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Friday, November 22, 2013

Take me out to the ballgame... but where in Atlanta?

I grew up a baseball fan, specifically of the New York Yankees because they won often and they were on TV more than other teams. But in 1966 I got the chance to attend an Atlanta Braves game at the then-new Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. I kept going to the stadium for years thereafter -- not only for sports but also at least one concert (Led Zeppelin, May 1973). I walked past the stadium for a final look during the 1996 Olympics, adjacent to its imminent successor Turner Field.

The stadium was hastily erected during the go-go years of Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. At the time, metro Atlanta extended north, south, east, and west from downtown for approximately the same distance. Only 1.3 million people lived in metro (1960 census), and 37% of them lived in the city. It was natural for the stadium to be sited near the intersection of I-20 and I-75/85 at the center of the city. What not many people knew, or were willing to say in public, was that metro would grow much faster toward the north than in the other three directions.

Today metro has nearly 6 million people, only 8% of whom live in the city. The center of population has shifted northward to the intersection of I-285 and GA 400 outside the city. Braves fans in suburbs like Woodstock and Alpharetta are over 25 miles from downtown. Given the nature of metro traffic -- some of the worst in the nation -- it's unsurprising that those fans don't want to spend two hours in their cars to attend games. Predictably the Braves have announced that they'll leave Turner Field, less than 20 years old, for a new stadium to be built along I-285. To add to the furor, the site happens to be in Cobb County which has a reputation for racism.

I see why the move makes great sense for the Braves, assuming they can convince local governments to help with the funding. These days my passion in sports is hockey not baseball. The NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, unable to attract enough fans, moved to Winnipeg in 2011. If the Thrashers had played in a northside arena instead of the downtown Philips Arena, they'd still be in (metro) Atlanta.

Some of the more enlightened commentary that I've read about the Braves observes that demographics have changed throughout metro. The percentage of white people living in the city has increased; so has the percentage of African-Americans living in the adjacent counties, even Cobb. Moving the stadium toward the geographic center of a more homogeneous metro is natural, even if it is a fearful development for the pro-downtown faction. They can breathe easy, though, that recent expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson makes relocating the airport to the northside -- seriously considered in the 1970s -- absolutely unthinkable now.

I lived in downtown Atlanta for four years as a Georgia Tech student, and I lived another eight years inside I-285. Going to a Braves game in Cobb County, if that had been the site of the stadium all along, would not have bummed me out. The pro-downtown forces should realize that times have changed, even if their personal interests have not.