July 2013


I have been to major league baseball games in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Denver, and Cleveland. This isn’t that many, I realize—there are thousands of baseball fans, after all, who have visited every big-league ballpark in America—but it’s enough to make me wonder: What’s wrong with Atlanta that we can’t do something about the neighborhood around Turner Field? From the fan’s perspective, it’s a dismal tableau—boarded-up buildings, acres of asphalt, trash and weeds and malignant neglect. For the past thirteen years that I’ve been going to Braves games, I haven’t gotten a satisfactory answer, and I’ve asked a lot of people.

While my question is a simple one, it turns out that the answer is anything but, as you’ll quickly learn when you start reading Rebecca Burns’s story. I’d initially wanted to run this piece two months ago, but it became pretty clear not long after Rebecca started her reporting that my proposed deadline amounted to wishful thinking. Each path that emerged through the thicket of egos and agendas led only to more paths, but no individual trail revealed The Answer. Was there a villain at the center? No. Was there outright venality? Not necessarily. The story of Atlanta’s ballpark and the failed promises to its neighbors reveals one of the painful truths of urban life: how institutions and bureaucracies become terrible instruments of inertia, impervious to the efforts of the most well-
intentioned and even the most powerful.

What I’m describing sounds like a lost season of The Wire. But the encouraging news is that Rebecca’s story comes at a promising juncture. In just three years the Braves’ lease expires, so city officials are now taking the opportunity to examine not only how to keep the Braves in Turner Field (thankfully, there’s no Arthur Blank–like ultimatum looming on the horizon), but also how to finally elevate the neighborhood around the park. In real ways. Can it be done? The residents around Turner Field have earned the right to be skeptical, given the hot air of empty rhetoric that’s blown through their streets over the decades, as two stadiums—one of them an Olympic landmark—have been built in their backyard. But if, as Mayor Kasim Reed often reminds us, Atlanta is an aspirational city, it makes moral as well as financial sense to resuscitate a part of the city that is home not only to one of the most storied franchises in professional sports, but also to thousands of Atlantans who aspire to something far less glamorous but no less important: decent housing, clean streets, a place to buy groceries. That’s the kind of neighborhood we could all cheer for.