SMITH COLUMN: Atlanta’s Evolution

Published 9:00 am Friday, June 7, 2024

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ATLANTA – Early morning from the west side of the 22nd floor of the J. W. Marriott in the Buckhead district of Atlanta, I stand at an expansive window which frames a downtown that showcases imposing skyscrapers, tall and erect, at daybreak.

At first light, I can visually peruse the train tracks which accommodate both the MARTA coaches and the freights which rumble along at a different pace but bringing inspiration to an idle mind.

I have always had an affection for trains and still would like to ride a freight from Denver to Salt Lake just to enjoy the solitude and the humming of the diesel engines while inhaling the picturesque glory of nature and the majesty of the landscape.

Longleaf pines and hardwoods of my native South will always be preferred, but I cannot get enough of the grandeur of the mountains of the West.  The 14-plus hours it takes to make that trip from Denver to Salt Lake would be the best day one could experience.

As I saw that dream journey in my mind’s eye, the television set in my room flashed the news via the WSB signal with Lori Wilson and Fred Blankenship, that there was another murder in a city once known as one which was “too busy to hate.”

All the while I am thinking about the Second Amendment Right to bear arms.  When that amendment was authored, things were different.  The country did not have an organized militia and you truly needed a weapon to protect yourself and your family.  And, just as important, you needed a gun to kill your supper.

It was not intended for thugs and assailants to blow somebody away for pocket change or to take possession of their car.

I thought of all the good things I have enjoyed over the years in Atlanta.  The first flashback had to do with the summer of 1960 when I worked with the Associated Press whose offices were then located in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Building on Forsyth Street.

That turned out to be one of the most valuable summers of my life, an eager wet-behind-the-ears college student amid seasoned newsmen who were self-taught, war veterans, caustic, and cynical.

Many of them were Georgia Tech aficionados, Tech being the only game in town in those pre-Falcon and Braves days.  They did like Georgia’s classy uniforms, however:  bright red jerseys and sparkling silver britches.

I had a friend who rented an apartment on Orme Circle just off Monroe Drive.  The landlord was a nice widow lady who was happy to allow me to pay the same rent my roommate was paying which was something like $25.00 a month.

There was no lock on the door to our basement quarters, but we never felt unsafe.  The centerpiece of Atlanta’s public transportation was the old trolley system.  When I had to work the afternoon and night shift, I drove my ’50 Ford to the office, where there was usually parking space in the old Terminal Station complex which was near the AP offices in the AJC Building.

I learned a lot from that assignment which had me rewriting stories from the Atlanta papers for the AP regional wire. There was a lot of Civil Rights activity at that time.  The biggest international news that summer was the start of the trial in Moscow of the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.  His plane had been shot down, May 1.  He was tried in a Soviet court, and as the trial got underway in August, I was instructed to call his wife, who was living in Milledgeville at the time.  The AP wanted a quote from her.

I don’t recall how I got her number, but I did reach her by phone.  She refused to say much of anything. She had been advised not to talk “to the press” and I wrote a meaningless story which certainly was not a scoop.

My mother was unfamiliar with the abbreviation of the Associated Press, AP, and took to telling her friends I was working with the A and P.  One day, I said, “Mama, please, I am a journalist.  I’m not in Atlanta toting groceries.”

Later, I spent three summers in Atlanta, managing publicity for the Coaches All-Star Game. Our headquarters was the new and classy Hyatt Regency with the bubble elevators.  The Braves had made their move to Atlanta, and I had access to press credentials which led to a memorable scene when the Dodgers came to town.

Sandy Koufax was in his peak years and was in the locker room following a victory over the Braves, kibitzing with Walter Alston, the manager.

Soon thereafter, Pete Rozelle tapped Rankin Smith as the owner of new NFL franchise which would soon be the Falcons.  Atlanta’s Airport was on the way to becoming the biggest in the world and the AJC announced that a new business was coming to town—almost every day.

Drive about the city today and you will see development in every section of town.  It remains a vibrant city and for all the depressing headlines in the news, the city ranks 25th in crime among U. S. Cities.  However, I wouldn’t sleep in a basement apartment with no lock on the door.

To be honest, I wouldn’t do that in any city anywhere.  I must confess that while I still enjoy and appreciate Atlanta, it was more fun in the city when I could walk downtown at midnight without fret or concern for my safety.