Summerhill: The neighborhood the Braves will leave behind

The announcement yesterday that the Atlanta Braves will leave downtown Atlanta for suburban Cobb county made me wonder about the future of the Braves current neighborhood, Summerhill. When I started studying the history of development in intown Atlanta about 10 year ago, I was not very familier with this neighborhood which is largely hidden under interstate overpasses and surface parking lots. However, its story is a sad and only slightly exaggerated metaphor for neoliberal Atlanta. I’m exerpting a bit of my disseration below in case anyone is interested. If you want it, you can get the whole thing over here: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/78k7h

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pages 68 – 71

The Effect of the Olympics on Intown Neighborhoods
Between 1990 when the International Olympic Committee announced it had selected Atlanta as the site of the Centennial Games and the summer of 1996 when the Games actually took place, Atlanta witnessed dramatic and sometimes frustrating changes. Though the entire metropolitan area was affected by the games, the focal point of the activity was the so-called “Olympic Ring” which was the name given to the three-mile radius which spread out from the center of Downtown. This is a particularly interesting fact because the 1996 Games were remarkably centralized despite the fact that Atlanta itself was, and remains, famously de-centralized. This was by no means an accident and represented a major victory for downtown’s business and political elite.

While the city and its residents no doubt enjoyed the honor of having been selected for the Games and were understandably excited the chance to show themselves off for an international audience, there were some very practical concerns which led to the decision to pursue the Games in the first place. First, the games represented a golden opportunity to the political and business elite who had sought for years to attract this kind of attention to the downtown area. Furthermore, and more concretely, a study commissioned by ACOG from the Selig Center, an economic think-tank and the University of Georgia, estimated that the games direct spending by ACOG would generate $1.1 billion in earnings for the state while visitor spending would generate an additional $814 million. Furthermore, the same study predicted the games would add 77,000 jobs to the state across a variety of industries (Humphreys and Plummer 1995).

ACOG promised state and local politicians that the costs of preparing for the games – including administration, promotion and construction – would be covered by sponsorships and they tried their best to make sure this happened by initially charging $40 million for exclusive sponsorship deals though they later had to drop the price when corporations were unwilling to pay (Rutheiser 1996, 258-259). However, Larry Keating argues, in his book Atlanta: Race Class and Urban Expansion, “a careful analysis of exactly how much money federal, state and local governments actually spent on preparing the city and putting on the games reveals that the cost to taxpayers exceeded Olympic-generated government revenue by a wide margin” (Keating 2001, 143). According to Keating’s calculations, which took into account thirty discreet public funding sources and fourteen categories of expenditure, the total public cost of the Games reached over $1.05 billion (Keating 2001, 148). Exactly how to understand this figure is tricky because it must be measured against the revenue that has resulted from the increased publicity and international prestige the games brought to the city and this figure is almost impossible to honestly calculate.

While the debate over the actual financial bottom line of the games will most likely continue as long as anyone cares to take it up, an equally contentious debate continues in tandem with it over the effects the Games had on the social geography of the city. Of particular concern are the effects the Games had on Downtown residents in Summerhill which is the neighborhood nearest the Olympic Stadium. Furthermore, the communities at Techwood and Clark Howell Homes; two public housing projects just west of the central business district and right in the middle of the “Olympic Ring” were not only changed but totally removed. Each of these areas were sites of massive construction projects related to the Games and, in Keating’s assessment, one of the lasting impressions of the Games was the “arrogant disregard displayed by ACOG for those adversely affected by the facilities it built” (Keating 2001, 143).

Summerhill
The neighborhood of Summerhill is south, and slightly east of Downtown. Historically a working class neighborhood, it has perhaps suffered the most from Atlanta’s growth over the years. In the 1960s, blocks of structures were demolished in Summerhill to make way for, first Fulton County Stadium and, a few years later, the construction of Interstate 20. In the 1980s, Interstate 75/85 – the so-called “Downtown Connector” – was directed away from Downtown and right through the middle of Summerhill. In preparation for the Olympics, Summerhill was once again selected as the home of a new stadium, the Olympic Stadium, which would later become Turner Field and home of the Braves after the older stadium was demolished.

Neighborhood residents formed an advocacy group called Atlanta Neighborhoods United for Fairness (ANUFF) to organize against the stadium’s construction. They argued that more construction and more traffic would further disrupt their community. However, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution “accused ANUFF of NIMBYism [Not In My Back Yard] and lack of public spirit” (Burbank, Andranovich, and Heying 2001, 104). This seems particularly callous given that the neighborhood had sacrificed so much for the city’s development over the previous three decades.

In addition to being attacked by the media, Keating reports that the partnership that had formed between ACOG and the Braves concerning the construction of the new stadium “would not allow representatives from the neighborhoods adjacent to the stadium to participate in their planning sessions and the plan they came up with did very little to limit the damaging effect of the stadium on these low-income black neighborhoods” (Keating 2001, 144). Having been relegated to the role of junior partner in the Olympic planning process, the city could do very little to help the people of Summerhill. Ultimately, the stadium was built at the cost of several blocks of homes and commercial structures in at least three neighborhoods. At the time, Summerhill could claim a small victory in that they were able to secure a pledge of $450,000 for neighborhood redevelopment and job training programs. Furthermore, Greenlea Commons, a townhome development in Summerhill, was constructed for the games and the units were rented to Olympic officials – at a cost of $20,000 each for the duration of the games – which allowed the homes to be sold at affordable rates after the games were over. Burbank et al. posit that “Greenlea Commons became an anchor for neighborhood revitalization” (Burbank, Andranovich, and Heying 2001, 105). However, in Atlanta, neighborhood revitalization generally means higher prices and resident displacement as well as the disruption of longstanding social networks. In this sense, the authors are absolutely correct.

Works Cited

Burbank, Matthew, Gregory Andranovich and Charles Heying. Olympic Dreams: The
Impact of Mega-Events on Local Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner
Publishers, 2001.

Humphreys, Jeffrey and Michael Plummer. “The Economic Impact of Hosting the 1996
Summer Olympics.” Selig Center for Economic Growth. 1995.
http://www.terry.uga.edu/selig/olympics [accessed September 24, 2009].

Keating, Larry. Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion. Philadelphia: Temple UP,
2001.

Rutheiser, Charles. Imagineering Atlanta: The Politics of Place in the City of Dreams.
London: Verso, 1996.

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