Atlanta enters Olympic spotlight Southern charm amid urban distress

July 14, 1996|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Its image has changed dramatically over the years: from a town that rebuilt itself after being burned to the ground during the Civil War to a city that became the center of the New South and a symbol of relative civility in a region with a history of racial divisiveness.

Atlanta hasn't quite become as cosmopolitan as some of its prominent citizens might lead you to believe, but it's certainly more glitz than grits these days. After six years of hype, the 1996 Summer Olympics open here Friday night. How the rest of the world views Atlanta could change markedly between now and the time the Olympic flame is extinguished Aug. 4.

Its image might be a lot better -- or vastly worse.

There's a chance that all the optimism of local organizers will be realized amid the hoopla normally surrounding the Games, and the "Will Atlanta be ready?" questions will quickly become yesterday's news. But there's also a chance that the steady flow of criticism following Billy Payne and his inner circle at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) will reach an angry crescendo, with pictures and stories of traffic gridlock, homelessness and the socioeconomic division between races receiving equal billing with, and perhaps overshadowing, the 16-day competition.

When the U.S. Olympic track and field trials were held here last month, there seemed to be a lack of preparedness -- and politeness. Southern charm had been replaced by churlish behavior among ACOG volunteers at Olympic Stadium, some of whom were publicly chastised by Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee. And if the city was laying out a red carpet, it seemed to be covering the potholes.

But Payne has promised that the face-lift, if not a complete body make-over, will be finished in time for the Centennial Olympics. It might not be Barcelona, Spain, site of the 1992 Summer Games, but it won't be the Atlanta most have seen in recent years.

"You're going to see a dramatically different look to the city, which I believe will forever take it out of the classification of ordinary," said Payne, whose dream and drive brought the Olympics to Atlanta. "We're not a 1,000-year-old city. We'll have to wait around another 850 years to give it the image that only age can give. It's going to have a very festive look, a very pretty look."

Much will depend on the media coverage, starting with NBC, which paid $456 million for broadcast rights to these Games. The network took heat, and a financial bath from disgruntled advertisers, in 1988 because its news division looked at the darker side of Seoul, South Korea.

But the image also will be determined by the expected 2 million visitors. When the Games end, will they return home with glowing reports of Southern hospitality, or cautionary tales of another American city on the brink of disaster?

"This city has not prepared its citizenry for the event," said Malik Shakur, an ex-New Yorker who recently finished law school at Georgia State University. "There have been no public announcements about what to expect, about the different customs of the people who'll be coming here to visit. Not to take anything away from Southern people, but it's a very local attitude. When I came here I thought this was a major city. But it's a small town holding onto some of its Old South values."

Separate and unequal

Those values date to Atlanta's beginning in the 1840s. From the time slavery was abolished during the Civil War, Atlanta was a city that was both white and black, separate and unequal. In 1903, the distinguished black author W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Atlanta was in sort of a racial neverland, being "just North of the South and just South of the North."

Though it has never witnessed the racial violence that affected other large cities during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, keeping the peace has never been easy in a place locals proudly call "The City Too Busy To Hate."

"This city was built on black hope and white pragmatism," said Gary Pomerantz, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the author of "Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn," a recently published book looking at the city's growth through the eyes of two prominent families, one white and one black.

"The city will try to project an image of mutual understanding between the races. Nothing can be further from the truth. It's more like detente. It's Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream vs. the Old South."

The title of Pomerantz's book reflects two of the city's main thoroughfares: Peachtree Street runs through the heart of the city's business district, while Auburn Avenue is the center of the black community. Between them lies a fence of political correctness that city officials have straddled for the past 30 years.

"It's an integrated city by day, and a segregated city the rest of the time in where people live and pray," said Pomerantz, who has lived here for the past decade.

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