Symbols old and new capture angst emerging around Falcons stadium

By David Pendered

The Falcons stadium is the next “Peyton wall” of Atlanta, a lawyer said Monday, comparing the sports venue to an actual wall the city erected across Peyton Road in 1962 to separate black and white neighborhoods.

The Falcons stadium will divide Atlanta just as the Peyton wall did in 1962, former Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Thelma Wyatt Moore said Monday. Credit: Atlanta History Center via atlantamagazine.com

The Falcons stadium will divide Atlanta just as the Peyton wall did in 1962, former Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Thelma Wyatt Moore said Monday. Credit: Atlanta History Center via atlantamagazine.com

By another account, the stadium saga is Atlanta’s version of “Groundhog Day.” In the movie, actor Bill Murray relived the same depressing events day after day after day. Poor people are the protagonists in this comparison to real life.

Symbolic language certainly was out in force Monday, following a court hearing intended to authorize Atlanta to sell bonds to help pay for the $1.2 billion stadium. A judge deferred the bond sale for at least seven weeks by giving five residents until April 10 to prepare their legal case against the bond sale.

For the past year, a lot of the buzz about the stadium has involved basic questions – what will the stadium look like; will the north or south site be selected; will those two congregations sell their church property; what benefits will the communities realize from the $1.2 billion project.

Now the tone has changed.

It’s not just that Atlanta has signed a deal that lasts possibly through 2050 to allocate its hotel/motel tax to the stadium, as opposed to other civic improvements.

A blank wall of the Falcons stadium will face Northside Drive, on the left side of this rendering. Credit: newstadium.atlantafalcons.com

A blank wall of the Falcons stadium will face Northside Drive, on the left side of this rendering. Credit: newstadium.atlantafalcons.com

It’s not just that the community benefits deal was sent to the Atlanta City Council before the community knew the deal had been finalized.

It’s not just that the state has already removed a big piece of the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive viaduct and rerouted traffic between Northside Drive and Downtown Atlanta along Nelson Street in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood.

It’s all of this, and more.

“This is ‘Groundhog Day’ for people who say, ‘Uh oh, here they come again,” said Bob Holmes, a retired state lawmaker and professor at Clark Atlanta University.

Holmes rattled off a history of stadiums going back to the original 1966 Braves ball field:

  • Not only did the first stadium not fulfill promises to uplift the community, conditions in Summerhill actually worsened and the surrounding population dropped from about 20,000 to 4,000;
  • The Ted, converted from a stadium built for the 1996 Olympic Games, didn’t cause the community much harm, but only because the neighborhood had become blighted. The Ted didn’t fulfill promises to uplift the community, and the Braves cited the blight in announcing the team’s move to Cobb County;
  • The Georgia Dome was to uplift the community, and those plans have gone unfilled.
The detour for Martin Luther King Jr. Drive now includes this section of Nelson Street, in Castleberry Hill. Credit: David Pendered

The detour for Martin Luther King Jr. Drive now includes this section of Nelson Street, in Castleberry Hill. Credit: David Pendered

“Here we go again – fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me four times, and I belong in some insane asylum,” said Holmes, who, incidentally, has written his life story and it’s to be released soon by the University Press of America: “From Poverty to History Maker: An Autobiography.”

A different symbolic language was chosen by a lawyer for the residents trying to block the bond sale. Whereas Holmes focused on the wealth divide, Thelma Wyatt Moore focused on the civil rights legacy of a barrier built to enforce segregated neighborhoods.

“This stadium is a new Peyton wall,” said Moore, a retired chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court who was first appointed to the bench by then Mayor Maynard Jackson. “That was an extremely painful period of our history.”

The “Peyton wall,” was compared to the Berlin Wall when it was built across Peyton Road in 1962. Then-Mayor Ivan Allen’s administration actually built two such walls, the other was on Harlan Road, and their purpose was to separate black and white communities at a time an increasing number of middle class blacks were moving into neighborhoods that once were all white, according to the 2005 book by Kevin Kruse, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.”

Lawyers for opponents of Atlanta's plan to sell bonds for the Falcons stadium talk with reporters after a hearing Monday in Fulton County Superior Court: John Woodham (center, left) Thelma Wyatt Moore (center, right). Credit: David Pendered

Lawyers for opponents of Atlanta’s plan to sell bonds for the Falcons stadium talk with reporters after a hearing Monday in Fulton County Superior Court: John Woodham (center, left) Thelma Wyatt Moore (center, right). Credit: David Pendered

The walls and ensuing controversy thrust Atlanta into the international spotlight. Allen had them taken down following a judge’s order to do so. According to Kruse’s account, Allen later recalled that his predecessor, William B. Hartsfield, had offered this bit of advice – after the fact: “Never make a mistake they can take a picture of.”

Moore said she intends to keep the image of the Peyton wall in the public conversation. The first goal she and her colleague, John Woodham, have taken on for their clients is to block the sale of Atlanta’s stadium bonds and force Atlanta back to the negotiating table. There, the five intervenors hope to revise the terms of the community benefits agreement the Atlanta City Council approved in December, a vote that enabled the bonds to be sold.

Moore isn’t the first to observe that the stadium and closure of the MLK Drive viaduct will increase the divide between Downtown Atlanta and neighborhoods to the west – including the campuses of the Atlanta University Center.

But Moore may be the first to liken the stadium and road closure to the Peyton wall, and thereby rekindle some deeply held emotions.

“The symbolism of this stadium is that we are cut out of the beauty of the ‘City Too Busy to Hate,’” Moore said. “It’s infuriating, frustrating that we are cut off. I cannot get beyond the symbolism of that.”

About David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with nearly 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.
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2 comments
Maynard Eaton
Maynard Eaton

You really "nailed" this story David! And,as is your history, robustly reported on the reality of Atlanta's racially charged and politically profane urban affairs.

Maynard Eaton
Maynard Eaton

You really "nailed" this story David! And,as is your history, reported on the reality of Atlanta's racially charged and politically profane urban affairs.