A Way of Life at Atlanta's Turner Field Is About to End
On October 2, the Braves will play their last game at Turner Field. Stadiumville's vendors won't follow the team to its new home 12 miles away.
Photo via EPA
You know you are screwed when the city sends out an engineering map that says "SEWERS TO BE ABANDONED" and your street is on it. You know you are really screwed when another map comes out from the city that says "DEMOLITION MAP" and there is your street again, inside the boundary lines.
That was how Larry Miller's neighborhood, on the south side of downtown Atlanta, was wiped off the face of the earth in 1959. He was 10 years old.
Excavators chugged in, powered by money from the federal government, and the property of black folks, renters and owners alike, was seized in a 20-block purging of the poor. Miller's birth home on Rawson Street, a duplex, disappeared. It was dilapidated housing—two-thirds of the housing in Atlanta for blacks in the 1950s was dilapidated, according to research by the Atlanta History Center—but, Miller said, it was home nonetheless. Miller, his five brothers and sisters, and his mother and father were hustled into Perry Homes, which was called public housing but felt more like confinement.
That duplex where he was born was supposed to be part of the "Rawson-Washington Redevelopment Project," and an expansion of the interstate highway system (I-75 and I-20). The highways came and took some of the property, but the rest of the land became Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and then the 1996 Olympics Stadium, which became Turner Field in 1997.
Miller, now 66, came home to the graveyard of his neighborhood about 30 years ago. He has been selling T-shirts, baseball hats, boiled peanuts, bottled water, and other drinks along what used to be Capitol Avenue, and is now called Hank Aaron Drive. Miller's home was just beyond what is now the cold-hearted asphalt of the Turner Field parking lot. An hour before first pitch in a Sunday game against the Mets, Miller could glance over his shoulder and see where he romped as a child.
Now he is about to be expelled again.
Miller and all the other vendors, the parking lot attendants, and assorted game-day entrepreneurs—the makeshift musicians drumming on plastic buckets hunting tips from fans; the kids selling bottled water for a buck; the man peddling on his bike with a plastic bag stuffed with cans—have five more months left in this neighborhood, which Georgia State University historians have dubbed Stadiumville and residents still call Summerhill.
On October 2, the Braves will play their last game downtown. Around sunset, Miller and the others will pack up for the final time. "I'll probably cry," Miller said. "Don't want to see that last day."
Miller had a nice occupation for 81 games a year as a sidewalk vendor, but the Braves are moving to a new stadium 12 miles north and that, Miller said, will be the end of his business. There will be a moat of roadway around the new stadium, called SunTrust Park, and there are ordinances against sidewalk vendors in Cobb County. All the commerce will belong to the Braves.
"There is a way of life around here for us sidewalk vendors. We were honest business people on the bottom of the ladder," Miller said. "You understand what I'm saying. It's over. Guys like me have been around here for 50 years. We're about to be gone."
Turner Field will become a college football stadium for Georgia State University, and six or seven Saturdays in the fall is not enough business compared to 81 baseball games from April to early October. Some college bars will open and there will be liquor and carousing and—never mind, Miller said.
It's another purge. Miller shook his head in dismay. He could always tell the people who were rummaging through his baseball hats and shirts laid out neatly on tables, "I was born right over there," and point toward the far corner of the parking lot. He won't be able to say that much longer.
Here's the history: The city caretakers 60 years ago called Miller's part of the Summerhill neighborhood "a slum" and said it had to be destroyed to make way for an interstate and the rebuilding of Atlanta.
The interstates came through part of the neighborhood, but then professional baseball and professional football arrived, too. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was built in 1965. In 1966, it became home to the Braves, newly transplanted from Milwaukee, and the NFL expansion Falcons. When the professional athletes came to his neighborhood, it was only proper, Miller said, that he come back, too. He was here before they were, after all, running barefoot along the streets while his father shined shoes all day in the East Atlanta Barber Shop.
Miller can't remember the exact year he came home—his tables are on Hank Aaron Drive near the intersection of Georgia Avenue—to make a living as a sidewalk vendor selling Braves and Falcons gear. It was either 1987 or 1988. He was able to run his business in peace until 2009, when the city of Atlanta started an effort to shut down street vendors. Claiming that the vendors' tables were unsightly and discouraged tourists, and that they competed unfairly with the brick and mortar businesses, the city signed over all its public property vending sites to a single management corporation.
Miller and another vendor, Stan Hambrick, 68, formed the backbone of the resistance and sued. The Institute of Justice handled their lawsuit, but the men were still out of business in 2012 and most of 2013 while they fought the city.
Hambrick, a Vietnam veteran, had a nervous breakdown and, he said, was admitted into the hospital. "I didn't give in, I gave out," he said. "My life savings were tied up in the merchandise and Mayor Kasim Reed took me off the street."
In court filings, Reeds' administration said the vendors needed regulation. The city refused to renew their vending licenses. The vendors would have to lease proper kiosks from the city-appointed corporation for $500 to $1,450 a month. The vendors countered that they were entrepreneurs and simply men on the bottom of the economic ladder fighting their way up.
A Fulton County judge ruled in favor of the vendors and in 2013 they were finally allowed licenses again. Now, just three years later, Miller and Hambrick face a calamity no judge can resolve. Their customers are leaving because the team is leaving.
Miller's childhood neighborhood exists only in his mind's eye. "We lived down in a swale and you had to look up and see downtown Atlanta," he said. He waved his hand out toward the parking lot. "Use to run around all over the streets. People don't know this was a black community, full of businesses 70 years ago. Before that it was a Jewish community."
Leon Eplan, a city of Atlanta planning commissioner 40 years ago, said his grandfather lived in Summerhill at the turn of the century, when it was a Jewish neighborhood. Eplan, who is 87 now, said his grandfather was a clothing peddler, just like Larry Miller. The Jewish residents of the neighborhood also collected scrap metal, just like the man riding his bike with the sack of cans on his back. Eplan said his relatives were also discriminated against as they tried to earn a living. The roots of neighborhood entrepreneurship in Summerhill didn't just take hold with the black community in the 1930s and 1940s. There is a deep history in this neighborhood that was wiped out.
The Empire Theatre was on one street corner of the neighborhood, but it's hard to tell which one because the street corners have all disappeared. Now there are just bustling intersections where kids do not dare roam because of four fast lanes of traffic.
Hambrick, who lived in another part of town, used to come over to The Empire. "You had to fight the rats for a seat," he said.
Hambrick's father would take him to the Fox Theatre downtown to watch Westerns, but they had to use the back stairs and climb to the top. They went through a door near the roof so they could get to the top two rows, which were reserved for blacks.
Miller and Hambrick adored their fathers because they were hard workers. It's where they got their business spirit. It's why they want to be the last men standing in Stadiumville when the roar of the baseball crowd goes away for good on October 2.
Miller is going to be bitter about it for a little while. Then he is going fishing, he said.
You know where he lives? Marietta, near where the Braves are building their new SunTrust Park with about $400 million of public money. On idle days, Miller used to feed the ducks on a pond that sat smack dab in the middle of the ballpark site. That little pond is gone, too, filled in and paved over.
"I might just have to move out to Paulding County," he said. Miller has no desire to be in the way of another forward march over top of him.