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The most sports-saturated summer in living memory is hotting up: in less than two weeks' time, the 100th Olympic Games will open in Atlanta - perhaps the most extravagant sporting spectacle this planet has ever witnessed. Hundreds of millions will spend the rest of July absorbed in the drama, the passion, the single-minded pursuit of excellence. Yet sporting glory is only part of what is at stake. For many, greed, nationalism and politics will overshadow the traditional Olympic ideals.. Feminists will be pre-occupied with the increasingly bitter question of sexual discrimination among Moslem athletes, discussed on page 10. And Atlantans will be hoping that the world will finally recognise their city for what they claim it is: the cultural capital of the world


The slogans scream out at you from the moment you step off your plane at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport ("the world's second busiest airport") and dog you from the billboards on the highways, the editorials in the newspapers, the advertisements in the magazines, the brochures in your hotel room: "Atlanta: the world's next great city"; "Atlanta: the new international city"; "Atlanta: world class city"; "Atlanta: the New York of the South"; "Atlanta: home of the American Dream".

Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first black mayor, travelled to Tokyo in September 1990 to be present at the ceremony where the winner of the 1996 Olympic bid was to be announced. In the days leading up to it, he would collar members of the International Olympic Committee and pester them, time and again, with his favourite aphorism: "There are only two kinds of people in America: those who live in Atlanta and those who want to." Athens, Manchester, Toronto never stood a chance. Atlantans carry propaganda in their blood. They have an instinct for salesmanship, a passion for self- promotion, a lust to self-aggrandise for which, in Atlanta, they have a word. "Boosterism", they call it.

The king of Atlanta's boosters, the grand-daddy of them all, is a venerable journalist-turned-PR-man by the name of George Goodwin. Devoted to the city where he has lived all but five of his 79 years, Goodwin can well remember the great day in 1939 when Gone with the Wind, the film that immortalised Atlanta, had its premiere at the Loew Theatre. Goodwin went into public relations in 1952 and soon took over the city's biggest PR firm. In the Sixties the city fathers put him in charge of an advertising campaign called "Forward Atlanta"; the city, transformed from a Southern backwater into an American business mecca, has been rocketing ahead ever since. Today, Goodwin is a revered figure in the PR world. Coveted industry prizes are named after him.

To him, boosterism is what Atlanta is all about. The city's geography, Goodwin explains, made boosterism a Darwinian imperative; it would not have survived, let alone evolved to become the unofficial capital of the American South, had the population not acquired this talent for grandiloquent prattle. "Boosterism is, quite simply, the main reason Atlanta is here," Goodwin says. "There's nothing here: no natural resources, no mining, no navigable rivers. Just people talking the place up. I have been a booster of Atlanta all my life. It's the reason we're having the Olympic Games."

Even so, the notion that Atlanta could successfully challenge Athens, of all places, to stage the centennial Olympic Games seemed to many to be grotesque. But that can-do energy of America, which Atlanta precociously typifies, generates its own unstoppable momentum. Few would dispute that the 20th century has been "America's Century": it put a man on the moon, it dropped the atom bomb twice, and twice its vast armies came to the rescue of Old Europe. And when those armies withdrew, the cul-

tural conquistadors followed, none more triumphant than Coca-Cola and the satellite 24-hour news channel CNN, both of which happen to have their homes in Atlanta. The Athenian philosophers may have put their stamp on civilisation in the fifth century BC; Atlanta's commerce- driven imperialists are subjugating the planet right now. Little wonder that they felt their turn had come to host the global extravaganza of the Olympic Games. Little wonder that they won.

What's more, the Olympic boosters would have us believe that they deserved it not just because they are good at business, or because they sell the world's favourite soft drink and dominate the world's TV news. Atlanta has also delivered benefits of lasting value to humanity. It is the laboratory where mankind is striving to resolve the eternal problem of race. Atlanta, at the heart of the Confederate cause during the Civil War, was the city that inspired Gone with the Wind; that became the capital of the Ku Klux Klan; that gave the world Martin Luther King and, in the vast complex of Atlanta University, the world's biggest centre of black learning. Here, too, in 1974 Maynard Jackson was elected the first black mayor of a major US city, and ever since black politicians have kept control, peacefully overseeing Atlanta's transformation into America's economic boom town.

That's the theory, at any rate: that Atlanta is home to the best the American empire has to offer. But is this all a little too good to be true? Are there any little secrets out there that the boosters are not telling us about?

The city's birth in 1834 did not hold the promise of a golden future. The place was chosen by a land surveyor as suitable for a railway junction. The man who drove the first stake into the ground named the spot Terminus. When people moved in they renamed it Marthasville, and then someone, nobody knows who or why, came up with Atlanta. By the time General William Tecumseh Sherman's victorious Union army razed it to the ground in 1864, the city's population was 10,000 and growing. Its rebuilding after the Civil War prompted Atlanta's most enduring slogan, "the Phoenix City". The railways expanded, then the highways came and then the airport. Today the metropolitan population stands at just over half a million - 3.5m if you include the peripheral suburbs. People come and set up businesses in Atlanta, which now has offices representing all of America's top 500 companies, because it's an excellent transportation hub and because they buy the big talk of people like George Goodwin.

Half a dozen big buildings have gone up in the past 10 years, one of them the cylindrical Peachtree Plaza Hotel which boasts a rotating restaurant on the 72nd floor: Goodwin's favourite downtown spot. I listened attentively as he pointed out the city's features but after a short while I could not escape the impression that, save for the novelty of eating lunch on a high-altitude roundabout, there appeared to be little on first impressions to warrant Atlanta's hyperbolic presumption. What lay beneath and around was a stiffly unimaginative, resolutely practical American urban landscape.

That was the Convention Centre down there, a yellow building shaped like a rectangular box; that was the state capitol, a brown version in miniature of the ivory-domed Congress in Washington; there, at eye-level, was a tall building owned by a bank; way down, snaking through the centre of the city, was a 10-lane highway, the convergence of I-75 and I-85; there was an Omni hotel, an unremarkable beige building which, curiously, doubles up as the head office of the mighty CNN; over there, to the north-east, was where the white folks live (south-west, where the black folks live, came into view 20 minutes later, the time it took the restaurant to perform a 180-degree turn); beyond the city perimeter were the suburbs, expanding outwards like ripples in a pond; and far away on the horizon, a brown boil on a flat, forested green landscape, that was Stone Mountain, the imperial headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan in the Thirties and Forties, today the venue of an event hosted annually by the Atlanta chapter of the St Andrew's Society, the Highland Games.

"And down there, look," Goodwin exclaimed, "you can see the letters in red: that's the world headquarters of the Coca-Cola company." The building itself was squat and unspectacular. But in a flash I realised why it was that the city had defeated all-comers in the bid for this month's centennial Olympic Games. From our mobile eyrie, we were looking down at the symbolic heart of the most powerful nation on earth. For when historians look back on these times and ponder what it was that America gave the world, what distinguished it from the Roman and the British and the Ottoman empires, what the defining essence was of America's contribution to the 20th century, they will find the answer contained in the two hyphenated words that denote the immortal beverage. They are the two most widely recognised words in the whole world, the emblems - as SPQR was to Rome - of the globe-girding imperialism of American popular culture.

Atlanta, like all good imperial cities, has a temple honouring its grandest achievement: a museum called "The World of Coca-Cola". At the glass-door entrance I was greeted by two smiling young people wearing red Coca-Cola waistcoats. At a counter inside I was charged $4.50 for a ticket by a smiling young man behind a counter wearing another red Coca-Cola waistcoat. Uniformity of product and simplicity in advertising have been the keys, I was to learn, to the phenomenal success of a drink concocted accidentally by a local pharmacist in 1886. The pharmacist, a man called Jacob, happened one day to mix a gungy brown syrup not with ordinary water, as he had meant to do, but with soda water - and, lo, "the real thing" was born.

Since then, Coca-Cola has sold getting on for 6 trillion soft drinks. Today they are selling at a rate of 10,000 a second. The "Enjoy Coca-Cola" logo has been translated into more than 80 languages. All this and more I learnt as I shouldered my way through battalions of smilers in red waistcoats through the museum's hallways. Advertisements from the year 1903 described Coca-Cola as "the ideal nerve and brain tonic, ideal for headaches". Alongside a glass-encased display of treasured bottles from the Early Period, an inscription said that by 1923 Coca-Cola was selling 6 million drinks a day; that in 1926 the company president established what he called "the Foreign Department" - by the end of the decade it had bottling plants in 26 countries, including Burma, China, Colombia and Morocco. Elsewhere, in booths the shape of Coke cans, video screens delivered five-minute "histories" of five-year periods in the 20th century. I pressed "1941- 1946" and learnt how the morale-raising effects of cheap Cokes for US soldiers helped our brave boys to destroy fascism, restore democracy and make the world safe for Coca-Cola distributors. It seemed a bit bizarre that people should be paying for the privilege of wandering through a barrage of commercials, but the museum was packed. There were more coaches parked outside than you'd get on a summer's day at the Louvre. For a Beethoven recital by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the ASO, you get fewer cars.

Goodwin explained to me, just a little shamefaced, that the ASO had been created in the Forties not out of any love of classical music, but because it was felt that a city with lofty ambitions should have its own symphony orchestra. "It would be good for business," Goodwin explained. An editorial in the Atlanta Constitution last month exhorted the city to cough up some money to keep the ASO going. Why? Again, because otherwise how could Atlanta claim to be "a world-class city"? The editorial suggested that the ASO might help itself by playing not Mozart and Beethoven but Hollywood film scores.

Why not, for that matter, come and play the themes of "the real thing" commercials at the World of Coca-Cola, thereby completing the fusion between cultural pretension and philistine commercialism that, it was beginning to dawn on me, characterises Atlanta? If the afternoon when I visited the Coke museum was anything to go by, the ASO would have a nice cross- section of America as its ready audience. Fat middle-Americans in shorts; teenagers wearing T-shirts proclaiming that they belonged to the "God is in control tour"; and a very elegant, very beautiful black couple who walked silently hand-in-hand, inspecting the Coca-Cola relics with the solemnity of novice nuns at Lourdes.

EMPIRES rise and fall, and, even at their apogee, are often beset with anxiety about decadence and decline. America's great anxiety is race, and nowhere have the different possibilities for a multi-racial society been so thoroughly explored as in Atlanta.

WEB Du Bois, a celebrated black intellectual of the post-slavery era, taught at Atlanta University. In 1903, in a book called The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois pondered the future of the races, sensing already that the city in which he lived could become the laboratory where black and white would test each other out, explore whether fruitful co-existence was possible. As the new century began, he wrote, America faced a choice. It could absorb into its culture the "loving, jovial good-humour" of the Negro, his "determined humility", his "simple faith and reverence"; or the country could continue the way it had begun, with its "brutal dyspeptic blundering" in "a dusty desert of dollars and smartness".

The bad news for Du Bois and those of like mind is that Coca-Cola won, that the black people who were eventually to become the dominant political force in the city shed their joviality, humility and reverence and absorbed the white man's dollar-smart ways. The good news is that things could have gone a lot worse.

In 1906, three years after the publication of Du Bois's book, there was a race riot in Atlanta, prompted by hysterical reports in the press about sexual assaults by Negros on white women. "Shall these black devils be permitted to assault and almost kill our women, and go unpunished?" cried the Atlanta Evening News. The white burghers took up the challenge, going on a three-night lynching rampage which left two dozen black people dead and hundreds injured.

The bloodbath had a sobering effect on the population. Black and white people withdrew into separate parts of the city and entered into what local historians call an unspoken truce that has lasted to this day. It is a co-existence of sorts. Even though the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the Civil War, was officially based there, they set about most of their business further afield, in Mississippi and Alabama. And when Martin Luther King, Atlanta's most famous son, lit up the black movement, the city's white mayor, Ivan Allen, was the only Southern mayor publicly to support Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964 which abolished the South's segregation laws.

It could be argued that what drove Allen and the rest of the white city establishment to call for the end of legally enforced discrimination was not so much a highly developed moral sense as enlightened self-interest: the pragmatic perception that racial friction in Atlanta, already beginning to be recognised as home of America's educated black elite, would not be good for business. Certainly, no sooner had the Civil Rights Act been passed, than the white community evacuated the city for Cobb County, now Newt Gingrich's true-blue Republican constituency, and other outlying suburbs, ceding numerical control of the city to the blacks.

Four years later in 1968 (the year Luther King was assassinated in Memphis), a black army officer called Felker Ward moved into an Atlanta neighbourhood that was 95 per cent white. "I was the first black person to live on that street," he recalled. "Mine was the second black family to worship at the local church." Within five years, he said, his street had become 95 per cent black, his church 100 per cent black. "That's the pattern in Atlanta. First the blacks move in, then the blacks take over." Why? "It comes down to one word: racism."

But that racism was sufficiently controlled - "a city too busy to hate" is another Atlanta slogan - to allow Ward to become first a laywer, then an investment banker, then a millionaire. The atrium of his office building, on swanky Peachtree Street, is a palace worthy of Donald Trump. The building's 25 lifts are all decorated with Italian marble, at a cost of $60,000 each. Ward's own office, with windows that look out over half the city, is adorned with photographs of himself with President Clinton and a long green mat on which he practises his putting. The minimum investment his company, Pinnacle Investments, will accept is $5m.

Atlanta won the Olympic bid in large measure by peddling the image provided by successful blacks like Ward, by selling Atlanta - in a slogan specially tailored for the IOC - as "the city of racial harmony", as an example to the world that it is possible to overcome a legacy of racial intolerance. The team that sold the Olympic bid was composed of Maynard Jackson, who was the city's first black mayor; Andrew Young, who succeded Jackson as mayor after serving as America's first black ambassador to the United Nations; and Billy Payne, a white businessman infected with a uniquely powerful strain of the booster virus. "People in South Africa can say, 'Well, I'll be damned, it really does work'," Payne would enthuse. "Here is a city that despite its past, despite racial issues that paralysed us for so many years, has basically now established that people can work together."

Which begs the question: why, when you walk down the city streets, do you see black people wearing T-shirts that read "DANGER! Educated black man! My lethal weapon is my mind!" and "Just because I'm black doesn't mean I'm a CRIMINAL"?

Bob Holmes, a Democratic state congressman for 22 years who doubles up as a politics professor at the all-black Clark University, has the answer. Black and white people may work together in Atlanta, but they do not live together. A statistic the boosters tend to overlook is that Atlanta runs neck and neck with Chicago as the most racially segregated city in America. "Atlanta," he says, "is a tale of two cities. There's a great gap in all the major indicators of quality of life. Unemployment is 3.7 times higher among blacks than whites; the median white family income is $58,000, the black $21,000; black business, no matter what the PR people at the Chamber of Commerce say, accounts for less than one per cent of the city's employment." So why don't the city's black political leaders do something about it? "Because we have a black conservative leadership in the city working hand- in-hand with the white business community. They boost away and they believe their own words. They get so caught up in this 'Atlanta-is-the-best-place- on-earth' thing that they become blinded to the plight of the black community."

Evidence that cracks lurk beneath the varnish was provided on 12 May when unknown arsonists burnt down the home of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. The novel, which chronicles the burning of Atlanta in the Civil War, is seen by many black people as an offensive celebration of the era of slavery. The current black mayor, Bill Campbell, who encouraged a plan to restore the Mitchell house in the hope of raising revenue from visitors during the Olympic games, isn't one of them.

Enthusiastically heading the restoration project was Mary Rose Taylor, a former TV journalist and well-known Atlanta mover-and-shaker who believes that next to Coca-Cola, Gone with the Wind is Atlanta's major contribution to world culture. "I could conjecture a number of possibilities as to why they burnt the house down," Taylor said. "But it seems to me that it was an act of hatred, an act of censorship." It also seems to support a thesis she has held for some time: that beneath the pretty official rhetoric Atlanta is a boiling pot of racial tension. By way of explanation she passed me a copy of an article written by a local black playwright, Pearl Cleage, in response to the news that fire had gutted the Mitchell house. "We should rejoice in the destruction of such a blatant monument to white supremacy," Cleage wrote. "We don't have to respect Margaret Mitchell any more than we have to respect Joseph Goebbels."

In Atlanta, there is less talk of the "melting pot" of races favoured on the Eastern seaboard. What they teach schoolchildren is that they have a "salad bowl" - together but separate. Booker T Washington, a pioneer civil rights leader of the late 19th century, used a different metaphor to express the same idea in what became known as his "Atlanta Compromise" speech. Addressing himself in 1895 to a predominantly white audience, Washington said: "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington's vision was less ambitious than King's one of colour-blind co-existence. But based on the evidence so far it has proved more prescient. If the Atlanta experience holds a lesson in race relations for the rest of the world, it is a depressingly narrow one: that it is more realistic to try and build a black-white alliance on shared economic interests than on fellowship and understanding.

The vision of racial harmony that Atlanta is now promoting is rather grander than this, but it is manifestly an exaggeration. "The reason the myth began," says Taylor, "was that we needed to boost the economy, which is why the myth is as important to the city as the colour of the Coca- Cola can." The distinction Atlanta's boosters seem to have failed to make is that you cannot use the methods you employ to sell a product like Coca- Cola to forge the character and history of the human collective who inhabit a city. Felker Ward said one advantage Atlanta had which he had found singularly lacking in European cities was the active participation of the business community in shaping the city's affairs. Maybe that was why Atlanta beat Athens and Manchester to the Olympic bid, but it may also be why Atlanta, for all the packaging and sloganeering, remains singularly lacking in the spiritual qualities WEB Du Bois yearned for at the turn of the century. I first began to realise this towards the end of my conversation with George Goodwin at the Peachtree Plaza when I asked him if he could define the city's charm. And there he was, the city's booster of boosters, quite lost for words.

Evidently troubled by his lapse, he rang the next day and invited me to go on a drive with him to Buckhead, the residential area to the north east of the city where the white people live. There, he said, we'd find the charm. And he was right, as far as it went: charming bungalows, mock- Tudor homes, vast mansions in the cotton plantation style. The good citizens had bought the charm, grafted it on, and then boasted about it, as they do about the city's "world-class" pretensions generally, with the mix of insecurity, fragile confidence and desperate need for affirmation of a middle-aged woman who has undergone plastic surgery. Atlanta has not grown organically, which is why the cities in America with a rich, gradual, natural evolution like Chicago, New York and San Francisco have character in abundance, and why the new, rushed cities like Atlanta, Minneapolis and Dallas merge in the mind's eye into a grey blob of bland, functional anonymity.

It is this that might make it hard for visiting Europeans at the Olympic Games to accept the idea that Atlanta is the world's next great city. Certainly the suggestion that Atlanta is the Athens of the late 20th-century may be a touch self-deluding. In one sense, however, it is unquestionably great: it lives up to its billing as "the home of the American Dream" for it is the archetypal American city, a triumph of commercial resourcefulness, of optimism. During an economic boom that has continued from the Eighties into the Nineties it has earned a reputation, despite the worst white fears of black political rule, as a great place to do business. Beneath the boosterism that brought the Olympics to Atlanta and sold Coca-Cola to the world there lies a powerful capitalist imagination and an intimidating capacity for hard work.

Chris Cramer, who is British, moved to Atlanta two months ago after 25 years at the BBC to head the international division of CNN, Coke's new rival in the business of international cultural hegemony. CNN, Cramer has quickly learnt, has not acquired its global pre-eminence in television news coverage - has not set the global standard for the most powerful information medium humanity has yet devised - by accident. Atlanta provided the energy. "There is the most inordinate drive in this town," Cramer said. "People are out jogging at 5.30am. They work 12 hours a day. It's a high-achiever city with a zeal for hard work I haven't seen anywhere else, not even in the US. I feel almost ashamed when I think that I'd been getting up at 8.10am all those years in London."

The most hopeful - and appropriately optimistic - spin to put on Atlanta would be that all the hard work the locals put into spreading the CNN word, quenching our thirsts with Coca-Cola, and experimenting with the eternal question of race will contribute towards better global understanding, decreasing the possibilities of nationalist and ethnic conflict. Pax Atlanta, the Olympic boosters would have us believe, will bless the world.

Leaving the boosters downtown, I heard a quieter, perhaps more realistic, voice of Atlanta. I was the guest of Janice Sikes, a black, red-haired librarian and community activist, who lives in a modest neighbourhood of South West, a part of town where as a white man you stand out more starkly than you would in Soweto. We sat chatting in her porch on rickety metallic chairs. Race relations remained an irritation, she said, and things were getting worse. People lived separate lives; they didn't communicate, which she thought was a shame, because she believes in Martin Luther King's dream and she likes to judge people on their sincerity, not their skin colour. In one phrase she summed up Atlanta's problem, the reason why the ideal it purports to sell the world remains dry and soulless, the reason why the Olympics will come and go but the big-city greatness and glorious racial harmony to which the boosters lay claim remain the exaggerated patter of an overambitious salesman. "People," she said, "are doin' business. But there ain't a lot of fun goin' on." !