Can Olympics Bump Atlanta To World Status?

Atlanta has been on a constant quest to rebuild itself ever since Gen. William Sherman burned the city in 1864.

Now, however, it faces perhaps its most profound test of whether it can jump to the next urban shelf - from Southern regional hub to world-class city.

The Centennial Olympic Games that begin July 19 provide the city with a unique opportunity to showcase what has been one of America's great post-war urban success stories. But the klieg-light attention - 2 million visitors and a TV audience projected to be two-thirds the earth's population - also comes with risks.

It will inevitably highlight some of the social inequities that still exist here, and the city must now prove that it can smoothly stage the world's most important sporting event.

While the Olympics have already changed Atlanta in tangible ways, the question remains: Will the city be able to sustain the progress once the banners come down?

"The Olympics is not going to save the city," says Carl Patton, president of Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. "But we have to continue to build on what the Olympics has done," which has been to provide a catalyst to shape the city's destiny.

Atlanta owes much of its post-war progress to the civil-rights movement. Its relentless boosterism helped attract companies and turn it into a city that outpaces others in the region. Today, Atlanta's population has grown to 3.4 million - making it the capital of the South.

But Olympic visitors may also find a city of paradoxes. While Atlanta boasts one of the nation's largest black middle classes, its central city - with a population of only about 400,000, almost 70 percent black - is also one of the nation's poorest. The area ranks alongside such cities as Newark, N.J., and Detroit. Run-down neighborhoods stand in the shadow of Olympic venues, while outside the city limits, leafy suburbs house some of the largest concentrations of wealth in the country.

But if the Olympics has done anything, it's enabled Atlanta to accelerate attempts to rejuvenate its ailing downtown. The goal is to change Atlanta from a city that empties out at 5 p.m. into a thriving 24-hour metropolis.

The city has spent millions of dollars to build new sidewalks, erect decorative iron lamps along the streets, and plant thousands of trees. Construction workers leveled a wasteland of old warehouses, parking lots, and shacks to make way for Centennial Olympic Park - a 21-acre park city leaders say is sparking plans for other development around the area. Builders are creating 500 units of loft apartments - an unusual move in a city that has few residential living areas. New restaurants and shops are opening, and a refurbished theater is drawing crowds.

Leaders acknowledge it represents an unusual experiment in reviving downtown America.

But some question whether the spiffed-up spaces and renovations are enough to woo people back. "It's certainly an improvement, but ... there still remains the question that even if you have housing downtown, what else do you have to draw you there," says Dana White, a professor of urban studies at Emory University in Atlanta. "We don't have a Little Italy, we don't have a Greenwich Village.... There's very few shops, restaurants, grocery stores."

Unlike many other cities in the United States that have distinct ethnic enclaves, Atlanta is defined largely by two groups: blacks and whites. Blacks generally control the politics, while whites control much of the money.

In trying to rejuvenate the downtown, crime will also be a deterrent to some people. This year the FBI listed Atlanta as having the second-highest crime rate in the country. Business and civic leaders here say much of the crime problem is the perception that downtown is dangerous. Instead, a lot of the crime is concentrated in housing projects and inner-city neighborhoods, not in downtown, says Paul Kelman of Central Atlanta Progress, a business group involved in downtown redevelopment.

Some of those neighborhoods have also started to undergo their own renaissance, spurred in large part by public and private money the Olympics has generated. In Summerhill, a hilly urban enclave across from the new brick Olympic stadium, deteriorating houses have been torn down to make way for new ones. Townhouses geared for middle-income residents have been built. But much of the neighborhood is still run-down, and progress has been even slower in other communities.

Most Summerhill residents say the Olympics have benefited the area. In his small white house that overlooks a training track for Olympic track and field athletes, Charles Colbert points to some of the improvements. The Olympics "has made the neighborhood look better. [The city] planted grass, painted houses, and fixed potholes," he says. "But they waited for the Olympics to get here to do the little they did."

The Olympics will test Atlanta in other ways. Federal, state, and local authorities are mounting the largest security force ever staged at a Games - tens of thousands of agents, security personnel, and police will roam the streets in an effort to keep the area safe. How the city deals with traffic - a patience-tester in normal times - and possible oppressive temperatures will also be a challenge.

And what happens when the Greeks meet grits? Southern food and culture will be on display at Centennial Olympic Park and at other locations that showcase the region's art and history.

But those looking for the romanticized South of Tara and Scarlett won't find it in Atlanta. The symbols of the "old South" have been replaced with gleaming skyscrapers and big hotels, though the city still has 34 streets with Peachtree in their name.

One reason for the city's relative nonSoutherness is the dramatic demographic change it has undergone. More than 75 percent of the people who now live here are not native Atlantans.

"One of the questions I'll be curious to see answered is to what extent the Southerness of Atlanta is emphasized," says John Shelton Reed, director of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "I think they got off to a bad start with the mascot" - a kind of unidentifiable creature called Izzy."

"The South is CNN and Scientific Atlanta and all of that, but that's not the South the Japanese are interested in seeing," he says.

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