Reminiscing on Atlanta – back when a city grew up

Perhaps with the passage of time events and memories grow in their significance into some type of almost mythical recollection of things that were better than they were. As southern historian, professor, and sociologist John Shelton Reed has warned us before, reminiscent southern history tends to suffer from a common pitfall – remember when. And remember when, of course, is in relation to “remember when things were better than they are now”. So as I sit down to pin this entry, I’ll do so heeding Reed’s advice.

Now with our disclaimer out of the way, I’d like you to take a walk with me down memory lane, albeit a fairly short memory lane for some of us who are approaching the comfortable confines of early middle age, back when the term “Hotlanta” was new on the scene, and the city herself was the shining star of a cosmopolitan, eccentric, electric, and finally accepted new South.

The 1990’s.

A time when Atlanta shed the trappings of old.

 An exciting decade filled with a lot of memories. Remember the original Underground Atlanta? The meatloaf at Mick’s? Remember when Houston’s was still kind of new and their “mustard honey” dressing wasn’t like anything you’d ever tasted? Did you ever taste Coca-Cola from Africa or Saudi Arabia at the original World of Coke? How about watching Neon Deion in a Falcons uniform, or seeing Georgia Tech win a national championship in the Citrus Bowl? Remember Garrison Hearst, the Dirty Birds, TLC, and the Hope Scholarship?

Yeah, all of it, the ’90’s.

The Braves, after decades of mediocrity with occasional slippage into the realm of putridity, stood up and backed up their claim to “America’s Team”, giving long suffering fans such as my father the long awaited taste of success and fulfillment only begot by ascension of a favored sports team. “Where were you when Sid slid?” and “Braves win, Braves win, Braves win” were fresh in our ears and the Tomahawk Chop became our rallying cry.

The Braves went from worst in 1990 to first in 1991 – in the NL West in those days. Though the Minnesota Twins would break our hearts and win the World Series in a classic 7 game duel that may or may not have been the best World Series ever, the loss probably pulled us together as a real fanbase more than anything else could have. We had lived, breathed, ate, slept, and cried together. Finally.

Though that magical ’91 season, and the subsequent successful years (Sid slid in the 1992 NLCS by the way – for anyone wondering) elevated Atlanta, or at least her most beloved sports team, into national prominence, there was an earlier event that set the tone for an unparalleled decade of growth that helped shape Atlanta into what she is now. On September 8, 1990, as a city, a state, and an entire region held their collective breath, in Tokyo, Japan the words “the International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic games…to the city of…Atlanta” rolled off a podium, through a crowd, across a world, and were instantly burned into the conscious of a city. Winning the games over Athens (Greece, not Georgia), Belgrade, Toronto, Melbourne, and Manchester touched off a flurry of emotions and a sense of final arrival after the long suffering days of red dirt poverty in the early 20th century, the buildup of a city in the middle part of the 1900’s, and rebirth in the late ’70’s and ’80’s. Slated as a dark horse and as a second-tier city by the American media, Atlanta’s bid had been successful. And the city’s identity was to forever be re-shaped as a result.

The infrastructure upgrades began immediately – then mayor Maynard Jackson brokered a deal that crafted Freedom Parkway out of Ponce de Leon to the north and Moreland Avenue to the south. New dorms to house athletes were constructed at Georgia Tech and Georgia State. Street and renewal projects spanned the city. And the University of Georgia’s venerable hedges were removed from Sanford Stadium to make room for soccer fields. Construction, destruction, and restructuring were the order of the day.

And as the world watched, an international city with a vibrant culture came to life.

Winning the Olympics meant $1.7 billion in private funded investment poured into the city. A sluggish downtown area became revitalized, and $5 billion poured into the metropolitan economy over the next decade. We were left with the $209 million Olympic stadium, now Turner Field, to finish our decade of baseball success. There were $500 million in new venues awarded to the city at no cost to the taxpayer, including the $57 million Centennial Olympic Park with her centerpiece fountain of rings. Georgia Tech got a new natatorium, Morehouse, Morris Brown, Spellman, and Clark Atlanta received major athletic facility upgrades.

But more than that, it left us, Atlantans, and as a byproduct citizens of the state of Georgia, with a sense of arrival. Billy Payne, who spearheaded the Atlanta effort to win the Olympics, and whose statue stands today in Centennial Park said it best, “winning the games is the most uplifting, prideful, beat on your chest moment Atlantans ever experienced”.

We all grew up in the ’90’s, but nothing like our city did.

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