The Olympic Dream Is Over | Darrin Henry
We’ve had more beggars approach us during our first full day in one of the world’s richest countries than we’ve had during our six week visit to Southeast Asia. It’s completely taken us by surprise.
Four nights ago we flew in to the USA with much anticipation of our first visit to Atlanta, Georgia, the city we developed a soft spot for, after following the Olympic Games hosted here in 1996. Memories of Michael Johnson’s gold shoes setting 200m and 400m records; the horror we felt of the terrorist attack in Centennial Park; Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic Torch and gymnast Kerri Strug nailing the landing with both feet despite an injured ankle to win America’s first team gold in gymnastics. Brilliant memories.
Dark and Bleak
But the Atlanta we’ve discovered has been a forlorn shadow of those times, a disappointing Olympic legacy. Nearly 20 years since the Torch moved on, Downtown Atlanta is quite deserted of the day to day foot traffic that is common in cities we’ve visited in Europe and other countries. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a ghost town, but it is remarkably quiet, even on the weekend.
The underground train system, MARTA, is dark (compared to London’s) and bleak; trying to buy day passes at North Avenue station there were no attendants to provide assistance. Once inside the MARTA we soon learned most of the well dressed, middle aged men who make what appears to be friendly, ‘passing the time’ comments, are actually beggars. Offers of help reading the MARTA map or the question, “where are you guys from?” is just being friendly in other countries, but here in the underground and on the streets it’s a common prelude to begging.
Above ground it’s the deserted streets we find most startling. We kept thinking perhaps we were in the wrong place, that we would turn a corner to find pedestrians carrying shopping bags, but it never happened. And it was summer, the weather was glorious.
The Lone Men In The Park
Centennial Park itself is a lovely recreation area, a lasting legacy from 1996. Here we did find people out enjoying the facility, although not in numbers befitting the quality of the park. Children squealing with delight under dancing water jets was great to see. The engraved plaques and tributes to those who helped make the Games a success, are plentiful throughout the park and interesting to read. But never far away are the lone men sitting on park benches under shady trees, no more than one per bench. I suspect some of them are homeless although they don’t seem to have any possessions I’ve seen other homeless people carry, such as sleeping bags or duffel bags.
Moving away from the Park on another day we headed further Downtown, determined there must be a livelier spot.
Going Deeper Underground
Our tourist leaflets suggests the area around Five Points MARTA station to be vibrant. We prefer walking through new places as a means of discovery, so off we strolled along Peachtree Street and into Five Points. What we found was more desperation. We were also shopping for a mobile phone SIM card and wandered into a few outlets which, despite lacking patrons, didn’t seem overly bothered at having potential customers come through their door.
Our final effort was to seek out ‘Underground Atlanta,’ billed as a ‘cultural hub’ and one of the ‘city’s favourite attractions,’ located under the heart of Downtown. We rode the escalator down from street level and stepped into something that reminded me of a scene from an apocalyptic zombie movie. The underground, faux street like design, quite clearly had the potential to be a trendy shopping district, and at one point it must have enjoyed that buzz. But today it is dark and dreary. We wandered by the different vendors presenting their goods on parked, wagon style stalls. The sellers called out their bargains to us but with little enthusiasm.
My overriding memory of Underground Atlanta was the single men standing motionless around the pillars, almost trance-like, randomly facing different directions. It was quite unsettling and we soon made our way back up to the street level.
Put The Camera Away
Even the traffic is sparse for a major city of this size. Many of the vehicles we do see have blacked out windows and we feel a bit strange walking on the pavement when everyone else seems to be in cars.
Of all the cities and countries we’ve visited, it’s the first time I’ve felt quite conspicuous with my camera on show and decide to carry it in the back pack more than usual. The apparently poor residents of Atlanta is not just my imagination. A city-data.com 2013 report states 24.4% of Atlantans are living in poverty. A 2013 report by The Georgia Budget & Policy says poverty rates are on the increase and that the state has the sixth worst rate in the US. The figures seem high but then digging a bit more I was surprised to learn London, England’s poverty quota was 28% in 2012. I guess there are many other factors and criteria attached to citizens’ quality of life and isolated statistics alone can never tell the full story.
India Adds Some Colour
On our last full day in Atlanta, we actually stumbled upon a street event that was fantastic. The Festival of Chariots, which originated 2,000 years ago on the east coast of India, was taking place and it was exactly the type of thing we had hoped to see. We found the procession after hearing music and discovered a parade assembling in Walton Street, a group of oversized “chariots” on monster wagon wheels, colourfully decked out in bunting. We enjoyed much of the fun that took place in the street but unfortunately had to leave early to collect our hire car.
We’re embarking on a road trip through parts of the States tomorrow. Atlanta will still hold special Olympic memories, and some of the tourist attractions mentioned earlier were quite impressive. But at street level, this Olympic city was sadly quite different to what we had expected.