ATLANTA – With the Hub on the short list for the U.S.’s 2024 Summer Olympics bid, some Massachusetts residents and business boosters have gleefully embraced trickle-down Reaganomics, fantasizing that turning the city into a sporting Disneyland will pump money into the T, affordable housing, and similar ailing public resources.
Bostonians should take a hard look at my current home city, Atlanta, host of the last U.S. Summer Olympics in 1996. Twenty years later, the only clear winners are real estate tycoons. The clear losers are blue-collar neighborhoods of color, as the Games were sold on broken promises to the working class and wound up spurring a war on the poor.
Forget the fuzzy Olympics math and airy musings of newspaper columnists. I’m talking about problems that remain: How the city’s worst ghetto still sits directly across the street from a major stadium. How cops conducted illegal mass roundups of homeless people to hide poverty, and how the city is still losing shelters. How public transit expanded to rich suburbs but was cut back in working-class minority-majority areas. How the Olympics kicked off the infamous demolition of Atlanta’s whole public housing stock.
“There’s little evidence in any Olympic host city of benefits to poor [or] working-class neighborhoods, and extensive documentation of the negative impacts dating back to the 1980s in Canadian, American, European, and Asian cities,” says Helen Lenskyj, a University of Toronto professor who’s written several books studying the impact of the Olympics.
Organizing committees always promise infrastructure boosts, job creation, and affordable housing, Lenskyj says. “But, given the almost total absence of accountability and transparency in all aspects of Olympic bids and preparations, these promises are routinely broken.”
There’s no accountability because the Olympics committees that plot all this redevelopment are private organizations. They’re typically formed by local big-business elites. Just as in Boston today, Atlanta’s Olympics committee was led by a real estate mogul who didn’t even live in the city, but rather in one of its wealthier suburbs.
Dan O’Connell, president of Boston’s Olympics committee, gave me the usual happy ideas: upgraded trains on inner-city T lines, and modular housing that could become post-Games affordable units. He pledged that “tearing down affordable housing without replacing it is not something we would consider here in Boston.”
But what specific mechanism would hold the committee to such promises? O’Connell cited nothing beyond the nonprofit’s requirement to have publicly accessible financial statements, and Mayor Marty Walsh’s generic intent to have “oversight” and “keep discipline on the process.” Even if Walsh could somehow control a private Olympics committee, there’s no guarantee he’ll be in office in 2024. In fact, O’Connell tried to blame any of the Atlanta Games’ failings on a mayoral transition that happened during its planning.
The Atlanta committee’s agenda was to “really privatize the city and hand it over to developers,” recalls Anita Beaty, executive director at the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. Back then, Beaty was co-founder of the Atlanta Olympic Conscience Coalition, a group formed to stick up for working-class people and negotiate mitigations.
Unsurprising to anyone who’s dealt with big developers, residents found it impossible to get solid info on Olympics plans, and were appeased with empty promises. Among the Atlanta lies Lenskyj recalls: promises of neighborhood input, public housing rehab, and no displacement of low-income people. Quantifiable pledges were ignored, too, like community shares in parking revenue and the 84,000 construction jobs that wound up mostly going to non-locals.
Not only did Olympics cash not trickle down to Atlanta’s neediest, but it also made developers actively drool over the chance to kick them off their potentially valuable land. Beaty estimates that about 10,000 lower-income housing units, public and private, were demolished forever, while Olympics-inspired rent-gouging displaced untold numbers more.
“I think in execution, a lot of things were done right,” says Boston’s O’Connell, voicing rosier, developer-centric memories of the Atlanta Games. He cites downtown’s outstanding Centennial Olympic Park, and how the Olympic Village became Georgia State University dorms in a “transformational” move for the school and a “very positive” model for Boston. What he didn’t remember is that those projects involved demolishing tons of small businesses and public housing units.
I know what you’re thinking, Boston: Atlanta is a Southern city of rubes and bigots. Surely it would be different in Boston, with its progressive leaders and nonprofits and newspapers? Wrong. Atlanta’s a lefty town that had all of that, and they mostly colluded in this greed grab, as gentrification truly is the big tent of American politics—not to mention the real Olympic sport. Beaty recalls fellow activists pressuring her group to stop her troublemaking.
“The progressive community in Atlanta was saying, ‘Just cool it. We can take anything for two weeks … Let’s just go to sleep for two weeks and be beautiful and have a Potemkin village,’” she said.
Sure, the Atlanta Olympics left behind some cool public spaces and intangible pride. But it was built on the hidden cost of exploiting or eliminating powerless people who no one saw on TV then and who remain ignored today. Twenty years later, Atlanta is a city of rapid gentrification, insufficient public transit, and severe income inequalities.
In Boston, the big money hot shots have had their say and will continue pitching fantasies. For now, put down your Boston Globe business section and come with me on a tour of what post-Olympics mean streets really look like.
Two main Olympic stadiums downtown—the Georgia Dome and what is now Turner Field—already had typically evil histories of sucking up public money and plopping down in poor, black neighborhoods to no local benefit. The Olympics only made it worse.
The Georgia Dome, home of the NFL’s Falcons before and after the Games, looms across the street from the struggling Vine City neighborhood, where Martin Luther King Jr. once lived. The stadium serves as a partition between this community and downtown business. Neither the Falcons’ nor the Olympics’ billions made it over the wall.
There’s no overstating just how hardcore life is here. The neighborhood is pockmarked by vacant, crumbling houses. The streets are falling apart. On any given afternoon, they’re walked by guys pushing shopping carts filled with junk, or slinging dope, or swigging 40s.
A half-mile from the stadium sits a middle school and community center. Right across the street from its playground are two collapsing, burned-out houses that have been that way for years, without so much as a line of caution tape strung up. On a recent visit I stood in a huge vacant lot right across the street from the dome where millionaires play ball. It was otherwise occupied by pigeons and a shirtless guy passed out in the grass.
A couple miles south, Turner Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Braves, sits atop the site of dozens of former homes in the forgotten community of Summerhill, another black neighborhood. A thousand residents rallied to protest its 1993 groundbreaking—Turner Field is a downsized version of the original Centennial Olympic Stadium built for the Games—but they were drowned out by a marching band and earthmovers.
According to Lenskyj, developers appeased some residents by promising to share parking venues and to limit the amount of parking lots. Those promises were broken. Parts of the community did get “improvement” funds, but that mostly came in the form of mixed-income housing that displaced many and sparked gentrification on the far side.
The only place you’ll see the name Summerhill around the stadium is in a mural painted on a vacant building in the corner of a nearby parking lot.
A sole multi-family house somehow survived right across the street from the stadium’s east side. It’s falling apart, its façade marred by graffiti. A block away across the parcels, scattered shops that survived the bulldozers have since shuttered, even that usual urban cockroach, the liquor store. Hanging out for 20 minutes on a non-game day, I didn’t see a single car travel the street. Pedestrians rarely walk here.
After all that, both stadiums are slated for demolition. The Falcons are building a new house beside the Georgia Dome, making more community benefit promises no one believes and buying out churches to raze for parking. The Braves are moving to the suburbs. A college is eyeballing Turner Field for expansion purposes.
MBTA riders may be thrilled to hear that federal funds indeed led MARTA, metro Atlanta’s transit agency, to upgrade and expand train service.
But those rail lines expanded mostly to rich, white commuter neighborhoods—notably including the suburb where the Olympics committee chief lived. That was much-needed, but many lower-income neighborhoods saw little or no transit boosts.
A case in point is Clayton County, a minority-majority area below Atlanta with high poverty and unemployment rates where Atlanta’s economic juggernaut of an airport is located. Not only did Clayton not get train stations—four years ago it actually lost local bus service. Today, you can ride a MARTA train 20 miles from a northern suburb to the airport, but you can’t catch a bus from one mile away in Clayton. Only this month did desperate Clayton residents finally pressure the county to sign a MARTA restoration deal that’s awaiting voter approval.
MARTA hasn’t built any new train stations anywhere in almost 15 years. The city remains car-choked, yet a regional transit expansion referendum failed in 2012. Many white suburbs oppose rail expansion, grumbling that it will somehow enable poor black people to rob them. Really. The only recent public transit upgrade in Atlanta is a new downtown streetcar that will run a loop, largely as a tourist attraction.
In the past year, MARTA has built new buzz, or at least grudging acceptance, around potential rapid transit expansions. But that’s thanks to explosive suburban growth and related traffic nightmares, not some stale Olympics momentum.
Atlanta was home to America’s first public housing project. Thanks to the Olympics, it also became the first city to demolish its entire public housing stock.
That landmark project, Techwood, and the neighboring Clark Howell project were coveted for decades by such institutions as the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Coca-Cola Company. By Olympics time, they were in admittedly bad shape and became immediate land-grab targets.
In the end, they were demolished and replaced by the so-called Olympic Village—athlete housing. Afterward, part of the site became college dorms first owned by Georgia State, now by Georgia Tech. The other part became a smaller, mixed-income, privatized housing complex. The vast majority of Techwood/Clark Howell’s displaced tenants were unable to move back.
When the City Council president proposed knocking down the project, tenants smelled a rat. “Tell him to go build it on his house,” one tenant leader said, according to Lawrence J. Vale’s bookPurging the Poorest. But, as the book recounts, tenants were swayed by a rigged process, forced vacancies and absurd promises, starting with the classic “no one will be permanently displaced.”
The Olympic Village project became a pioneering use of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s then-nascent HOPE VI program, later used to shrink and remake other projects in Boston and elsewhere. But Atlanta went the whole nine yards, HOPE VI-ing all its public housing. That enormously controversial move led to the displacement of thousands of low-income people to suburbs and rural areas with little infrastructure, such as public transit, to support them.
Far from caring for the poor, the Atlanta Olympics treated them as subhuman scum to be washed away by civil rights violations so outrageous the ACLU battled them in federal court.
“Atlanta was already criminalizing homelessness, but the Olympics gave it an excuse to really pass horrible laws,” Beaty recalls. “It was like a steamroller, and it just gathered steam.”
“Poor neighborhoods threaten the image of a ‘world-class city’ that is essential for a winning bid,” Lenskyj says. In every host city, she adds, being poor is made a crime, and panhandlers and sex workers are “sanitized or removed completely.”
Still, Atlanta went over the top. It outlawed lying down on a park bench, walking through a parking lot, even giving food to homeless folks in public parks. At least 9,000 homeless men, mostly African American, were arrested in the Olympic period. A bundle of lawsuits led a federal court to issue an embarrassing injunction against the laws two days before the Games began. Downtown business groups hired a private police force of pith-helmeted guards, still working today, to roust panhandlers.
That was the small stuff. In 1995 and 1996, cops rounded up hundreds of homeless people and trucked them to the city limits, dumping them and threatening arrest if they returned. At the same time, nonprofits alleging to serve the homeless passed out one-way bus tickets to such people—in exchange for a signed promise never to return.
“Habeas corpus was just out the window,” Beaty says. “People were arrested and stayed in jail without charge…for the entire Olympics.”
Beaty was talking to me from the Peachtree-Pine shelter she runs in Midtown Atlanta. Her group took control of the building in 1996 after learning the city was using it to secretly warehouse homeless people away from TV cameras during the Olympics. Today, the shelter is overloaded with people, as local homelessness is on the rise, and county government recently shuttered two other places of refuge.
I headed 20 miles east of town to Conyers to visit what sounds like a classic Olympics white elephant: the Georgia International Horse Park. The small city in a largely rural county built the enormous, 1,400-acre facility to host the Olympics’ equestrian and bicycling events, along with part of the pentathlon. In Boston, parcels from Southie to Allston have been floated as potential spots for such competitions.
Magical Olympics math probably works best in a place like this. The Horse Park didn’t displace anything else—its site was previously pegged for spraying treated waste water—and the tourism boost probably rendered the efforts worthwhile. But as the Globe floats the idea of running 2024’s horse events in Franklin Park, there are still lessons to be learned.
The Horse Park has always been a money-loser and a headache-inducer to program. It currently generates in excess of $1 million a year in revenue, but that’s still “not in the black” according to City of Conyers spokeswoman Jennifer Edwards. The flipside is that the city and county are generating well over $110 million in tourism industry cash a year, and there’s no doubt the Horse Park is a big chunk of that. It also spawned development of hotels and restaurants that have created a lot of jobs. The numbers are still fuzzy, but they make some gut sense.
Nevertheless, it’s a constant upkeep effort. The Horse Park held over 140 events in the last fiscal year, of which only 60 were horse-related. Everything from reunions to beauty expos fill up the massive event spaces.
The multitasking was at work on my visit. A big chunk of the park was hosting a horse-jumping show. Young women in jodhpurs impressively goaded their steeds over rails decorated with bouquets. Meanwhile, with far less glamor, one parking lot was rented out to a truck-driving training school, with 18-wheelers parked among orange cones. Other signs advertised a “zombie apocalypse” event and a steam-engine show.
Cramming all this into a smaller, existing Boston park would be a totally different story. Horses are neat, but is Franklin Park ready to host an eternal parade of mud runs, chili cook-offs, and rodeos to foot the bills?
If I learned anything surveying post-Olympics Atlanta, it’s that every city thinks it will be the exception. In reality, the gold always goes to the rich. What else is new?
John Ruch is a longtime editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette currently living in Atlanta, where he also writes for outlets including Paste and Creative Loafing.