Atlanta, an Olympic City 15 Years Later

Fifteen years have passed since Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch, Kerri Strug landed her heroic single-footed vault and Eric Robert Rudolph detonated a pipe bomb in downtown Atlanta, during the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic Games. Well-considered development for the event has since transformed the city, which continues to draw new residents, start-up businesses and flights to Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport since 1998. In the last fifteen years, Atlanta has become the south’s booming, sprawling capital and an example of what urban development can achieve–and not achieve–over the long term.


The most gleaming example of the power of Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest, located in downtown, hundreds of miles from the ocean. Built at a cost of roughly $300 million, its main tank holds 6.3 million gallons, stocked with whale sharks, manta rays, reef sharks, tiger sharks, surgeonfish, jacks, grouper, snapper, sawfish and something called a wobbegong. Elsewhere are penguin exhibits, an otter enclosure, a Beluga whale tank and touch pools, where kids squeal as they pet live rays and bonnethead sharks. According to its official FAQ, fishing poles are not allowed inside the aquarium.

Built downtown, the aquarium has drawn more than 10 million visitors since its opening in 2005, just north of Centennial Park, the epicenter of the games. In its orbit are other development projects, including Turner Field, the former Olympic Stadium converted for baseball after the games and now home to the Atlanta Braves. Centennial Park isn’t simply a monument to games gone by: the weekend I visited, the National Black Art Festival was taking place in the park and selling out nearby hotels.

In Midtown, arts are an ever-growing draw, starting with the always-expanding High Museum of Art, which doubled in size in 2002 when starchitect Renzo Piano added three buildings, including one with a cheese grater roof that diffuses natural light into the contemporary galleries. (A reflective Anish Kapoor sculpture reminiscent of his Cloud Gate in Chicago was a visitor favorite on the day I visited.)

Not long ago, The Wall Street Journal reported,

The central neighborhood of Midtown was long desolate and undesirable, despite being home to the High Museum of Art and the Fox Theater. Today, it’s overflowing with new condo developments. … In 2007, the nearby Alliance Theatre cemented its place as a performing arts hotspot with a regional Tony Award. At night, new clubs offer first-listens of what could become the next big hip-hop track.

In Buckhead, first-time visitors–like me–are stunned by the scale of development; it’s a city within a city. Young people from across the south flock here, in part for the rowdy bar scene but also for the economic opportunities–and the fact that all the other 20-somethings seem to be moving here. There are chain restaurants and stores on seemingly every corner, but some local entrepreneurs are giving it a go, with shops and restaurants and even, yes, food trucks. On my visit, Taqueria Tsunami hadn’t yet opened to serve its “Pacific Rim tacos,” much to my disappointment.

Back in downtown, progress continues. The Federal Transit Administration will grant the city $47 million in federal money for a downtown streetcar project, on which construction should start imminently. Secretary Ray LaHood says the new circulator, connecting Centennial Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, will employ nearly 1,000 people and drive economic growth downtown. And at the historic site on Auburn Avenue, preserving King’s boyhood home and neighborhood? The city is using TARP money to make capital improvements.

Seems the only thing that needs an update is Varsity, the much loved but well past its prime drive-in that slings greasy burgers overlooking the always-jammed I-85. Atlanta could do something about the gridlocked traffic, too, but people keep moving here, 15 years after the city’s global coming out party.