In streets outside, gold hopes gone Vendors: Sidewalk stands sit empty, as tourists prefer Games' corporate center to Sweet Auburn neighborhood.

Atlanta Olympics

July 26, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Even the psychics got taken.

"I've been here since last Friday and I've had two clients and I've lost a lot of money," says Debbie Arment, waiting to read palms and predict the future of Olympic tourists at a booth set beneath an interstate highway in the heart of Atlanta's historic "Sweet Auburn" district.

"You can be very psychic," Arment says. "But sometimes, you don't listen to your intuition."

Arment is one of scores of vendors, entrepreneurs and fast-buck artists who have been scorched going for the Olympic gold in Atlanta.

Setting up merchandise stands, beer halls and fast-food stands in parking lots and on sidewalks throughout the city, many vendors spent thousands of dollars preparing for the Games, hoping to strike it rich. Instead, they've taken a bath, as the 2 million visitors who have poured into this city spend millions for Olympic tickets and then spend their leisure hours strolling through the corporate playground known as Centennial Olympic Park.

Auburn Avenue symbolizes this boulevard of broken Olympic dreams, where mom-and-pop stands are out-muscled by corporate America and where predominantly black neighborhoods are bypassed by most of the tourists.

Vendors say that a promoter who sold sidewalk space along Auburn Avenue promised them that hundreds of thousands of fans would stroll through the area each day, drawn by the memory of Martin Luther King, who was born here, preached here and is buried here.

But the tourists generally have remained inside Atlanta's hermetically sealed Olympic ring, which is laden with sporting venues, restaurants and gigantic corporate theme parks.

Underneath the interstate on Auburn, the crowds are thin: a couple of German tourists who are looking for the King sights four blocks away, plus a group of children on their way to a playground. Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier cruises by in a stretch limousine.

"People don't know what the neighborhood is all about," Frazier says.

Most of the stands are closed, the vendors, mostly whites from out of state, declaring defeat, packing up their food and their T-shirts and pulling out of town.

Phyllis Trussel, of Huntsville, Ala., is one of the holdouts, passing time in her father's hot dog stand. She has sold four drinks in three days.

"You see that linoleum over there? The gyro guy used to be there," she says. "He was here a week and sold five sandwiches; two of them he swapped out to other vendors."

"The ice cream guy? He gave his ice cream away, cleaned out his freezer and took off.

"We've got four lemonade stands just sitting around and three trucks with a thousand bags of ice in each, just sitting around. My daddy is tempted to pull the plug on the ice and go home.

"Everyone came out here thinking they could get a piece of the Olympic dream. Well, the Olympics aren't doing what they thought it would do."

Sandra Hunt, of Gadsden, Ala., and two partners say they lost $60,000. They came to the Olympics to sell corn dogs and T-shirts. Someone even stole Hunt's wallet.

"I hurt so bad I feel like crying," Hunt says. "When I get home, I'm going to tell people that the Olympics are nothing but a scar, the worst thing to hit the United States."

Just up the street, Cynthia Shelton sits outside Fisher's Tees, trying to tempt the tourists with postcards and T-shirts. An Atlanta native who has worked in the shop for five years, she says the city tossed away a chance to show off Auburn to the world.

"This whole strip was the mecca for blacks in the South," she says. "There was a time when people would just sit here and watch society pass by.

"Doctors, lawyers and dentists worked in that building over there," she says, pointing at a building undergoing reconstruction. "There was a life insurance company, black-owned, and a black newspaper, too. People are missing this part of history."

Shelton and others in the neighborhood blame the local Olympic organizing committee and city officials for the dearth of tourists, whose Olympic experience consists of being bused to venues and funneled to corporate pavilions.

"It's all about money and it's all about greed," she says. "All those tourists are corralled up there in the downtown area. Tour buses are just rolling through the neighborhood."

Nearby, Mateen Shabazz looks at the street that only recently has been blocked off, a measure city officials took to encourage pedestrian traffic. The street is empty.

"This is just a clear view that there are two Atlantas," he says.

But there is a sense of peace and dignity at the King historic sites, his birthplace, his pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and his resting place in a tomb surrounded by a pool of running water.

Tourists from Japan and India stand by the grave. Others wander through the church.

Yet even here, in a parking lot near the grave, vendors are set up, selling Kentucky Fried Chicken and Olympic T-shirts.

Melanie Saizar, a college student from Atlanta, says business is improving at the T-shirt table. But she isn't engrossed in luring tourists for trade.

"I wish more people were here," she says. "This should be one of the major tourist attractions of Atlanta. What else does this city have to offer?"

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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