Stadium move angers its neighbors

It was a busy morning at Joe’s Laundry & Cleaners, a forlorn, fortress-like business in the shadow of the now-doomed Turner Field.

Proprietor Paul Kwan was doing what his family has done since 1945 — making folks in the Summerhill neighborhood look sharp. And customers like Herman Lawson flowed in and out, still reeling from the news their beloved Braves were abandoning them to move north to Cobb County.

“It’s going to hurt; it’s going to take a lot of money out of the neighborhood,” said Lawson, who played ball on a field where The Ted now sits. “We’ll miss the revenue, the excitement, the activity, the fireworks, the pride. It’s the Atlanta Braves in our neighborhood.”

But, he added, “We have to face reality; they’re moving because of crime.”

Kwan nodded from behind the heavy metal screening at his counter that makes him look like a jailbird. Crime by the park may have been one factor, but Kwan said the decision is more a cold, calculated move by a rootless, corporate behemoth simply fielding a superior cash offer.

“It’s a business move; that’s all it is, a business move,” said Kwan, who took the news less personally than many locals.

In the day after the Braves’ shocker, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed issued statements saying he is “excited about how we use the land that is now Turner Field,” that the land is “tremendous asset” and could be “one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had.”

The mayor’s pronouncements strike some residents as bold. Others see a politician whistling past a graveyard. They’ve heard promises before.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Willie Smith, 60, a lifelong Summerville resident whose bungalow has a six-foot Tomahawk nailed to the porch. “They said it before. Heard that over and over and over.”

He laughed at the irony of it all: The Braves hurt the neighborhood when they moved in, and will hurt it when they move out.

The city played hard to woo the Braves from Milwaukee in 1966, building Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on 60 acres just south of downtown. The stadium was to crown Atlanta the South’s premier city and create a rising tide for regional economic development. It achieved the former, but failed at the latter.

The stadium dislodged hundreds of black families and dozens of small businesses. Many say little benefit ever came to the neighborhood other than piecemeal ballpark jobs and opportunities to park fans’ cars.

Feelings were raw in September 1966 when a cop shot a suspect in Summerhill. Angry black residents took to the streets, overturning cars and breaking windows. Mayor Ivan Allen, with just a couple police officers, walked into the surging crowd to urge people to go home. He stood on a car with a bullhorn but eventually left, worried for his safety.

Author Frederick Allen, in his book “Atlanta Rising,” wrote that worried and angry whites responded a week later in the Democratic primary, giving segregationist Lester Maddox a second-place showing ahead of Jimmy Carter. Weeks later, Maddox was elected governor in a runoff.

“Without much of a stretch, it could be said that ‘progress’ had toppled a row of dominoes: First came slum clearance, followed by the stadium, overcrowding, black rage, riot, white backlash, Maddox,” Allen wrote.

The 1996 Olympics brought another new stadium and another round of promises. The effort included a cluster of townhomes near the new stadium to tidy up a civic eyesore in plain view of the world’s cameras.

One redevelopment plan aimed to transform the stretch of crumbling commercial buildings along Georgia Avenue into a bustling strip near the park. But all that ever came about was a coat of paint on the still-closed and derelict buildings. Another shot at making something happening was Fanplex, a putt-putt golf and game center near The Ted that opened and shut quicker than a 6-4-3 double play.

A percentage of parking revenue from the Braves has been distributed to neighborhood groups but that created lawsuits, accusations of fraud and few tangible improvements.

Resident Kenyatta Mitchell, who once headed the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill, sees the exodus as opportunity.

“I think we’re in a better place,” she said. “The mayor doesn’t want a large vacant lot next to downtown.”

Some talk about the empty space becoming the next Atlantic Station, the development north of downtown built on an abandoned steel mill. But metro Atlanta has many empty footprints seeking a magic dose of redevelopment — the former Ford plant in Hapeville, the old GM plant in Doraville, the deserted Fort McPherson Army post in south Atlanta.

Mitchell said big box developments might do well by the interstate and near downtown. “Before, all our ideas had to work around Braves’ parking,” she said. Now, they are free of such restraints.

Josh Murtha, who also once headed the neighborhood group, said it was conventional wisdom that the Braves, with 2 million-plus fans a year, could spur investment in the area. The city created a special tax district, called a TAD, for the area to help bring surrounding neighborhoods to life.

“I was on the stadium TAD advisory board for 24 months and we never had a meeting, so that was an indication there was no interest,” Murtha said.

Micah Rowland, who heads the neighborhood planning unit, lives within view of Turner Field’s lights and calls the Braves’ move “devastating.”

Rowland, who can walk to work at his job at Georgia State University, got involved to help stop petty crime. He then switched to bigger things, like creating an economic development plan.

“Everything we have done included the Atlanta Braves,” he said. “Now, all the work we’ve done for several years, all the plans for development, was for nothing.”

Summerhill is one of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods, a one-time Jewish enclave that became a working-class black neighborhood.

Old-timers talk about a bustling business strip along Georgia Avenue, on the north side of Turner Field. There was a theater, a five-and dime, a pool hall, a church, grocery stores, restaurants, even a furniture store. But the first stadium, a fluid population, poverty and deteriorating properties turned large swaths of the area into a wasteland.

Several large lots used for parking and most of the empty stores east of Turner Field were owned by a man named John Elder, who grew up in the area. Elder operated acres of parking lots and declined to ever sell or renovate his real estate holdings. He died this year.

“He had his chance (to sell), didn’t take it,” said Kwan, whose grandfather opened a cleaners on Capitol Avenue and lived upstairs. The Kwan business moved to Georgia Avenue in 1965 to make room for the first stadium. The building once was a Jewish grocery store.

“We know our customers by their initials,” said Kwan, who was working on several pairs of bluejeans with creases as sharp as razors and starched as stiff as paneling. He hopes maybe Georgia State takes the property, builds rows of student housing and even fields a decent football team to put butts in Turner Field’s seats.

As to his own future, Kwan laughs, saying his kids don’t want to run a laundry.

“I’m the third generation here — and probably the last.”

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