Razing Atlanta Cherkis, Jason. The Village Voice



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Razing Atlanta

Cherkis, Jason. The Village Voice. New York: Jul 9, 1996. Vol. 41, Iss. 28; pg. 20, 7 pgs




To Build the Centennial Games, the Capital of the New South Sets an Olympic Torch to Its Inner City

The path to the Centennial Olympic Games leads to Diane Casey's old doorstep. The Atlanta housing project where she lived until last month-- once a thriving kpatchwork of red brick baby townhouses-- now offers intersections of mud and construction detours. Stray houses, with cracked sheets of pywood covering doors and windows, sit boarded up, awaiting demolition. Eight -foot barbed wire fences line entire streets and circle a rusted-out playground. Casey's house faced an empty, beached lot. And from her living room couch, she could see her community's replacement rising above the field. She could watch the Olympic Village eating away at her community. After living in the Clark Howell projects for almost 20 years, Casey (whose name has been changed) is dumbfounded that it has come dodwn to this---that she has been forced to move out of her neighborhood, with a slim chance of returning---to make way for the 1996 Summer Games. For almost a decade, Olympic officials, city politicians, and real estate developers have touted the Games as not only a showcase for the world's best athletes, but as the path to an urban renewal boom. They hoped to use the two-week event to lure foreign investors and coax white suburbanites back to the black-majority city. But for many Atlantans, the euphoria of being awarded the Olympics in 1990 has turned into apprehension. As Olympic organizations storm into town, people are getting evicted from their homes. Forty-six tenants were kicked out of their building to make way for the Canadian Olympic Association. And corporations such as Coca-Cola, Daimler-Benz, and The New York Times are clamoring to get in on the act-building a theme park, taking over apartment complexes, and displacing homeless shelters-all at the expense of the city's poor and working class.

Indeed, less than a month before opening ceremonies begin, Olympic bulldozers are still priming the city's red clay, continuing a process in which developers have uprooted up to 15,000 homeowners, tenants, small businesses, and homeless people. Six years of preparation has cost some residents their storefronts, jacked up rents in a city with almost no tenant protections, and even left some people living on the streets.

As a founder of her community's tenants rights group, Casey has followed the city's redevelopment wave from the front lines. On a sticky Saturday afternoon, she described her old neighborhood's crooked fault lines. Standing on Luckie Street, she pointed to a deserted section where the grocery store once stood. Down a few blocks, near Coke's world headquarters, is the local library, now locked up.

While her mostly black neighborhood is in the midst of being gutted by the Atlanta Housing Authority, the adjacent Techwood neighborhood-home to another housing project-is now a ghost town Displaced by the Olympic Village, which will house the athletes during the Games, and further development around the Village, Techwood's 571 residents have been moved to other projects, or worse. And many won't be returning: after the Olympic torch is extinguished, the Village will become dorms for Georgia State University Both Clark Howell and Techwood are to be gentrified under a Housing and Urban Development program called Hope VI.

Eyeing the wreckage, Casey, who is in her late forties, is exasperated. She's tired of fighting, but adamant about her neighborhood. "Here, you had your privacy, your neighbors you can trust, a doctor for my granddaughter that's nearby," she explains. "We're going to lose our families"

"The Olympics are not just about money," Casey says. "They're about money, power, and land"

Traveling around Atlanta today, the city's dominant symbol is no longer the Coke logo, Ted Turner's CNN, or even the countless Waffle Houses-it's the Olympic rings. Olympic trademarks are slapped on everything from bricks to bridges. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the "official newspaper of the Olympics," runs a countdown to the Games on its front page every day. Construction of an Olympic Stadium, a 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park, and Coke's Olympic City amusement park enthralls the city. And Billy Payne, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games-the nonprofit corporation that is organizing the Games-is followed around by the press as if he were a prophet.

In the late '80s, Atlanta really seemed to need the Olympics-politically and psychologically. It was a city that was hurting from its appearance down to its infrastructure. Some communities, such as Martin Street Plaza, were littered with what looked like old wooden sharecropper shacks; others hadn't been renovated since they were built in the '30s. Most neighborhoods were too poor for sidewalks or decent sewer systems, so when it rained, backyards turned into swamps. The poverty rate grew till it was the second highest in the country.

And just as the poor neighborhoods suggested the Depression, downtown was entering one. Under ex-mayor Andrew Young, the city's trickle-down economy didn't trickle. The city's town center, a mall complex known as the Underground, was failing; the business sector fled to Newt's district in Cobb County; the numbers of homeless reached up to 20,000.

Atlanta's internal atrophy was heightened by what some call an inferiority complex-wanting less hick culture and more haute couture. The city has always been concerned with appearances. During the civil rights movement, Atlanta hailed itself as "the city too busy to hate," hoping somehow to annex itself to the North. City leaders constantly call Atlanta the next New York City; they do drop a big peach on New Year's Eve.

Unfortunately, Atlanta has never quite been able to shake its provincial image. Enter Billy Payne. A local real estate attorney and former AllAmerican defensive end at the University of Georgia, Payne calls the idea to bring the Olympics to Atlanta his "crazy dream." In a story that has since become legend in Atlanta, Payne says he got the idea driving home from a church service. He wanted to capture the same feeling he got from attending church, just expand it. "The Olympics honestly were an intellectual combination of these things that were upstanding to me," Payne remembers. "They deal with my love of sport and my love of community"

Mayor Young joined with Payne in pitching the Olympics as the city's savior. With the slogan "Come Share Our Dream," Young dubbed the Games "the affirmative action Olympics" Payne and Young preached that the Olympic Spirit would not only touch the poorest communities, it would make Atlanta a world-dass city for investors. More than 45,000 volunteers signed up to join the quest. There were Olympic races and a statewide "Olympic Day in the Schools" When, surprisingly, Atlanta was awarded the bid over Athens and Toronto, the world saw a city in near-riot excitement.

Payne boasts that the two-week event will be the biggest ever. Although 20 of the 26 events will take place within a 1.5 mile downtown radius known as the Olympic Ring, the Centennial Games-with a $1.6 billion budget-will be 50 per cent larger in scope than L.A's Games in '84. Atlanta will play host to more athletes, more countries, more corporate sponsors, and more television viewers than ever before. Charles Rutheiser, author of the recently released book Imagineering Atlanta: The Politics of Place in the City of Dreams, isn't far off when he says, "Only wars are bigger"

And the payoff, according to Payne, will be a new image for the entire South. "After the Olympics we're going to be seen as one of the great cities; he says. "It will change the way people look at Atlanta and the region. Around the world, people see the South in terms of civil rights and Civil War. It's all Gone With the Wind and Martin Luther King. With the Olympics, they're going to see the world's best example of people of different ethnic backgrounds living together peacefully" But even as Payne fancies a new New South, he's relied on old Southern ways to get it.

In November 1990, two months after Atlanta was christened an Olympic host, developers began to decry the Techwood and Clark Howell "problem." One wellknown realtor, Taz Anderson, wrote City Hall urging that the Games "be the rallying point" for "removing the TechwoodClark Howell problem from our mutual `front doors.' " Sandwiched between Coke headquarters, Georgia Tech, and the heart of of downtown, the two adjoining neighborhoods have long been considered prime real estate by local business leaders and journalists-if only the projects could be got rid of.

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games agreed. Intense discussions with the Atlanta Housing Authority and Central Atlanta Progress, an umbrella group of business leaders, produced plans to replace Techwood-the country's first public housing project-with the Olympic Village. Payne and the Atlanta Joumal and Constitution trumpeted the project as a top priority. The frantic tone of ACOG and city officials suggested that the fate of the Games rested with Techwood (one headline in the AJC read "Techwood Homes Redevelopers in Race Against Clock").

Techwood residents barely had a chance. As plans to get rid of Techwood were negotiated between 1991 and 1994, residents began to notice changes in the neighborhood. Although nothing had been finalized or voted on, the police weren't coming around as often. Spot inspections of homes (that can lead to evictions) increased. By the time a plan was formed, 227 of the 571 Techwood homes were vacant. When HUD eventually approved the removal of 114 Techwood units for the Olympic Village, half of the neighborhood was already vacant, according to Larry Keating, a professor of city planning at Georgia Tech.

ACOG and the city used the same pressure tactics on the remaining Techwood residents and at Clark Howell. As redevelopment plans progressed, Diane Casey started feeling the pressure. She was notified that her home would be inspected five times in the next year (normally, homes are inspected once a year). She says that a Housing Authority official told residents that if they didn't approve the plan police protection and trash pickup would stop altogether. And business leaders made it clear how the city's elite viewed residents. One was quoted in the AJC as saying that residents were going "against the spirit of the Games." When a much larger demolition and relocation plan for the two neighborhoods, Hope VI, was set to be voted on by residents, most had given up any idea of fighting it. Only 26 residents were left in Techwood; only 75 residents from both neighborhoods even bothered to vote on the plan. The outcome-approval-was foreordained.

"At first we thought it was just the [official] Tenants' Association being greedy, so we went after them. They were supposed to represent us, and they were selling us out, Casey remembers. "We soon began to realize what we were dealing with: the Olympics. It was too big. We didn't even know."

Techwood wasn't just an early victory for the Olympics-it established the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games as the city's new power player. Atlanta has long been directed by an intimate coalition between the city administration and the business leaders of Central Atlanta Progress. ACOG simply replaced the old regime with an Olympic regime.

For his efforts, Payne has received an unlimited key to the city. With de facto eminent domain, Olympic bucks, and a heavy PR machine, his nonprofit corporation has proved it can dictate public policy to the cin: "The real issue is of control-and time and time again it's ACOG," Georgia Tech's Keating explains. "Payne, [Coke Chairman] Roberto Goizueta, and Governor Zell Miller have the power. ACOG has been able to knock the city around on a number of issues"

Indeed, Payne proposed the Olympic Stadium be built across the street from the Braves' Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and despite worries from neighborhood leaders, ACOG was able to seal the deal-which hands the stadium over to the Braves for free after the Olympics, with few concessions. Sections of downtown quickly folded into ACOG's plans. The Committee and the city, set up an urban planning wing, a public-private partnership, called the Corporation for Olympic Development. CODA set out to kick-start redevelopment of 15 neighborhoods that lie within the Olympic Ring. And the Atlanta Housing Authority ordered three more of its projects dismantled. In an ultimate show of his clout, Payne gained approval from Coke chief Goizueta and Governor Miller for another of his "dreams," a downtown Centennial Olympic Park, before even getting the city's approval. The park displaced 71 local businesses.













As Techwood foreshadowed ACOG has used its power to address the desires of the city's business elites, drawing from many of their old, stalled, development proposals. In fact, the Committee's ideas look a lot like the city's urban renewal policies of the '60s and '70s. Those early projects sought to curb white flight and move the black population away from downtown. According to a report by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, 5500 people were displaced when Fulton County ballpark was built in the '60s; in 1976, the World Congress Center emptied out the Lightening neighborhood. Under the current Olympic redevelopment, the Housing Authority's Doug Faust says more than 2232 families will be displaced out of the Ring. CODAs proposal for the Summerhill neighborhood, for example, called for the relocation of 333 families and up to 1.8 small businesses-133 families have been displaced.

Clara Axam, president and CEO of CODA, says that although some displacement may be inevitable, redevelopment is necessary. "We will give the residents an opportunity to remain in the neighborhood," Axam says. "We have to develop housing that is affordable. The incentive is to use the Olynpics to jump-start the revitalization of these neighborhoods."

But if Summerhill is any indication, many former tenants have little hope of remaining in their neighborhoods. Many Summerhill residents initially sided with Axam's efforts, seeing Olympic money as a way to fix their community. And though the new, clean storefronts and townhouses in the neighborhood would be any residents dream, the makeover has created a slew of middle-class homes, costing about $90,000-obviously beyond the reach of former residents, most of whom live at the poverty line. Douglas Dean, president and CEO of Summerhill Neighborhood Inc., a local development corporation, forthrightly admits that revitalization was never meant for current tenants. "This is not a poor person's plan," Dean says. "We want to attract people who would like to live in a safe and nice community."

Imagineering Atlanta author Rutheiser predicts that Olympic redevelopment will only further the city's racial and economic divide. "The city's poor are going to be put out big time," he says. "They will not see any tangible benefits from the Games and will come to view them as a nightmare"

Many of Atlanta's poor and working class already wish the Olympics were a bad dream. When Diane Casey was told last summer that she and her neighbors would be moved out block by block-at a Housing Authority meeting complete with officials dressed in power suits and a complimentary buffet of Mrs. Winner's fried chicken-she was told that redevelopment would empower her. It could be, said AHA officials, her ticket out of the projects. But they didn't say to where. Casey was given a choice of receiving a Section 8 voucher-which would entitle her to federal assistance in paying a private landlord-or a spot in another project, with the possibility of returning to her neighborhood when redevelopment is complete.

Casey counted more than 30 neighbors gone by the time of the meeting. "We've been going to meetings for the last three or four years, and we still don't know where we are going to live" she said at the time. "I know some of my neighbors have probably ended up homeless for sure." Casey's worries were well founded. At least a couple of Techwood's residents are homeless as a result of ACOG's designs. According to Larry Keating, only 69 families from the first 114 destroyed units in Techwood have received relocation aid and only 100 families from the remaining 457 units have received the aid they were promised.

Tyrone Scott is a Techwood resident who was left out. Inside downtown Atlanta's Trinity Church soup kitchen, Scott quietly spoons a bowl of pork and beans. He is still trying to figure out how he ended up here. Scott says he was promised a spot in another project, but the AHA eventually told him there wasn't room and he would have to wait. Months later and out on the street, he's still waiting. "The Housing Authority is going to make everything their way," he says. "They're going to make themselves look good. There's nothing you can do about it"

Rick White, the Housing Authority spokesperson, insists all residents will be housed, and flatly denies any are on the streets. "It's going exceedingly well," he says. "We're very pleased with the speed with which residents were able to find places to live. Nobody is going to go without a roof over their heads." The AHA's plans for the remaining tenants still look ominous. They are banking on Section 8's to take care of most residents. But with the city's Section 8 occupancy rate hovering around 98 per cent, finding a landlord willing to rent to low-income tenants-in a city without rent control-has been difficult. Robert Ferrell, founder of the Atlanta Union of the Homeless, says he has found apartment complexes kicking out Section 8 tenants because of the squeeze. He says the odds of finding an apartment are "slim and none."

Keating says the Olympics and the city have made low-income housing a nonpriority, even as ACOG's huge plans have led the fed state, and city govenments to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the "privately funded" Olympics. Most of that money is slated for highway construction and security, including hightech cameras to monitor sites and traffic Other expenditures are more frivolous. In nearby Rockdale County, the state is funneling $40 million into an international horse park and mountain bike course; Tennessee is pumping millions toward rebuilding rapids in the Ocoee River along the Georgia border. "Low-income housing went out the window,, Keating says. "Where is the AHA going to house the residents? Off in cars? Underneath swing sets in parks?

Even those in charge of the relocation are frazzled by the atmosphere. Ruth Morton, a Housing Authority relocation specialist, says she hasn't researched the market. "Where is there housing? I don't know, I really don't," Morton explains. "We don't have a specific plan."

And just as Olympic redevelopment is forcing some onto the streets, life is getting even harder for Atlanta's homeless. Across the city, says the homeless advocacy group Empty the Shelters, services are being cut, and shelters have either moved out of town or closed down altogether-including four shelters that once stood where Coke's theme park and the Centennial Park stand now. Mark Preisinger, director of Olympics communication for Coke, says, "There were two [shelters]. We helped to relorate them to areas very close to where they are. Atlanta is our home town. When we do something like Coca-Cola Olympic City, we do it for the right reasons." Other shelters and soup kitchens plan to curtail services to rent out space to the Olympics.

Security is also being tightened. Using L.A.'s security system as a model, the city government started police sweeps of the homeless a year ago. One program offered one-way bus tickets to homeless people willing to promise never to return to Atlanta. Tom Pocock,, director of city jails, made the city's security philosophy clear when he boasted that the newly built downtown jail was the first Olympic venue built on time. With thousands of law enforcement officers already scheduled to work the Games, CAP-the city's business umbrella group-nevertheless has a new Olympic security force, the "A-Force" Ambassadors.

The Olympics have created an entire population of refugees whom Atlanta can't seem to hide. "You have a whole population that moves three or four times in the city every two years; says Duane Stewart, coordinator of Atlanta's Poverty Rights Office. "People move from oneroom bedrooms to overcrowded shelters to rooming houses. A lot of people move back with family and friends living in smaller units. This is a critical situation"

Meanwhile, as tenants and the homeless get squeezed, corporations are rushing in. Daimler-Benz, makers of Mercedes-Benz cars, knocked down two restaurants to open a hospitality center. The New York Times signed a deal to rent out an apartment complex, leaving nine tenants looking for new apartments. One of the residents was left homeless. The Times says it was under the impression that tenants would be compensated for being displaced. Other landlords, desperately seeking tourists willing to pay exorbitant rents, are posting ads on the Internet. "I don't think there's a single renter in town who hasn't somehow been affected by the Olympics, says Ryan Smith, acting president of Atlanta's Tenants' Rights Association. On three separate occasions, State Senator Donzella James proposed bills designed to curb all forms of forced evictions, but all three attempts failed to get out of committee. James says some state senators are involved in their own real-estate deals.

Shayne mac Leod IV says the added stress of having to worry about his apartment is costing him his life. Like other people with AIDS, he chose his apartment because it was near a midtown clinic. Last summer his landlord tried to convince him to vacate his place for the Olympics-by threatening to raise his rent by more than 10 times his current rate. The added stress landed him in the hospital. Shingles have spread throughout his body, herpes has returned to his face, and his movements have become restricted.

"I wish the Olympics would go away, mac Leod says. I wish the city of Atlanta would bum down so they couldn't host it. I don't really wish that, but my anger is that great:

Unfortunately, the Olympics aren't going away. And for inner-city residents, they promise to go on and on, as new redevelopment plans continue to unfold. The Housing Authority recently announced that its longterm plans call for the demolishing of a total of 10,000 units, including another project, Perry Homes, after the Games. The AHA has stepped up its inspections in all the homes, which mean more evictions.

Some of CODA's plans for the Ring neighborhoods seem to be foundering, but expectations are that redevelopment may continue long after the Games-the proposals stretch to the year 2014 and could displace thousands more. Besides, taking a page from CODAs plans, mayor Bill Campbell, elected in 1993, recently formed his own group, the Atlanta Renaissance Program, which is dominated by the same old business elite, including Coke's Goizueta. The Program similarly lists redevelopment, revitalization, and public-private joint efforts as its goals. And CAP recently proposed a 50-acre sports-business district to be called COPA (Centennial Olympic Park Area), which is modeled after Washington, D.C's Georgetown.

For Diane Casey, months of searching for a new home led to a dead end this summer. With the Housing Authority telling her to get out of her home by June, she was frantic. Without a car she couldn't look for Section 8 housing. AHA's other suggestions? One was Perry Homes, the project it has since announced it will demolish. The AHA's other offers were just as inhospitable. "Then they took me to one place that was virtually set up under the expressway, and another place that was so small I couldn't squeeze my furniture in the door, she explained a few weeks ago. "I don't know. I may get kicked out of Atlanta housing"

But with just days to spare, Casey found a small apartment at the U-Rescue housing project in midtown. She can no longer see the Olympic Village from her windows; instead, she is busy eyeing cockroaches running along her kitchen floor. She's bleached, sprayed, and powdered her apartment, but they are still coming.



Her apartment makes it look like she's still in midtransit. Boxes clutter the floor along with the roach killers. Casey says she doesn't want to unpack just yet. I'm not going to make myself too comfortable" she explains. "We are all under a threat; we are just not sure anymore" Casey might have to move again as the AHA is set to redevelop U-Rescue in about 18 months.

"I've had it with the Housing Authority, she says. "Residents still don't know what's going on. I feel as long as you live in this city and you're poor, you're not going to get any peace."


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