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Ordinary Atlanta avoiding the chaos

For the past 24 hours, images of chaos have dominated the Olympics: packed trains, huge crowds at Centennial Olympic Park, athletes commandeering buses, sportswriters whining about computer glitches.

The problems are real enough, but the images are grossly misleading for they are sharply at odds with the Olympic reality felt by most Atlantans and their guests.

Downtown, inside Atlanta's polished corporate towers, most pre-Olympic fears haven't materialized. The business of making deals is quietly humming along, largely unhindered. The same holds for many crucial government functions. And in Atlanta's neighborhoods, from historic Sweet Auburn to yuppified Buckhead, life is ticking along with far less Olympic disruption than anyone anticipated.

That's not necessarily good (stores of every variety in these neighborhoods are doing far less business than expected), but it is a far different problem than the image of Olympic chaos that has dominated recent media coverage.

Also obscured by these harsh images is a subtler development of these games: Many Atlantans are discovering that the Olympic payoff may have less to do with profits than with their own renewed sense of optimism about their city and human nature.

Listen to Atlanta Municipal Judge Arthur Kaplan, a man jaded by 26 years on the bench bearing witness to the very worst in people. During a break in Courtroom 1, Kaplan, 71, chewed on a mouthful of Red Man tobacco and spoke about the impact of the games on him.

"As I sat there in the stadium watching the opening ceremony, seeing all those good folk having the time of their lives, enjoying each other, I turned to my friend Buster, and I says, "Buster, this is what America is about. Right here in front of us. This is what's true. What I see every day in my court, that's the exception.'

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Listen to Louise Cox, a writer and 10th-generation Georgian who has watched her city's struggles with its history of bigotry. On her porch in the Virginia Highland neighborhood, covered in sweat and dust from sanding a pine dresser, Cox described her reaction to Muhammed Ali lighting the Olympic flame.

"I'm old enough to remember when Muhammed Ali refused to go to Vietnam, and so when I watched him light the flame I felt like that was just the right message for the world and for Atlanta. Most of us prefer to reconcile our history with our reality today, and to me, Ali's selection was a form of reconciliation."

Listen to Carl Williams, a waiter at the private Peachtree Club on the 28th floor of the First Union Plaza building. While washing bar glasses, Williams described the fun of meeting members of the French National Olympic Committee, which is using the club as its social headquarters during the games.

"I haven't been to too many places, really. Hell, I've never even been up North. So for me, meeting all these people, it's almost like being in another country myself. This is probably as close as I'll ever get to Paris. And you know what, I'm even starting to get a taste for this espresso they're always drinking."

Here is a glimpse of Olympic life in Atlanta outside the glitz of Centennial Olympic Park and beyond the high pressure of the Olympic press center and athletes' village.

Still waiting for the hordes

Atlantans think of Virginia Highland as the SoHo of the South. Just north of downtown Atlanta, it is a neighborhood of tidy bungalows, art galleries, restaurants and stores like the Common Pond, an "Awarehouse of Environment."

The local hardware store has an address on the World Wide Web.

This community fully expected to be discovered by the Olympic hordes. The New York Times had written it up twice as one of the hot places to hang out during the games.

Virginia Highland is still waiting to be discovered.

At noon on Monday, every restaurant and store was virtually empty.

Rapture and Bang, a trendy clothing store, set out bowls of candy and bottles of Perrier. "Welcome World," the clerks wrote on the display window.

"We've made two sales _ a T-shirt and a pair of shorts," said a disappointed sales clerk, Alix Edmondson.

On the bright side, she added, it's taking her less time to get to work now than it did before the games began.

"A week ago, people just stopped coming," said Roger Foster, manager of Highland Hardware. "We had planned to stay open a couple hours later, but we've canned that idea already."

He and other merchants around Atlanta think their businesses have suffered for two reasons. First, Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta has proven to be wildly popular with Olympic visitors. It is, they say, sucking traffic away from all the neighborhoods.

Second, merchants think the locals are staying away because all they've heard for months is what a nightmare traffic will be all over Atlanta during the games.

A few miles from Virginia Highland, Pat Freeman, manager of the First Union Plaza, looked out the window of his seventh floor office. He had been told to expect 20,000 people passing his building each hour.

"As you can see," he said, "right now we've got about six per hour."

Rising from the corner of Peachtree and 10th streets in Atlanta, First Union Plaza is home to 65 businesses, including First Union bank and one of Atlanta's largest law firms, Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan.

For more than a year, building executives fretted over how to handle the Olympic invasion. They drew up visitor forms and service delivery schedules. They hired extra security guards. They adjusted office hours. Many executives made arrangements to work at home by computer. On Monday, the first business day during the games, only about 700 of the 1,200 professionals who work here showed up at the building.

Those who did show were shocked by how easy it was to get to work, and by the ghostly quiet in the surrounding streets.

"Piece of cake," said waiter Carl Williams.

Court held around the clock

Late Monday night, Municipal Judge Arthur Kaplan was moving cases along at the Atlanta Courthouse.

With 2-million visitors in town for the Olympics, Atlanta officials feared their courts would be overrun, and so they decided to hold 24-hour-a-day court sessions, seven days a week, in two locations. Police can make an arrest and bring the defendant directly to the two courts for instant justice _ be it a plea bargain or setting of bail.

Business in the courts has been steady, but certainly nowhere near what was expected. On this night, Kaplan's courtroom is mostly empty. A few police officers sit on one side, waiting for their cases to be called. Outside, a public defender struggles to explain to a German tourist that he will have to pay a $300 fine to take care of his charges.

The cases being called are a mixture of the usual crimes _ domestic battery, car thefts _ and Olympic-related crime.

With his heavy jowls, watery blue eyes and thinning white hair, Kaplan bears a resemblance to the actor Carroll O'Connor.

"Ed, would you mind getting me a barbecue pork sandwich," he asks prosecutor Ed Downs during a break about 10:30.

After the break, Ed Downs calls the case of a man who has been arrested for scalping Olympic tickets.

The defendant, a man named Fuad, is brought out from a holding cell, glancing nervously about the room.

Downs calls out to see if the officer who made the arrest is in the courtroom. No officer responds. With that, Kaplan dismisses the charges. "You may go," he tells the man. Fuad doesn't move. He manages to say, "No English."

In unison, the judge, the bailiff and Downs start waving at the man. "Bye-bye," they say.

Fuad understands at last, smiles his thanks, and flees the courtroom realizing his own sort of Olympic dreams.

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