Many Atlantans Don't Consider This Spring Rite Very Peachy
College-break party known as Freaknik draws ire of noise-weary city residents
ATLANTA — ALONG Atlanta's streets, pink cherry blossoms, white dogwoods, and tender new leaves have turned the city into a landscape fit for Monet's brush.
But on the weekend of April 21 to 23, many residents are likely to flee the blossom-bedecked metropolis.
That's when Freaknik comes to town.
Freaknik is a spring-break celebration for the nation's black college students. Every year, thousands migrate to Atlanta from all over the country to cruise and party.
In the past several years, however, the event has grown so big and unruly that many residents and businesses have become more vocal in trying to persuade the city to discourage the revelers from coming. Last year's event drew about 200,000 people and brought Atlanta to a standstill.
Cars brimming with students jammed streets for hours, businesses complained of losing money because customers couldn't get through the gridlock, and residents reported vandalism and crude behavior.
''It was the most horrible thing I've ever been through,'' says Paul Bradley, an attorney who has lived for 12 years near Piedmont Park, a favorite Freaknik hangout. Mr. Bradley says that last year students congregated on his front porch, urinated in his yard, and two threatened him. ''It was out of control,'' he says. ''It was like an anarchic mob.''
Bradley and about 600 individuals and businesses formed the Freaknik Fallout Group, which threatened to sue the city over the handling of last year's event.
In response, last October Mayor Bill Campbell, apparently bowing to pressure by angry residents, stated the city would not host Freaknik. Now, facing pressure from Freaknik supporters, he says students are welcome as long as they obey the laws.
This year, police are planning to step up enforcement efforts. Many streets in downtown and Midtown neighborhoods will be closed to those who don't live or work in the area, and more officers will be positioned around the city to crack down on lawbreakers.
Police Chief Beverly Harvard faxed a two-page letter to the nation's historically black colleges warning students of state and local laws and their penalties, if broken.
Jamal Coleman, president of the Student Government Association at Clark Atlanta University, one of five all-black colleges in the city, says many of the 200,000 who showed up last year were not students.
''The event has gained the attention of a lot of the public. And a lot of the incidents and infractions -- some were by students, but some were not,'' he says. ''We disagreed with the representation of some people,'' Mr. Coleman adds, but he feels Atlanta should not bar Freaknik. ''It's a congregation, a fellowship of people.''
Freaknik started in 1985 as a small alumni picnic for black college students. It ballooned in 1989 and has continued to grow. It is loosely organized, and no one ever knows how many students will show up.
Patricia Dixon, a resident of Midtown, thought the event was out of control last year. But ''I understand that these young kids just want to have a good time,'' she says.
Meanwhile, concerned black clergy are asking churches to open their doors to students by offering them a place to sleep, because many of the city's hotel rooms are booked. One of Atlanta's biggest conventions -- the Comdex computer trade show -- has already taken most of the rooms.
Although Comdex didn't reschedule its show, other events have. The Atlanta Dogwood Festival, which usually is held in Piedmont Park the third weekend of April, was held earlier this year.