July 19 will mark 23 years since Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympic Games, an anniversary usually observed with celebratory memories of the city’s improbable win of the international bid and related glory. But the Olympics also brought widespread, if little-remembered, protests about neighborhood impacts – including in Brookhaven, where local opposition stopped Blackburn Park from hosting a tennis venue that ended up in Stone Mountain and became one of the Games’ most notorious white elephants.
“At first blush, it sounded good,” recalls Stan Segal, who was among the Blackburn tennis venue opponents at the time and today chairs the Brookhaven Planning Commission. “It was only when you started thinking about the legacy of what’s left and what they had to change [that opposition arose]… If you don’t think of the ramifications and the downsides, it’s exciting.”
According to the then-separate Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution newspapers, Atlanta’s Olympics bid organizers heard a wide variety of pitches for tennis venue locations in north DeKalb and north Fulton counties. Another unsuccessful contender was Chamblee’s Keswick Park, only about a half-mile from Blackburn Park.
It’s unclear how Blackburn came into focus as the venue site, but it was a surprise to local residents, many of whom learned about it only by an advertising brochure that began circulating. Controversy boiled in early 1990 while Atlanta’s Olympics bid was still under consideration.
Located at Ashford-Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads in what was then unincorporated DeKalb County – referred to by the newspapers as “Dunwoody” – Blackburn Park was proposed to host a massive venue. The plans called for 16 additional tennis courts, a permanent 10,000-seat stadium and two temporary, 5,000-seat stadiums, according to newspaper reports. The facilities were to be constructed by the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association under a 40-year lease, which was illegal on county parkland and would have required approval by the General Assembly.
At the time, Segal was president of the Hampton Hall Civic Association, representing a neighborhood about 1,500 feet from the park. He had been active in local development issues and controversies.
“People who were active tennis players, myself included, were initially like, ‘That is great! Let’s do it!’” recalled Segal about the tennis venue proposal. But then they started thinking about details like traffic, parking, tree loss and noise.
There was the fact that the park was located in the suburbs at the intersection of two-lane roads. The Olympics organizers did not require any new parking – they intended to rely on mass transit for all Games events, Segal recalls – but the logical assumption was that the county would have to add parking for the long-term future uses. The newspapers reported concerns that the stadium would be used for concerts.
Segal said in the less-dense suburbs of the era, most residents relied on their own yards for green space. But they still saw the value in preserving a place like Blackburn.
“And even though in the 1990s, parks were not as important to people… we all knew Blackburn was a beautiful piece of property, and we all knew putting in a tennis facility would take away trees” and other features, Segal said.
“If they could have put up a facility without taking down every tree and leveling every hill, I don’t think people would have opposed it. I certainly wouldn’t have,” added Segal. Instead, many residents calculated that “the damage it would do over years was not worth the benefit of having the Olympics there for 19 days.” And an opposition movement was born.
It was one of several protest movements that emerged before and during the Games around similar neighborhood concerns and such issues as displacement of residents from demolished homes and police crackdowns on homeless people. A major protest movement arose in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood over the proposed main Olympic stadium, now Georgia State Stadium; Summerhill protesters visited Dunwoody in 1991 to demonstrate outside the home of Olympics bid mastermind Billy Payne.
In today’s internet age, similar protests in other Olympics cities have gained much more attention and the ability to share information and tactics. On July 24, Olympics opponents from several countries are gathering in Tokyo, home of the 2020 Summer Games, for a “NOlympics Anywhere” conference that will include a social media blitz to highlight protests elsewhere.
Protesting in suburban Brookhaven in the 1990s was a different story. “It was really low-key,” Segal says, adding he doesn’t even recall T-shirts or signs. “There weren’t any mass demonstrations. It was mostly influencing our elected officials… You have to think about this in the context of the 1990s. We stuffed mailboxes [with printed notices]… If you called somebody, you had to leave them a message on their answering machine.”
There was some support for the venue as well, especially among commercial property owners, Segal recalled. But the pressure from distressed homeowners worked on DeKalb officials. By March 1990, the Atlanta Constitution reported, the Blackburn venue idea was dropped due to the “groundswell of opposition.” The paper quoted then DeKalb CEO Manuel Maloof as saying, “It’s dead.”
Even then, Atlanta’s winning of the Olympics bid in September 1990 invigorated a counter-movement supporting Blackburn as the tennis venue. The Atlanta Constitution reported on the formation of a Neighborhood Alliance for Olympic Tennis and quoted one supporter as saying, “I think it would be wonderful for the community and good for the teenagers. Ashford-Dunwoody Road needs to be widened anyway.” As late as May 1991, someone staged a small rally in Decatur Square to stump for the Blackburn venue.
But there is no sign that DeKalb officials ever reconsidered, and the venue ended up in Stone Mountain instead. After successfully hosting Olympics tennis and some professional events, it indeed ended up with huge parking lots and staged concerts, as Brookhaven neighbors had feared. And it quickly fell into disrepair and disuse. Despite being touted as a permanent legacy by Olympics organizers, it was demolished in 2017, with the AJC referring to it as an “Olympic eyesore.”
During the various early 1990s Olympics protests, the African American newspaper the Atlanta Voice noted that opposition in well-off, majority-white neighborhoods like those around Blackburn Park was often successful, while opposition in lower-income, majority-black neighborhoods like Summerhill was often ignored or downplayed.
Today, Blackburn is a 51-acre Brookhaven city park that hosts such cornerstone events as food truck nights and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival – and still has some tennis courts. Burke Brennan, a spokesperson for the city, which formed in 2012, noted the park’s existing 18 tennis courts are undergoing renovation. He said the residents of the 1990s were right.
“With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, it is clear that the prevailing wisdom of the Brookhaven community at that time was the right choice,” said Brennan. “Without becoming sidetracked on a single event, DeKalb County and subsequently the city of Brookhaven could focus on fulfilling the local community’s vision of what the Blackburn Tennis Center should be and how it can best serve area residents.”
Segal said he’s glad the park dodged the Olympics bullet, kept its trees and rolling hills, and is geared up for further improvements under a city master plan produced with citizen input.
“I am very gratified, because Blackburn Park is a jewel and it would have been a parking lot just like Stone Mountain,” said Segal. “And in retrospect, after 25 years, we can say, knowing the Stone Mountain facility didn’t make it… we were right.”