Imagineering Atlanta 
by Charles Rutheiser.
Verso, 324 pp., £44.95, July 1996, 1 85984 800 1
Show More
Show More

‘AT&T Welcomes the World,’ announced the giant sign above the Global Olympic Village at Olympic Centennial Park. Although international corporations had built the park to call attention to themselves, ‘sponsor footprints’ like the AT&T tower ‘were not just advertisements’, explained Billy Payne, chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games: they showcased ‘state-of-the-art technology’ that ‘people will be seeing for the first time’. The Coca-Cola Corporation built its Olympic City entertainment centre at the northern edge of the park. CNN headquarters – the property value of which increased by 26 percent with the building of the park – lay just to the south-west. On 27 July, film footage carried by CNN displayed first the AT&T Welcome to the World, then beneath it the flash of a bomb.

Worried because there was public access to Olympic Centennial Park, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) built a fence ‘to control the crowds and keep out the riffraff’. The head of Olympic Security warned that neither aggressive panhandling by the homeless nor the ‘terroristic behaviour’ of unruly teenagers would be tolerated. Because the park was open to the public it was not a ‘secure space’, as the director of the Atlanta FBI explained at the first post-bomb press conference. But the man first suspected of planting the bomb was neither one of the homeless riffraff who used to congregate in the ‘Badlands’, the site of the park, nor was he an international terrorist. A twice-fired former sheriff and university security officer, he worked for AT&T’s security service. Like the other guards protecting Olympic Centennial Park, he was hired at the minimum wage. The bomb fragments found at his home, however, may only have been payment in kind, souvenirs of the explosion rather than evidence pointing to its perpetrator. In this privately-sponsored Olympic Games that wore the face of American nationalism, did the global Olympic village have an enemy guarding its gates or merely another voyeur?

It was difficult not to see the bombing as retribution for the extraordinary self-promotion that brought the Olympics to Atlanta and, to the consternation even of American journalists, dominated the competition. In violation of Olympic protocol, only the US National Anthem was sung to open the games. Only Americans – Dennis Mitchell after winning a 100-metres heat and Michael Johnson after taking the 200-metre gold – puffed out their chests and pulled their jerseys to display the national emblem. Only Americans accused an Irish swimmer of using drugs when she won the Olympic gold. Only an eliminated American boxer, Fernando Vargas, would not have lost but for a ‘cheating’ referee, ‘since the United States is the best country in the world’. Crowds were no better, drowning out the music for a Belorussian gymnast’s routine with chants of ‘USA’, leaving the stadium after the last American was knocked out of the pole vault finals, shifting between ‘indifference and hysteria’, in the words of Le Monde, depending on whether American athletes were on stage. ‘Never before in the history of the Olympic Games has the spirit of the people equalled the talent of the athletes,’ Billy Payne said at the closing ceremony.

American Olympic chauvinism may reflect anxiety about alien influence: the problem solved (at the cost of several hundred million dead) by Independence Day, the Olympic summer’s top-grossing movie, endorsed for promoting family values by President Clinton and Candidate Dole; and by the denial of benefits even to legal aliens in the welfare reform bill Clinton signed during the games. But if American self-advertisement openly targets aliens, chauvinism also overcompensates for a national insecurity about the actual history and character of the US.

The Olympic acquisition inspired Charles Rutheiser’s brilliant account of the city. An anthropologist teaching in Atlanta, he writes in the tradition of urban studies established by Mike Davis’s pathbreaking City of Quartz. But there is more ethnographic texture in Davis’s Los Angeles: Rutheiser’s subject, which invokes a term invented by Disney, is ‘Imagineering’, the promotional synthesis of imagination and engineering that, from Atlanta’s beginnings as a railroad terminus to the Olympic Games, transformed profane, troubled history into glorified sacred space. The promise to sponsor ‘the greatest peacetime event since the Second World War’ brought the Olympics to Atlanta. Using his skills as a real-estate lawyer, Billy Payne conjured away the climate (hot and humid); the transportation problems (the decaying, underfunded infrastructure of a sprawling suburban metropolitan area that had never handled more than 150,000 visitors and had to cope with two million); the poverty, violence and racism (19 out of 20 prison inmates executed since 1983 were blacks killed for murdering whites); and the absence of public financial support. Taking advantage of the captive market of motorists stuck in traffic, Atlanta has the largest per capita assemblage of billboards in the world, and hosted an Olympics financed entirely by private advertising and capital. Since ACOG sold corporate Olympic sponsorship to finance the Games, it complained of ‘ambush marketing’ when other advertisers tried to capitalise on the Atlanta Olympic site, and went on the legal warpath to force a long-established Greek ‘Olympic Restaurant’ to give up its name.

ACOG imagineering culminated in the procession that traditionally opens the Games. The parade paused only at the three sacred sites that anchor Atlanta’s claim to world fame – the homes of Margaret Mitchell, Martin Luther King Jr and Coca-Cola. Seen through Rutheiser’s ironic, cold eye these nodes mark the fault lines of a disintegrative urban history.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the most popular movie and, after the Bible, the best-selling book of all time, is a monument to white supremacy. The book and film offer different variations on the theme: the David O. Selznick production replaced Mitchell’s celebration of the Ku-Klux-Klan with a visually unforgettable paean to ‘the cavalier society’ of antebellum Atlanta, with its ‘knights and ladies, masters and slaves’. Atlanta was actually a frontier town, however, erected on expropriated Indian land barely a decade before the Civil War. Although General Sherman burned Atlanta on his march to the sea, retreating Confederate troops had already destroyed the city. The Mitchell/Selznick Atlanta symbolised the Confederacy. The real Atlanta became the capital of Georgia only under Reconstruction pressure, after the antebellum state capital, Milledgeville, refused to accommodate newly-elected African-American delegates to the state assembly.

Black Americans would not have to be accommodated for long. Home to six black universities before there were any white ones, Atlanta was by the end of the century W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Black Mecca’. But Du Bois was not celebrating racial harmony. The road from his Atlanta to Martin Luther King’s leads through Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition speech, accepting Jim Crow segregation and the exclusion of blacks from political life. It also leads through the reconvening of the Ku-Klux-Klan at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta after the 1915 première of The Birth of a Nation and after the respectable citizens of Cobb County lynched Leo Frank. (Stirred up by anti-semitic hysteria, an Atlanta jury wrongly convicted the Jewish pencil factory manager of molesting and murdering a white female employee.) Atlanta was the headquarters of the powerful Twenties’ Klan, which augmented the negrophobia of the original organisation with anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism. Half a century later, Cobb County elected a John Bircher to Congress five times; it is now represented by Newt Gingrich. Although a 1967 Supreme Court decision finally overturned the Georgia state law that barred racial intermarriage, in 1986 the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia statute outlawing consensual homosexual sex. After a Cobb County resolution condemning homosexuality provoked threats of an Olympic boycott of the county, the county commissioners resolved the conflict by denying the Games the use of a facility in which some events had been scheduled. Places important to Atlanta’s past were not entirely deprived of a role in the Olympics, however: Stone Mountain, now the third most visited theme park in the US – the giant statues of the Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are said to form the largest sculpture in the world – served as an Olympic site.

Thanks to Jim Crow, black Atlantans were denied entrance when Joel Chandler Harris’s home was turned into a museum, even though Harris had taken his Uncle Remus stories from African-American folktales. Black cast members of Gone with the Wind such as Hattie McDaniel – who won the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance – were excluded from the gala Atlanta première of the film. Their place was taken by Mrs Martin Luther King Sr’s Ebenezer Church Choir.

ACOG imagineering avoided the conflict between white supremacy and civil rights by playing down Atlanta’s distinctively Southern history. The Olympic Committee probably wasn’t sorry that more people associated Atlanta with its ‘world-champion’ baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, than with Margaret Mitchell (an amnesia shared by Verso’s publicity department, which identifies the author of Gone with the Wind as Margaret Drabble). In fact, along with the real-estate developers operating around Centennial Park, the team whose name recalls Atlanta’s origins on Indian land will be the Games’ greatest long-term beneficiary: the Olympic Stadium is being remodelled as the Braves’ new baseball field.

In making money from the Olympics, the Braves are being faithful to the spirit that built modern Atlanta. Calling itself the capital of the New South, and with a phoenix on its seal, Atlanta saw itself as a commercial and industrial centre that had risen from the ashes of cavalier society. Coca-Cola, the universal solvent of racial, class and national divisions, has been the symbol of ‘the city too busy to hate’ for a long time. Indeed, anticipating the Olympics by decades Marshall McLuhan borrowed the Corporation’s anthropomorphic globe – sucking a coke through a straw – to herald the global village.

In spite of its long association with the city, Coca-Cola is oddly off-stage in Imagineering Atlanta until the Corporation joins the preparations for the Olympic Games. Rutheiser focuses instead on what, adapting a term from the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, he calls the ‘creative destruction’ of the built environment, the loss of inner-city low-income housing and the creation of mall-centred, controlled living and shopping spaces with restricted access in a sprawling suburban metropolis. Although it is part of the ninth largest metropolitan area in the US, Atlanta itself is comparatively small. Three suburban counties, including Cobb, have larger populations, and almost three-quarters of the region’s jobs are located outside the city.

Migrants into the metropolitan area and emigrants from the centre have created the suburban Atlanta population boom. Escaping the city’s racially-charged history, the suburbs, malls and gated communities trade a distinctive sense of place for Post-Modern interchangeability. Atlanta’s architecture makes it into anyplace or, as Rutheiser has it, no-place. But the flight from Southern history that built Greater Atlanta is a topographical escape too, and it is not racially innocent. Atlanta has one of the poorest and most racially-segregated city centres in the US, and the protected white enclaves have been constructed to withstand the central gravitational pull of what is sometimes called Atlanta’s ‘black hole’. Henry Grady, the city’s apostle of the New South (ambulances transported the bomb casualties to the Henry W. Grady Memorial Hospital), explicitly favoured black political disenfranchisement and job segregation. Martin Luther King overthrew Grady’s New South, but that victory has been subverted in turn by the state-subsidised marketplace, which enforces the metropolitan apartheid until recently maintained by explicitly racial residential zoning and other white supremacist laws.

Although the rebuilding of the metropolitan area has benefited a significant black middle class, the standard of living of black Atlantans has plummeted in the past two decades. More than a third of black households, and a majority of black children, live in poverty; the figure exceeds 90 per cent in large sections of the inner city. Atlanta led the nation in job growth between 1990 and 1995: in the same period unemployment in the central city increased fivefold. The election of a black mayor has coincided with the economic rise of segregated white suburbs (Cobb County among them), and – as in the case of the ACOG – with the shift of major urban decision-making from a mixed public and private sphere to an entirely private axis. Atlanta’s black mayor didn’t have any part in planning the Games, appearing only at the final ceremony to pass on the Olympic flag to the mayor of Sydney. Although the city’s black woman police chief attended the post-bombing press conference along with four white men, she didn’t say a word.

On the one hand, there is nothing distinctively Southern about Atlanta’s racialised political economy. Black politicians in Northern cities are also faced with increasing urban black poverty, unemployment and crime – and with decreasing resources with which to deal with these problems. The visibility of black American athletes as national assets at the Olympics, as everywhere in American sport, masks the black millions living in ghettoised poverty, who otherwise surface only at times of political expediency as embodiments of violence and sex.

On the other hand, Atlanta’s distinctive Southern history has also left its mark. The Federal Government has placed two office buildings in separate but equal spaces side by side, one named for Martin Luther King Jr, the other for Richard Russell, Georgia’s courtly white supremacist, the long-time chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading opponent of school desegregation. The birthplace of the leader of the civil rights movement also lent local colour to the Olympics: the one black face on the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games belonged to the co-chair, Andrew Young. A former mayor of the city and a UN Ambassador, Young chose to follow the trickle-down path of corporate development rather than pay attention to the urban poor, and insisted that the Olympics were not a ‘welfare programme’ but a ‘business venture’. He also opposes the preservation of Atlanta’s architectural heritage – ‘hunks of junk’ – whether out of hostility to Margaret Mitchell or support for real-estate speculators, who can say? Despite all this Young brought a ‘spiritual legacy’ to the Atlanta Olympics, because he is, of course, the former lieutenant of Martin Luther King.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences