“Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” And there Bob Dylan was: in the soft drink’s birthplace, Atlanta, Georgia. It was August 3, 1996. 110 years before, Coca-Cola was first served at the soda fountain of Jacobs Pharmacy at Five Points, in the heart of Atlanta’s downtown. But that was old history; Atlanta was intent on making new history — and being fast about it. The city was hosting the Centennial Olympic Games, and not receiving good reviews for its grace or efficiency. At the moment, Atlanta was trying to shake off the bad notices. After all, new and even glorious history was being made: the first modern Olympics Games to be held in the American South.
Dylan was in Atlanta to perform on the last two days of the Games. The venue: the House of Blues at 152 Luckie Street, less than a mile from where those first Cokes were served. The House of Blues in Atlanta was hastily but lovingly put together in the huge and sprawling red brick Baptist Tabernacle, which held its first services in 1911. This was one of the more splendid Baptist conversions ever. What a place and what a time. For two weeks, as we soaked up the atmosphere while watching Dylan, Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland, Dr. John, James Brown and Johnny Cash, Atlanta seemed worthy of the attention it so long desired.
Imagine that: having fun in downtown Atlanta. Making Atlanta’s downtown streets more festive — or at least safe and friendly — had long been the goal of rational people in government and commerce, especially those in the convention business, but most of the initiatives were half-baked or disrupted by fools who brought guns to the parties. Still, on the festive nights at the House of Blues, one could step out on the porches of the rambling red brick fortress and take in a downtown that for the first time in decades had come alive. Give House of Blues founder Issac Tigrett and his partner Lance Sterling credit for making it happen. In just 45 days, Sterling took charge of the church building which had its last service in ’91. The walls of the grand sanctuary, vestibules and Sunday School classrooms were filled with paintings from Tigrett’s folk art collection. There the primitive and the electric coincided. Just a year before, the Southern Baptist Convention finally renounced its 1845 support of slavery. And in proximity to where many a Baptist preacher dished out Southern-fried homilies, the Reverend Al Green looked out from the House of Blues stage and saw it was good, singing out, “Let’s Stay Together.”
On the very next night, in the first of three encore selections, Dylan lit up the old sanctuary with a rockin’ version of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway.” Maybe that was how Jerry Garcia first heard his song prior to recording it for the Dead’s 1980 album, Go To Heaven. But producers, as in that case, Gary Lyons, can get in the way and make a great rocker sluggish. Dylan paid tribute to his recently departed friend (Garcia died less than a year before) with an “Alabama Getaway” that was true to the creator’s vision. It was as if Dylan had levitated the old house of worship, or maybe all of Downtown Atlanta. The words to the Neil Young song rang out, “Come on baby, let’s go downtown….. let me turn you, turn you, turn you around.”
But Atlanta’s downtown was in need of more help than Dylan and Neil Young could grant. Outside of those few nights of grand vision, the city has rarely displayed the will to make the area a vibrant destination. Let someone else do it, even if it takes 50 years. At the time, the city was getting a lot of help some two miles south of where Dylan commanded the stage. Help was in the form of the World Champion Atlanta Braves, who had won the previous year’s World Series in 6 games over the Cleveland Indians.
And the Braves were World Series bound once again in ’96. 2,901,242 fans would gather at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that summer as the Braves compiled a 96-66 record. Yet for the most part, there were no places to paint the town red after a Braves victory in Atlanta’s downtown. People wishing to celebrate had to drive a few miles to some of the city’s hopping intown neighborhoods or further out to the suburbs.
It appeared the same way during the Olympics. People would come downtown for some of the matches, games, races, etc. and then head back home. Festive wasn’t the operative word even when the world came calling. But much of the reason Atlanta exists, I’ve mused, is so that 15 rich people can get richer. So, let the games, or rather the money-go-round, begin. Atlantans drop a lot of money on McMansions, club memberships and bling. Hosting the world brought with it many ways to earn riches and finance future trips to the shopping palaces. As Elvis Costello sang, “this is your big opportunity.” On the day of the announcement from Tokyo, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began selling ads in the first of its many special sections celebrating Atlanta’s international victory. Atlanta craved riches and attention, and it got both, although not the kind of attention the Chamber of Commerce envisioned.
Michael Payne, in his book, Olympic Turnaround, wrote that “The world’s media were united in their condemnation of the Atlanta Games.” Embarrassments created by the host city started with such ancillary things as the Atlanta Games mascot, known as Whatizit, or as he was known by his friends, Izzy. The Los Angeles Times described the mascot as “A little mutant monstrosity that was born in the toxic dump of somebody’s imagination.” Some described Izzy as the “blob,” and “the sperm with legs.”
Maynard Jackson, back for one more term as Mayor (1989-93), was far too cultured and protective of the city’s image to go along with some of the city’s crass marketing ideas, saying, “Atlanta will take no action which will jeopardize the success of the games.” Unfortunately Bill Campbell, who served two terms as Atlanta’s Mayor before going to Federal Prison, was in charge of the city during the Olympic games. In a section of Olympic Turnaround‘s seventh chapter, Operation Perfect Hosts, Michael Payne declares “Atlanta shoots itself in the foot” and then describes how the damage was done.
Atlanta City Council seemed intent on squeezing the Olympic opportunity for every cent and be damned with the consequences of what it would do to Atlanta’s image….
(Mayor) Campbell set about trying to shake down the organizing committee for every conceivable cost. Atlanta became the first ever host city to charge for extra policing and sanitation costs — some $9.5 million.
The city soon approved a new revenue-generating plan, through the Atlanta Economic Development Commission, chaired by Campbell himself. An associate of Campbell, Munson Steed, developed a programme to lease and manage street property during the games. Steed’s plan was to raise up to $50 million for the city and himself, selling to whoever would pay, be it Olympic sponsors — or their competitors. The sponsors were apoplectic with rage. George Fisher, chairman and CEO of Kodak, threatened to pull his company’s operations out of Atlanta. Even this did not bring the city’s officials to their senses.
The original plan was to sell an initial batch of around 350 stalls for $10,000 -20,000 each. But after pressure from local lobby groups, the programme was opened up, with the price dropping to as low as $150 per stall. Some 6,000 ‘entrepreneurs’ jumped at the opportunity. The operation was a total commercial flop, with Munson Steed sued by agency stall-holders for $25 million. Some unfortunate stallholders lost their life savings.
One could see the dreams of those investing their life savings go up in smoke even before the Games began. As an Account Executive in the Advertising Department of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was asked to meet with a woman from Tallahassee, Florida interested in advertising the wares, snacks and whatever at her rented stall. We met over a couple of beers at the Marriott and the longer we talked, it was clear she had little idea of all that was entailed or where exactly her stall would be located. Her business plan was “to trust in the Lord.” I had heard that from small-time clients before, but realized trusting in the Lord was better than trusting Munson Steed, the man who wrecked havoc on Atlanta’s downtown streets. Again, from Michael Payne’s Olympic Turnaround:
The result was chaos. ACOG’s* own managing director of communications, Dick Yarborough described downtown Atlanta as looking “like a small town carnival on steroids. Tacky is too nice a word to describe the city during the games. The city looked like a third-rate flop house when the world came to see us . . . Atlanta paid dearly for its reputation.” Olympic historian Robert Burney described a scene of “roving street hawkers and frenzied vendors preying on residents and Olympic tourists like a horde of locusts.”
My own memories are equally vivid. The street market initiated by Atlanta City Council created traffic grid-lock around the centre of Atlanta, preventing everyone from traveling around town. The media couldn’t get to the main press centre. …. This was because the city council refused to issue a special temporary permit, to allow the (media) buses to stop in front of the press centre.
By the time the press did make it to the press centre, they were ready to tear the city and the organizers apart. The Atlanta organizers had forgotten Samaranch’s** dictum that the media are the last to judge the Games. Despite repeated pleas by the IOC, ACOG never understood that the media could make or break the Games.
The media, be they from distant shores or those serving Atlantans, had to admit that Atlanta “had blown it.” Oh well. The feeling among us rooting for our city but understanding its flaws was summed up by a local pundit who suggested a new city slogan, “Atlanta, pretty good for Georgia.” Just as John Prine put it, “Pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain….” At least the city’s downtown got a halfway decent place for people to frolic (Centennial Olympic Park), and most important of all, Atlanta got Turner Field, built at no expense to the city’s taxpayers or the Atlanta Braves. Such a deal. The Braves would play there forever and the city could take that for granted. Or so it was thought.
*Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games
**Juan Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee
This is an excerpt from Jeff Cochran’s forthcoming book, Drop Me Off On Peachtree: A History of Atlanta
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