Dave Buckhout .
Every year on the night of August 4th, I relive an epic experience—the night long ago when all of us in Atlanta at that time were celebrating the end of a wild ride: The 1996 Summer Olympics. I was living just behind The Carter Center at the time, due east of downtown—within a mile of the epicentre of a worldwide event rolling non-stop for two weeks. I had only arrived in Atlanta three years before, the coming Olympic Games already a constant background buzz. It grew to a fevered pitch as 1996 rolled in; and by July of that year, the whole city seemed to have mutually agreed to forget about productivity and go on an Olympic-fueled vacation for a month—or, at least that’s what I did, and how I validated it (never regretting the decision).
A short bike-ride put me in the midst of a swirling wall-to-wall party. I recall my first thought was one of amazement: “How did ATL officials convince the IOC to come to Atlanta in the valley of summer?” And yet the first week was largely overcast with little rain, highs in the 80s: a true miracle. My recollections could fill pages, as it was an epic time. But I’ll focus on a second thought, the area that would come to anchor my recollection of the Games: downtown. From opening night on, there were few nights when I did not venture downtown … I knew the pre-Olympics downtown area well, had friends in renovated—and un-renovated—loft spaces within a few blocks of the nascent Centennial Park. This was a downtown perched on the edge of rough, a state-gov’t downtown where few lived that was vacated by 5 pm each day—unless there was a Hawk’s game. It was empty, vacant, starkly urban, tumbleweeds (but for the humidity). My second thought: “They are going to hold this thing downtown? Really?”
The Atlanta Olympics was largely skewered for glitches, none of which effected my experience. But this ‘loser Olympic’ label was tragically raised when the damned nutcase set off the bomb. Still, the flaws of the Games—real and perceived—were rendered secondary in its wake by those whose opinions mattered: the crowds. It seemed a more focused effort by all in attendance to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. I certainly made the conscious choice to do so. The bombing—so real and mortal an event—matured the Atlanta Games. If it didn’t bring out more people, it did bring out people more determined to offset an inexplicable act by an unhinged culture warrior and the petty public swipes being made by the IOC.
For the first time—as a non-native—I felt a sense of hometown pride in Atlanta. The way the city & the crowds handled themselves in wake of the bombing was THE great spectacle of that Olympics; one filled, like them all, with legendary athletic performance … And it was at that point, the second week of the Games, when I began to see downtown Atlanta as it could be. Yes, the Olympic makeover fell off quickly into rough abandoned warehouse space and challenged low-income areas; yes, a lot of the renovation was thrown together last minute; and yes, the whole thing was overrun by opportunism (every square inch was sponsored by something). But that shallow facade seemed to hint at the Olympic-sized maturity that has come to pass … The park, unfinished during the Games, is now the downtown anchor. I make a point of strolling through the park when I go downtown for concerts held at an old renovated church—now popular music hall—yet another Olympic leftover. The Games were integral in reviving the one true downtown neighborhood, Fairley-Poplar (epicentre of ‘urban-hip’ in Atlanta these days), if only because the Games reminded everyone that Atlanta actually did have a downtown. Realtors certainly noticed, the amount of living space there now unfathomable to anyone who knew it pre-Olympics. And if my mentioned friends were looking for loft and art-studio space these days, I doubt they could afford it …
Surely, the reverse tide of middle-class suburban sprawl has a lot to do with Atlanta’s downtown revival. But an Olympic size kick-start is a fuel few cities have access to. And with that thought in mind, it seems safe to say that that micro-moment of maturity that the Games & the crowds showcased in the park and downtown over that second week of the 1996 Summer Olympics was the spark.
Publication Date: August 4, 2011