrounding neighborhoods about the site of the new stadium or attempted to include them in the planning process).
ANUFF’s repeated letters, phone calls, public meetings, and protest marches at city hall, at the new stadium site, at ACOG’s headquarters, and even at ACOG President Billy Payne’s home in suburban Dunwoody were all intended to make sure “they couldn’t build that second stadium with ease,” Mathews says. “We held the stadium up for six months. And that accomplished a lot.”
ANUFF won several concessions in the revised stadium deal between ACOG, the city of Atlanta, Fulton County, and Ted Turner’s Braves: the stadium was moved slightly so that housing for the elderly could be saved; the number of parking spaces was reduced by 1,100, saving additional housing; and the Braves agreed to put 8.5 percent of the team’s revenues made from parking into a community fund.
Although proud of what ANUFF accomplished and proud that her organization was able to remain “free of ACOG’s control,” Mathews says she believes the group could have won more concessions if all the people who
had first worked with ANUFF had “stuck together.” “When we first started out, we had a lot of support from all of the neighborhoods that were going to be hardest hit by the stadium. But after we got into it, and we got strong, someone from ACOG came into the neighborhood, waving dollar bills, promising money, saying ‘Don’t fight us, come over to our side, and we’ll make it worth your while.’ Then over half of the people who started out with us sold us down the drain.”
A “big part of the sell out,” continues Mathews, was Summerhill Neighborhood, Inc., a non-profit community organization based in Summerhill and founded by former State Representative Douglas Dean in 1989. Instead of adamantly opposing the location of the new stadium, as did Ford and ANUFF, Dean and SNI sought to form a partnership with the Olympic organizers that Dean said would “speed along the rebeautification” of Summerhill and make it a “showplace by the time the first caravan of athletes rolls into town.”
Father Ford, too, dismisses the work of Dean and the SNI as a “sell-out” that divided the grass-roots opposition to ACOG by voicing support for the stadium project. “Douglas Dean and the SNI were one hundred percent behind the Olympics from the very beginning,” Father Ford says. “They were no help at all. I think if we could have gotten Summerhill, which was the neighborhood most immediately affected, to join with the rest of us in trying to get some concessions for the community, we could have had a better deal. But Dean and the others had signed on so completely, that that wasn’t possible. The business community simply adored Douglas Dean, because he was going along with everything they wanted.”
Dean says that he understands the “fears and frustrations” of Father Ford, Mathews, and other community leaders who are concerned about the Olympic stadium in light of the adverse affects of the Brave stadium, but he insists that this time around the result will be different. Because the Summerhill community was organized enough to take advantage of the situation Dean believes that the siting of the new stadium near th neighborhood is now bringing real benefits to the area–a refurbished commercial district, street improvement; renovated recreational facilities, and, most importantly, new houses. Instead of reacting against the location of the Olympic stadium, Dean says SNI had been “proactive” by developing its own comprehensive plan for the neighborhood even before it was announced that the Olympics would be coming to Atlanta. Developing a concrete, long-range plan was the key to SNI’s success, Dean says, largely because it “made the environment better” for a partnership with the business community.
In particular, Dean argues that the creation of a comprehensive plan encouraged the banks to loan money for mortgages and for the construction of new houses in Summerhill. “Out of all we proposed,” Dean says, “one of our real issues was getting the banks to reinvest in the neighborhood. And we’ve done that. That’s so important to revitalization because unless somebody’s loaning money for mortgages, you’re not really going to revitalize your community.”
The money from the banks, as well as money from the federal government and private foundations, enabled the construction of 190 new homes in Summerhill, the first new houses to be built in the neighborhood for fifty years. Located directly across from the Braves stadium, easily in view of the Olympic visitors, are the seventy-six new townhomes of Greenlea Commons, which sell from $100,000 to $139,000. In the celebratory prose of the local newspaper, these townhomes are meant to transform Summerhill “from a poor, predominantly black enclave to
an economically stable, multicultural community.” Further away from the stadium, scattered throughout the neighborhood, will also be seventy-nine, 35,000 homes with no-interest nun gages set at $250 a month.
The disparity in the prices of the new houses will encourage the growth of a mixed-income community, which is “essential for revitalization, Dean says. In the case of Summerhill. Dean insists “revitalization” into a mixed-income community does not mean gentrification into a community with no place for low-income populations to live. SN1’s strategy involves both turning the current low-income “renters into stakeholders” and attracting previous residents of Summerhill back into the neighborhood with new housing.
Dean’s claims aside, the benefits to the Summerhill community have been “minimal,” says Rev. Tim McDonald, former head of the local activist group, the Concerned Black Clergy, and minister at the First Iconium Church, located a few miles north of the new stadium. “Summerhill,” continues Rev. McDonald, “is the only community that has gotten minimal benefits from the Olympics. That’s unfortunate. I think our city missed a great opportunity for enhancing the communities. Summerhill was the only affected neighborhood with an organization in place to try and get dollars. Mechanicsville and Peoplestown probably needed money even worse, but they didn’t have any viable organization. To Doug Dean’s credit, he got the mechanism in place, but it could have been just as easy for ACOG to assist the other neighborhoods to put those mechanisms in place.”
For Rev. McDonald, the struggle in the Olympic stadium neighborhoods did not represent the “biggest fight of the whole Olympics.” Rather, the real battles were waged north of Summerhill and west of the central business district, in another hub of Olympic-related activity. Here sits the Georgia Dome, a stadium built for the city’s professional football team on land cleared in the 1960s for low- and moderate-income housing. Also in this area west of the central business district lies the just-built, fifty million dollar, twenty-two acre Centennial Olympic Park, the proposed “gathering place” for Olympic visitors. Al-
though the state of Georgia will pay for its maintenance after the Olympics, the actual construction of Centennial Park was financed solely through private funds–but at the expense of turning in the park into a large advertisement. In return for payment of tens of millions of dollars, ATT will be allowed to construct an Olympic Global Village in the park, Swatch an eighteen-foot high clock tower, General MotorsMoters [sic] a “Century of Motion” complex, and Anheuser Busch a hi-tech beer garden. Bordering the park’s northern edge will be Coca-Cola’s own $30 million, twelve acre “Coca-Cola City” amusement park.
The low-income mixed-use area which was plowed under for these parks/advertisements was labeled a “cancer” by the former head of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. It included three homeless shelters (which housed ten percent of the city’s shelter beds), one large single occupancy hotel, and day care centers, as well as housing which has not been replaced, and small business which had nowhere to relocate.
Just north of Centennial Park, between the world headquarters of Coca-Cola and Georgia Tech, is the just-built $169 million Olympic Village, the dormitories for the Olympic athletes. The village rests on the former site of 114 low-income units of Techwood/Clark-Howell Homes, the first public housing project in the nation In addition to the destruction of these units, the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) has approved a plan to replace the remaining 1,193 units of Techwood/Clark Howell with a nine-hundred unit mixed-income development–with forty percent market rate housing, twenty percent low income, and forty percent public housing. Essentially, then, this $42 million, federally-funded “revitalization” (in the words of AHA officials) will result in the loss of almost eight-hundred public housing units.
Rev. McDonald feels that the “Techwood fight” was the most heated battle of the Olympics and that the final plan to replace Techwood with a mixed-income development is a “hoax” generated by Atlanta’s business commu-
nity to get the kind of development they want in that area. ‘There are business folks who always wanted that area because of its proximity to downtown,” McDonald says. “They used the Olympics as a catalyst to get that area. Now they have it, and all those folks who lived there are going to be displaced. All the business community wants is out of sight, out of mind. I admit that some of those displaced folks may find a better place with Section 8 vouchers, but I would challenge them to produce ten of those families who have been relocated. There was no tracking, there were no real attempts to relocate them. They just wanted to get those folks out so they could on with their business.”
Another church leader and community activist, Joe Beasley of Antioch Baptist Church North, agrees with Rev. McDonald that the loss of Techwood was perhaps the worst of the Olympics’ “tremendous negative impact on poor people.” “You drive down through that area,” observes Beasley, “and you see all of these public housing units being torn down, and you ask, `Where have all the poor people gone?’ Frankly, I don’t know.”
Techwood/Clark Howell Homes are only one of several of what AHA has designated “Olympic Legacy Communities”–public housing units (most of which border Olympic venues) that will be demolished and “revitalized” into “mixed-income housing.” According to a consultant with AHA, Rick White, AHA has aimed to “leverage the excitement around the Olympics to gain the political and community support that was needed” to demolish not only Techwood/Clark Howell, but also John Hope Homes near Clark Atlanta University, John Eagen Homes near the Georgia Dome, and East Lake Meadows in southeast Atlanta.
According to Beasley, the destruction of public housing around Olympic venues represents only part of a larger attempt on the part of the “Olympic People to get the world to believe a big lie–that Atlanta has no poor people.”
“They’re hiding the homeless, chasing them away, and locking them up because they’re afraid people are going to see,” he says. “They’ve put together ordinances to sweep the downtown corridor.”
The ordinances Beasley mentions were passed by the Atlanta City Council in July of 1991, less than a year after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Atlanta would be the site of the 1996 games. The ordinances make it illegal for “suspicious-looking” people to remain in a parking lot if they don’t have a car in the lot (thirty-five percent of downtown Atlanta’s acreage is devoted to parking lots), to beg in an “aggressive” manner, and to enter vacant buildings.
Equally concerned about what they call the 1991 “Anti-Homeless Ordinances” are the members of the Open Door Community, a residential Christian center of thirty men and women who help assist some of Atlanta’s estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homeless. Located just north of the Olympic Ring on Ponce De Leon Avenue, Open Door’s kitchens prepare thousands of meals each month for the city’s hungry. Its facilities offer the homeless restrooms and a place to shower. Its front and back yards provide a safe haven. According to Murphy Davis, who founded Open Door in 1981 along with her husband Ed Loring, this haven has become even more necessary in the growing “atmosphere of hostility” toward the homeless and poor created by the Olympics.
One of the most recently exposed incidences of overt hostility against the homeless is Fulton County’s Homeward Bound program, which offers one-way tickets out of town to those homeless persons who sign a statement promising never to return and who can show they had a job or family waiting on the other end. Murphy Davis, however, began noticing “really strange things” even before Atlanta’s selection as host city, when Billy Payne’s group was still attempting to sell the city to the IOC.
“We serve breakfast every morning downtown to about 250 people,” says Davis, “and one morning we got down there and there were only ninety-five people. This happened several times. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then we learned that the IOC had been in town looking at Atlanta. The police had obviously just gone through and swept the streets. They just picked up everybody, and soon as the IOC and its limousines would leave, they’d let them loose again.”
It is relatively easy for Atlanta’s police to “sweep” the streets in preparation for the Olympics, Davis says, both because most homeless people cannot effectively resist if they are detained illegally and because the police are now armed with a slew of ordinances that enable them to legally arrest the homeless whenever they want to. The enforcement of an older ordinance against public urination particularly irks Davis because the homeless have no legal place to pee. For over a decade, she and other homeless advocates have been campaigning to get the city to use the money it spends arresting people for urinating in public to purchase public toilets. Although the Atlanta City Council promised to provide these facilities downtown in 1993, the city reneged on this promise.
In addition, Davis says she has learned ACOG plans not to set up any portable toilets outside of the venues during the Olympics but is simply encouraging restaurant owners (who routinely deny the homeless access to
their facilities) to open their restrooms to the millions of Olympic visitors. “One of the almost funny things about this,” Davis says, “is that by trying to make the city inhospitable to certain of its citizens, it’s making it inhospitable to our visitors as well.”
Shortly after Davis spoke, a wealthy, Atlanta-based businessman, J. B. Fuqua, also realized how inhospitable the central city would be to Olympic visitors due to the absence of toilets, drinking fountains, and shade structures. Fearing that the lack of such accommodations between venues would “not only be a great inconvenience, but would have made a bad impression,” Fuqua donated $1.5 million to ACOG to provide the necessary facilities. The toilets, shade, and drinking stations, however, will all be portable and removed after the Games are through.
To fight for permanent restroom facilities for the city’s homeless, Davis and other members of the Open Door Community participated in a “Pee For Free with Dignity” rally in the city’s Woodruff Park, a site which adds to the sense that much-needed funds (from both public sources and private foundations) are being misused to remove the homeless from downtown rather than to help their situation. Woodruff Park has recently undergone a year-long, five million dollar redesign, which includes such expensive amenities as a thirty-foot decorative fountain and a seventeen-foot cascading waterfall. The new design also includes facilities specifically engineered to discourage homeless people from using the park–such as benches all facing in the same direction, with arm rests that make it impossible to lie down. Left out are any facilities than might attract the homeless, such as bathrooms, drinking fountains, or the older, wrap-around-bench tree planters that encouraged face-to-face conversation. For Davis, the park represents “precisely what the powers-that-be say they want: a ‘sanitized zone,”vagrant free,’ and deserted enough to appear safe.”
“Devoid of the color of a rich, urban culture whose life has never been celebrated,” Davis continues, “we see in this new Woodruff Park a city that is boring, antiseptic, colorless, cold, and heartless.”
The construction of inhospitable spaces, the passing of ordinances which have the effect of targeting the homeless, and the pervasive sense that enforcement of these ordinances is on the increase as the Olympics approach are not the only forces creating a hostile atmosphere for the homeless in downtown Atlanta. Central Atlanta Progress, an association of large downtown businesses and property holders, has just spent two million dollars to post its own force of fifty private security guards (or “goodwill ambassadors,” as CAP prefers to call them) around the central business district.
Adding to the sense of “security,” ACOG has announced that Centennial Park will be surrounded by a fence to “control the crowds and keep out the riffraff.” During the actual three weeks of the Olympics, 25,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers and military personnel will be assigned to security downtown. “If the people who come here follow instructions,” assured ACOG’s A. D. Frazier in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shortly after FBI statistics showed Atlanta to be the second most violent city in America, “they’ll be in the most secure place on Earth.”
While “secure” for middle and upper class visitors who “follow instructions,” Murphy Davis thinks that the homeless will feel threatened by this environment and stay out of the Olympic Ring during the games. “Things are really going to be hot,” she says, “and I think homeless people know they had better just disappear during this time. There are people who have been positioning themselves for years to make a lot of money off this event, and they don’t mean to be inconvenienced by any poor people. And homeless people are not the only ones who’d better stay out of the way. Young African American people, especially in groups, and all people who are poor or in any other way unlike the button-down business crowd had better watch out.”
Davis sees the Olympics as a “trial run” to achieve what the downtown business community has long desired: the permanent removal of the homeless from the city center.
Open Door partners are also concerned that the Olympics could leave an equally troublesome legacy: more homeless people. Open Door’s Todd Cioffi says he has noticed a lot of “new faces” in their facilities, breakfast lines, and soup lines and wonders whether all of these new arrivals will stay in Atlanta after the Olympics and remain homeless. Cioffi says some of these new faces are people who have lost their homes due to the destruction of housing facilities (such as former Techwood residents). Some are among the thousands who have been forced out of apartments because rents have escalated. But most of the new homeless Cioffi says he has talked with have come from out of town searching for work.
Typically these new arrivals find no jobs at all or they find only temporary work with the sixty labor pools in the metropolitan Atlanta area–labor pools which all Olympic venue construction companies use for at least some of their workers. Making anywhere from $4.25 to $6.00 an hour and taking home as little as $27 for a full day’s work after all deductions are made (for transportation fees, lunch, equipment rentals, and state and federal taxes), labor pool workers most often do not make enough to afford even the cheapest rental housing. “Money’s being made off the backs of these people,” says Cioffi, pointing out that labor pools perpetuate homelessness by paying only day-to-day subsistence.
Along with condemning the exploitation of labor pool workers by private construction companies, Cioffi and Davis further denounce the use of scarce public resources on these Olympic projects. Although the Olympics are supposedly a completely privately-financed business venture (a “fact” the private, “non-profit” entity ACOG repeatedly points out when it is asked to help redevelop poor neighborhoods or to make its completely closed decision-making process more public and democratic), public investment in the Games is considerable. So far, the city has spent $327 million on projects being executed specifically for the Olympics. Virtually all of the projects are aimed at making the city more amenable or attractive to Olympic visitors rather than helping the economic situation of the city’s poor residents in any direct way.
The city has spent $250 million of these funds on renovating Hartsfield International Airport for the influx of tourists. Just recently, the airport’s newly built, plush atrium–replete with upscale shops and fast-food eateries, sofas and chairs, and personal computer hook-ups–has become a campground for the city’s homeless, perhaps driven here by the hostile atmosphere downtown. While the homeless say they need a place to go and are not hurting anyone, airport administrators and shop managers are furious. “We’ve had an element of predators discover the airport as a very warm and comfortable place to prey on other people,” Hartsfield Aviation General Manager Angela Gittens told the Atlanta Constitution.
Come July, however, the homeless most likely will be “swept” from the airport as well. Although the airport is a public facility owned by the city of Atlanta, the city’s loitering ordinances prohibit people from occupying any public places if they’re not there to “do business.” Armed with these ordinances, police have been telling all of those homeless who can not produce a plane ticket to take the MARTA train out of Hartsfield (although they do not waive the $1.50 cost of the ride).
In addition to the $250 million airport renovation, another $32 million in city funds has gone to the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta (CODA) for streetscapes, park improvements, and public art. Those parts of CODA’s $220 million plan for the Olympic Ring neighborhoods aimed more directly at economic redevelopment were left unfinanced. Along with the city, the state of Georgia has spent $235.4 million on the Olympics and the federal government has spent $248.3 million, bringing the total amount of public funds directly involved in the Games to more than $810 million.
While homeless advocates such as Cioffi and Davis tend to wage most of their battles over the use of public funds within the shrinking city of Atlanta, Steve Suitts, former executive director of the Southern Regional Council, warns against looking no farther than City Hall and downtown business associations to “find the enemy.” Such an approach, Suitts says, ignores both the limited options available to a financially-strapped municipality and the suburbanization of the Atlanta metropolitan area that has left the residents inside the city limits city to deal with a disproportionate amount of poverty.
“The irony,” maintains Suitts, “is that the people at City Hall are probably the most sympathetic of all. They’re the only ones among all the metropolitan region’s elected officials who are willing to do anything for the homeless. They’re the only ones who are ever asked to do anything, and they’re the only ones who are criticized for not doing enough. Is it only the city of Atlanta’s responsibility because homeless people collect themselves in the most numbers in the central city? Does that mean that folks who run away to the suburbs of Gwinnett and Cobb counties shouldn’t have to address these issues?
“Assuming the territory of responsibility is only where the homeless happen to find themselves camping out at night,” Suitts continues, “is an awfully limited notion of responsibility and does not respect in any way the metro-
politan economic situation which has caused this situation.”
Regarding the Olympics in particular, Suitts also points out that getting the Games to Atlanta was not primarily a project of City Hall but rather of Billy Payne, a real estate lawyer who was not a core member of the city’s power structure but who did have the crucial support of Andrew Young–former US Ambassador to the United Nations, former mayor of Atlanta, and former lieutenant to Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Billy Payne wasn’t selected by either City Hall, by the state government, by the downtown business leadership, or by the international corporation leadership here,” Suitts notes. “No one truly foresaw that Billy Payne, with the help of Andy Young and others, would, in fact, succeed, so ACOG wasn’t mounted by anybody’s coalition. Everybody gave it their approval but nobody really thought seriously enough of it that they invested anything substantial in the beginning or got concessions or terms by which things would run afterwards. Nobody controlled Payne’s group before Atlanta got the opportunity of hosting the Olympics and therefore ACOG has had the opportunity of creating new relationships for the purposes of running the Games.”
When ACOG was created in January of 1991 by an agreement signed between Billy Payne and then-Mayor Maynard Jackson, Payne was appointed as the new body’s president and chief executive officer. He proceeded to assemble around him an upper-management cohort of people similar to himself–white, male, middle-aged lawyers and businessmen. As Clark Atlanta University’s Bob Holmes notes, “Among the policy makers of ACOG, in the inner circle of about ten folks, you’ve only got one African-American: Shirley Franklin, who was appointed in 1993 as ACOG’s chief senior policy advisor and who was Andrew Young’s former chief of staff. On the next level, you’ve also got only one African-American: Morris Dillard, who’s the director of transportation and security.”
A state representative and the director of Clark Atlanta University’s Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, Bob Holmes has co-authored a 1995 study entitled “The 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and Their Impact on African Americans,” which analyzes ACOG’s employment patterns, among other issues. In the study, Holmes notes that if you look at all of ACOG’s employees and not just those of upper management, the organization was “doing a good job” in hiring African Americans up until 1993, when more than one-third of ACOG’s employees were African-American. By the end of 1994, however, the relative percentage of blacks had slipped to 26.4 percent, and Holmes said he intends to see if this downward trend continued in a follow-up study which will published after the Olympics.
Holmes also notes that ACOG has had a good track record in awarding contracts for merchandise and services to minority-owned business. Of ACOG’s total purchases of $114.23 million in 1994, $38 million, or thirty three percent, went to female- or minority-owned firms, with $35.20 million or 30.8 percent going to black businesses. ACOG had not, however, been collecting information from the contractors and vendors to see whether they have been in compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action plan. Holmes says he will also have to wait until after the Olympics to collect this information.
For the most part, however, Olympic contracts and
benefits will be enjoyed by a relatively affluent minority, and the “economically underprivileged majority” will get nothing at best, and see their situation decline at worst, Holmes says. “I don’t see the lives of the poorest in the African American community being improved at all,” he says. “There are major social and economic issues that have just not been addressed by public officials, and I hope the media will examine this and does not just focus on the glitz and glamour.”
Bob Holmes, too, decries the loss of thousands of public housing units without specific plans for adequate replacement and with an existing “five thousand plus” waiting list in the city. He also notes the apparent inability of residents in the Olympic Ring neighborhoods to get construction jobs on the projects disrupting their communities. Holmes says it is visibly obvious that very few local residents are getting construction jobs at the various sites. “This is just an impression, but you drive through the city, and I would say about eighty percent of those workers are Hispanic,” he says. “You know very few of those people are from the surrounding neighborhoods, because those neighborhoods are predominantly black.” Most of metro-Atlanta’s estimated Hispanic population of 197,300 is concentrated in the suburban counties of (in descending order of numbers) DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton, and Clayton.
Tom Fisher, district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, could not confirm Holmes’ eighty percent estimate, but he says contractors are certainly employing “a lot” of Hispanic workers. A year ago, Fisher and the INS apprehended thirty-seven, predominantly Hispanic, workers–the majority of whom were from Mexico–being employed illegally to work on the Olympic Village construction site. In addition, the INS arrested forty (also predominantly Hispanic) immigrants working illegally on the Martin Luther King Historic Site, which is being redeveloped for the Olympics.
Since these busts a year ago, Fisher says the INS has taken into custody more than five-hundred illegal immigrants from “twenty to forty different countries” who were working on construction projects. Fisher estimates a quarter to a third of these projects directly involve Olympic-related construction, but adds “it’s hard to define” exactly what counts as Olympic-related construction. “The Olympics have given construction in general such a boost, in essence you could say almost everything is Olympic related,” he says. Fisher believes lower wages motivate construction companies to hire illegal immigrants. “The employers use this rhetoric that these are jobs Americans wouldn’t take because they’re only paying six or seven dollars an hour. But, in my opinion, these are ten dollar per hour jobs they rolled down to seven bucks.”
Bonnie Berry Wilder, an attorney who represents injured workers, says Hispanics, whether employed legally or illegally, get paid less primarily because they are not unionized. “In eight years of representing Hispanics in workman’s comp, I have only had one client who was union member,” Wilder says. “I don’t know if they’ve been purposefully excluded or they just don’t know the
system or process well enough to know how to go about getting into the union. My solution to foreign workers driving down wages would be to open up the union and get out and recruit some of these people.”
Low wages are not the only reason Wilder says construction contractors prefer to hire Hispanic workers, many of whom she says are skilled craftsmen. The many employers she has talked with say they “love to hire them because they work very hard, they don’t complain, and they don’t demand overtime.”
Employers also tend to take advantage of those Hispanic workers who do not know English or who are not familiar with their rights as workers. Particularly with illegal immigrants, contractors often lie to those workers who get hurt on the job to avoid having to report the injury (and hence the illegal employment) to the insurance companies.
The Atlanta Labor Council (ALC) has not had the resources to precisely monitor the number of non-unionized Hispanic workers or the number of labor pool workers being employed on Olympic-related projects. Each project can have up to fifty private contractors hiring their own employees, making careful documentation extremely difficult. Information could be collected on the Olympic stadium construction, however, because it was the only venue on which all of the work was covered under a union agreement governing wages and benefits. Constituting about half of all Olympic construction, the work on the Olympic stadium has been “eighty percent-plus union” and forty percent African American, according to ALC president Stewart Acuff.
In contrast, the construction of the Olympic Village–managed and largely financed by the Board of Regents of the State of Georgia–has been marred by an “atrocious labor policy,” Acuff says. At the Village, private contractors have hired non-unionized Hispanic workers “off the streets” or have out-sourced to temporary services, resulting in a work-force which is “eighty-five per-cent non-union,” according to Orlando Jones, representative of Carpenters Local 225.
The prevalence of unorganized Hispanic workers in the anti-union environment of the New South is a story unlikely to be featured in media portrayals of a harmonious “tradition.” Georgia State University historian Cliff Kuhn says journalists doing feature articles on “Atlanta” and “the South” can avoid flattening out such complexity if they learn one important point: “There is no monolithic South. There are a diversity of Souths. And, in fact, the greatest tension in the Atlanta region right now is the tension between traditional and modern forces. It’s a fast growing area of the country, and you have these tremendously disparate ways of doing things side by side. In the far-out Atlanta suburbs, you have chicken houses, next door to defense plants, next door to bulls raised by investment bankers, next door to new Asian immigrants.”
If media visitors choose to address the differences or tensions between various populations of the South at all, they will most likely do so by referring to the civil rights movement. Here Kuhn worries that the movement will be sanitized and oversimplified into the globally recognizable symbol of Martin Luther King. A historian who has worked on many public history projects, including an oral history of Atlanta, Kuhn is particularly worried about not losing the “grassroots quality” of the movement.
“It’s important to conceive of the civil rights movement as going beyond the icons of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” Kuhn says. “The movement involved thousands of people and hundreds of communities all over the South. It involved grassroots organizing. We’ve had a King-centrism, which, without denying the very real contributions King made, has blinded us to the grass-roots quality of the movement. This King-centrism has also made us only think of King in terms of his movement activity as an apostle of non-violence, and not really look closely at King’s evolution of thought–toward his anti-war statements and his critique of the American economy.”
Another historian of Atlanta, Ron Bayor from Georgia Tech also worries that the history of race relations in Atlanta will be distorted in mass media presentations. The author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta, Bayor is concerned that the media will perpetuate the image of the city as a racially tolerant place that has succeeded because it has avoided the racial prejudice of the rest of the South. “I think the Chamber of Commerce vision and the vision that’s portrayed by ACOG is that Atlanta got the Olympics because it has this reputation of racial moderation,” Bayor says. “But in almost every sense of the word except for violence, Atlanta was as bad and as segregated as every other city in the South. Atlanta is really not unique at all, and race played a major factor in the shaping of the city.”
As in most cities, Bayor observes, the strategic use of urban renewal is one way race has played a role in physically shaping the city. City officials used the construction of highways, stadiums, civic centers, hotels, and office buildings to clears slums and remove blacks from certain sections surrounding the central business district. “The city didn’t just grow haphazardly, there were plans, there was money put in certain directions and not in others, and so we wound up with the city we have today. Certain parts of the city were politically available for black use, certain parts weren’t. We see a white part of
the city in the northeast, we see a black part of the city in the southwest and the southeast. That was created through earlier efforts to control blacks’ residential patterns. It was created by the very careful placement of black public housing in certain areas and not in others. No black housing was ever placed in the white northeast section, for example. Those are the type of things that created a city later on that is segregated, not officially, but segregated none the less.”
Despite the reality of de facto segregation, Atlanta developed an image of a racially tolerant city–of a “city too busy to hate,” as Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield said in 1955–both through careful cultivation on the part of the political and business leaders of the city and by avoiding the outbursts of violence occurring in other Southern cities such as Birmingham and Little Rock. Admitting that the relative absence of violence was “certainly no small issue,” Bayor sees this absence resulting from a very well-organized black community and a white business community that was willing to form a political coalition with them, with “blacks as junior partners.” This coalition aimed to “work out disagreements peacefully and behind the scenes.”
Realizing that industries “ran away from Birmingham” and that Little Rock had “lost both population and industry after their 1957 fiasco of not admitting a few black children to their schools,” the white business community, Bayor says, wanted to “try to keep things cool racially to attract business.” Mayor Hartsfield–“an expert at public relations and getting the newspapers down here to see only what he wanted them to see”–heavily promoted the “image of a city that’s not trying to keep its black citizens down, that’s trying to be fair.”
“It was an image,” Bayor argues, “that was very cultivated, but it wasn’t the reality. The truth comes out in the 1960s because there are a lot of sit-in demonstrations here, there’s a lot of protest, indicating that much more has to be done in the city to reach any kind of equality. The really important aspects of the city, who controlled, who were the city department heads, who were r the people who made the decisions, that was kept in white hands, I would say up until Mayor Maynard Jackson comes in.”
Despite the ascendancy of a black mayor in the early 1970s, Bayor believes that the city s black political leaders have, for the most part, only been able to promote programs that help middle class blacks, such as affirmative action and the minority business enterprise program. They have been able to do very little for the black lower income groups in Atlanta, whose “quality of life in terms of economic well-being has not really improved.”
“It’s very difficult,” Bayor concludes, “to get anything done in this city that the economic elite does not approve of. The economics of Atlanta are still controlled by the whites. The banks are still white, the big corporations are still white. It’s difficult to be a mayor in the city and buck the business community–to instead of building, let’s say, a Centennial Park or a civic center, to pour money into housing or more jobs for lower income people.”
Rick Beard, the executive director of the Atlanta History Center, reverses Bayor’s focus on Atlanta’s similarities with other Southern cities by emphasizing difference. “There’s not enough attention paid to the fact that Atlanta has always been different. It really isn’t of the Old South. The city wasn’t founded until 1837 and it was nothing, in terms of population, until the twentieth century. So the idea that you’re going to come here and drink mint juleps on the verandah just isn’t true. It’s always been a city that’s been commercial in intent. It’s always been a city that has been able to put the past behind it very quickly. The reason that Atlanta is the hub-city of the South is that it got over the Civil War and was willing to take Yankee dollars.
“Atlanta does not honor its history,” Beard continues. “It is so constantly remaking, reshaping, and redefining itself, that I think it’s really hard for anything, including the Olympics, to have a lasting impact. Although the Olympics will be like a massive photo-op for Atlanta’s businesses, I don’t think the Games will have any lasting impact on the fabric of the city or the people who live here. Atlanta will just move on to the next big thing, whatever that will be.”
Sidebar: Gainesville’s Country Club Venue
Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 p. 15
Although the Centennial Olympic Games will be the most compact in history, with competition venues for sixteen sports located within a 1.5-mile radius in downtown Atlanta called the Olympic Ring, almost half of the Olympic events will still be held well outside of Atlanta’s city limits throughout both Georgia and the South. Outlying venue cities include Columbus, Gainesville, Athens, and Savannah in Georgia, as well as Birmingham, Alabama; Miami, Florida; and the Ocoee River area in Tennessee.
These outlying cities are spending a combined eighteen million dollars in preparing Olympic-related projects, and questions about who is really benefiting from the use of public funds for the Olympic Games, and at whose expense, are therefore not limited to the city of Atlanta. One outlying city were the debates have been particularly heated is Gainesville, Georgia, where Olympic rowers will compete on Lake Lanier. Located about fifty-two miles northeast of Atlanta, the city of Gainesville is racially segregated by Highway 129, know as Jesse Jewel Parkway. The city’s African American community, which lives southeast of the dividing line in an area called Newtown, is currently up in arms about what it considers a gross misuse of desperately needed community development funds for Olympic-related projects. “The city of Gainesville,” says Rose Johnson, program director of the Georgia Project of the Center for Democratic Renewal, “for all practical purposes, is giving a higher-level and better treatment to people who are coming in from the international community than it has to people of color who actually live in that community.”
The city council of Gainesville has decided to use $2.4 million of state and federal development fund dollars to renovate the exclusive, private Chattahoochee Country Club, where the city’s business leaders will entertain Olympic visitors. Part of the funds will also go to building a rowing venue on Lake Lanier. The Newtown Florist Club, a organization formed more than forty year ago to care for Newtown’s sick but which has since tackled many issues of racial justice, has issued a proclamation to the city council denouncing the decision. The president of the Newtown Florist Club, Faye Bush, says this “fervent objection has a history and a context” that makes these particular uses of such funds particularly “unconscionable.”
For one Newtown has historically been the victim of what Bush calls “environmental racism.” The area, she says, has been called the city’s “industrial fallout zone” because of the numerous industrial developments that immediately envelop the African American communities. The resultant pollution in the area has been linked to unusually hight incidences of Lupus and cancer. Newtown residents have repeatedly asked the city council to help remedy this situation and have submitted proposals for redevelopment, but the council has so far refused to carry out any of these proposals, using “lack of funds” as the “most frequent excuse for inaction,” Bush says. “Just try to imagine our shock and outrage to discover that there are $2.5 million of state and federal ‘development funds’ dollars sitting in an account only to be doled out to the private country club and an Olympic venue!” Bush wrote in a memo addressed to the city council. “It is all but impossible to recall a time when African Americans have been admitted, much less welcomed, at a private country club! This particular use of public funds is obviously not for us to enjoy.”
The construction of a rowing venue was another “slap in the face,” Bush says, because the African American community has been trying in vain for years to get its own recreational facilities renovated. Rose Johnson agrees: “The city of Gainesville for the last twenty-five years has repeatedly insisted that there was no money for the renovation or the building of recreational facilities on Gainesville’s south side. Gainesville has fourteen or fifteen recreation sites. The ones that are in the worst shape and that will cost the most to repair are the ones in the black community, and except for the ones on the south side, Gainesville has top notch recreational facilities.”
Adding to the insult, the community development funds the city is using at the country club and the rowing venue in the north side came from model cities-urban renewal projects in the south side, Johnson says. Land in the south side was purchased, cleared, and sold, and the money from the sale went into the community development fund, she said. Bush says all of the black businesses were located in the area of the community that was cleared during the 1960s. “Because they were all wiped out during urban renewal, now we don’t have any black businesses,” Bush said. “So I don’t see how black folks can benefit from the Olympics.”–P. Q.
Preston Quesenberry is a graduate student in the Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.