Atlanta's poor lose out to Olympic glitz: Not everyone will be welcoming the Games, writes David Usborne

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FIRST glimpse the world is likely to get of the site of the future Olympic stadium in Atlanta, host to the 1996 games, will be of a ramshackle collection of tents pitched on an expanse of tarmac.

At the head of a small but angry crowd will be an old black lady waving her cane at the bulldozers.

The unhappy 'campers' will be residents, almost all of them black, from the three Atlanta neighbourhoods in whose midst the super-stadium is to be built - Summerhill, Mechanicsville and Peoplestown. While it is allowed to stand, the canvas township will be called the 'Poor People's City'.

The bulldozers will prevail and construction of the dollars 207m ( pounds 140m) structure will start as planned in about six weeks' time. But the secret will be out - that beneath the glitz and swagger of Atlanta's Olympic plans, there is an almost unnoticed seam of local bitterness, fuelled by the familiar divisions of race, class and money and, for some, by the fear of forced rehousing.

The site is the car-park of the existing 25-year-old stadium of the city's champion baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, just south of the city's dazzling heart. The new 85,000-seat arena, which will eventually be taken over by the Braves, is to go up alongside the old stadium, which will be demolished once the games are over.

For the city, led by its black mayor, Maynard Jackson, it is a perfect solution. Atlanta gets to showcase its glittering heart to the world and the Braves, owned by the cable-television magnate Ted Turner, will be kept sweet. It is just unfortunate that the neighbourhoods on three sides of the site are among the most neglected and squalid of Atlanta and, indeed, of the whole country.

Even more inconvenient is the fact that it was just such developments in the past - including the construction of the existing Braves stadium and the laying down of Atlanta's expressway system - that first destroyed these communities. Their population has drained away and roughly a third of the housing - mostly narrow wooden homes - is vacant and often burnt out. Unemployment runs at 70 per cent. Graffiti provide the only epitaphs to the victims of drug violence: 'RIP Paul', 'Peace in Heaven, Geremiah'.

The lady with the cane at the tent protest will be Ethel May Mathews, who was among the many thousands displaced by the first wave of construction in the Sixties. Seated in her gloomy living-room, surrounded by plaques commending years of community service, Mrs Mathews, 61 years old and a grandmother many times over, denounced the politicians and Olympic organisers.

'They don't speak for us; they speak for themselves. They're infested with greed and speak with forked-tongue lies,' she railed. 'If you poor, then you dumb, ignorant, arrogant and you don't have nothing to say about your own life and your own neighbourhood. The big business people get together downtown behind closed doors and they pawn us off, they pawn us off]'

Mrs Mathews, leader of an activist group called Anuff (Atlanta Neighborhoods United For Fairness), is especially bitter that a local county commission, with Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the civil- rights leader, among its members, two weeks ago struck a compromise with the city and the Braves approving the stadium's construction.

She told Mr King to his face that his father would be 'turning in his grave' over his 'betrayal'.

'We have been victimised and we have been destroyed again - and I'm not talking about white people; I'm talking about my own race - black people,' she said. 'We don't have to be afraid of the white people any more; we have to be afraid of our own race. They have pawned us off to the highest bidder.'

Under the deal, the Braves and the organisers of the games - the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) - made their first concessions to the community.

A down-payment of dollars 300,000 will be made to fund local youth training and after 1996 the three neighbourhoods will receive a percentage of the Braves' parking receipts.

The deal has been welcomed by some neighbourhood leaders, such as Doug Dean of Summerhill Neighborhood Inc, who believes the Olympics offer the chance for revitalisation. 'I'm excited by the challenge,' Mr Dean said. Others are less convinced. 'That ain't much, that's just crumbs,' said Houston Wheeler, who has just completed a book, Organising in the Other Atlanta. Casting doubt on whether ACOG ever considered local communities in making its intial bid, he added: 'The myth that Atlanta thrives on is that the Olympic events coming to town are going to benefit everybody. But it is just a myth.'

Nor is there any clear information on how many people will be displaced by the construction. None will, according to Bob Brennan, the spokesman for ACOG. Not so, said Earl Philips, director of the Atlanta Housing Authority, who confirmed that 114 homes in a public housing community - the first of its kind in the US - in another area of the city are to be levelled to make way for part of the Olympic village and up to 50 families will be rehoused.

In Peoplestown, Father Austin Ford, an Episcopalian minister, predicted that near the proposed stadium an old people's home and a hospice would also be razed. 'I'm sure they will have to go', he said. 'It has just been one bad experience after another. And now those people who are left will have to adjust to another trauma.'

In the glitzy ACOG offices in town, expensively decorated and shielded by tight security, Mr Brennan denied that the plight of the neighbourhoods was being ignored.

'The Games can be the salvation of the community. They can provide an environment where change can take place - we have provided that environment,' he argued.

At the mere mention of Mrs Mathews and her camping plans, Mr Brennan visibly vibrates. 'It is so easy for her to say these things. So easy. But there is nothing of substance in any of it. She can tell Mr King his father is turning over in his grave. We have to be more responsible.'

(Photograph omitted)