The Olympic Juggernaut: Displacing The Poor From Atlanta To Rio

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Vila Autodromo, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, was razed in preparation for this month's Olympics. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Vila Autodromo, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, was razed in preparation for this month's Olympics. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Four years ago, I went to the Olympics. I had a wonderful time. Let’s understand that up front.

Now we’re into another edition of the Games, and before we turn to the good stuff, we’ve got a story about some of what happens in a host city before the running, jumping, swimming, and soccer-playing begin and after the athletes have gone home. We’ll start with Rio de Janeiro, since that’s what you’ll be seeing on TV for the next couple of weeks, but to some extent the plot of our story has played out in lots of host cities, one of which may surprise you.

The Favela Next To Rio's Olympic Park

In Rio, up until a decade or so ago, there were lots worse places to live than Vila Autódromo. It was a community. A favela. The Portuguese word doesn’t necessarily mean “slum.” This favela, like a lot of them, had grown in fits and starts. When the residents — some of whom had claimed the land generations ago — had a little money, they bought some lumber or hauled some stones up the hill to improve the homes they’d built overlooking what would one day become Rio’s Olympic Park.

Dave Zirin, the author of "Brazil’s Dance With the Devil," visited Vila Autódromo when it was thriving. He was especially taken with a resident named Armando.

"Armando was just one of many people who welcomed me into his home," Zirin said. "You see, when people learned that there was some media there, they became very proud. They were like, 'Hey! Tell our story! Tell our story!'"

Of the nearly 700 homes that used to stand in Rio de Janeiro's Vila Autódromo neighborhood, just over 20 remain. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Zirin has been to Brazil half-a-dozen times over the past five years. Developers and Olympic planners characterized the favela as an eyesore that needed to be razed. But that wasn’t what Zirin found.

"People were incredibly friendly. People were playing chess and checkers underneath shaded trees," he said. "It was a place where elderly people felt comfortable being outside, and there was no evidence of anybody feeling unsafe. Some of the homes were really nice, were built up. I went inside a bunch. They were wired for Internet. But they might be next door to a home that was crumbling or a home that was basically like a squatter’s shelter. So it was a lot of uneven development, block to block."

Once Rio won the right to host the 2014 World Cup and then the 2016 Summer Olympics, it became apparent that a neighborhood characterized by “uneven development, block to block” wasn’t going to cut it. Rio was the capital of a nation riding a growth spurt. Brazil was booming, the boom was to include the Games, and there was no place in the presentation of those Games for those checker-playing neighbors on land the developers had been coveting for decades.

'A Place That Looks Like It's Been Hit By A Bomb'

"The poor in Rio know that these events are not for them," said researcher Christopher Gaffney, who lived in Brazil from 2009 until 2015. "They’re for the global elite and the Rio elite and the Brazilian elite."

"When I was back in May, of the something like 700 homes that were there, roughly, there were about 23 homes left and everything else is just rubble."

As a member of a social movement working to preserve human rights in the face of mega events, Gaffney studied the impact of the World Cup and the Olympics on Rio. He witnessed the gradual — and then not-so-gradual — attempt by the authorities to make Vila Autódromo disappear.

A Brazilian flag sits perched atop a partially demolished house in Vila Autódromo. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

"Where you go in and you give money to one person to leave. You go in and you destroy their house," Gaffney said. "You leave the rubble and then their neighbors have their property devalued, because there’s rubble that hasn’t been cleaned. And rats. And you’re living in a place that looks like it’s been hit by a bomb."

Or lots of bombs. And some wrecking balls. But at night you can’t see broken stone and piles of garbage the city has stopped collecting, because the city has also stopped turning on the street lights.

When he last visited Vila Autódromo, slated to become luxury housing, Dave Zirin barely recognized the neighborhood.

"When I was just back in May, of the something like 700 homes that were there, roughly, there were about 23 homes left," Zirin said. "And everything else is just rubble."

None of those homes belong to Armando.

"There was an effort for us to keep in touch, but where his home was, which was, again, like, this very well-built place, was now, was rubble," Zirin said. "And I have no idea where Armando is now."

Some of the other former residents of the favela had been moved to neighborhoods impossibly distant from their work. Some of the displaced had left quietly, resigned to their fates. Others had fought the evictions and resisted the police. For all of them, the result was the same.

"It ended with more people getting fearful that if they don’t take the government’s deal now, the government will find a way to just kick them to the streets for nothing," Zirin said. "And so it led to more people taking the deal."

Some residents received compensation. Some were relocated. Some got nothing.

"It’s a bad deal," Zirin said. "Like from this home you built up yourself to what amounts to an apartment building in an area that feels much less safe and much less community-oriented."

Atlanta 1996: A 'Juggernaut' 

"It is so much worse," said Anita Beaty.

Built on the site of a former public housing project, the Olympic Village at the Atlanta Games became dormitories for Georgia Tech. (AFP/Getty Images)
Built on the site of a former public housing project, the Olympic Village for the Atlanta Games became Georgia Tech dormitories. (AFP/Getty Images)

Beaty wasn't talking about Rio. Rio isn’t the only place Olympics-driven displacement has happened. It can happen here. And it did. Anita Beaty is the Executive Director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless and she was talking about what happened before the juggernaut of the 1996 Olympics rolled into Atlanta.

"So the juggernaut was a dry run, a dress rehearsal for the developers and the elites to take over the city, to take over the planning, housing construction — to eliminate public housing," she said.

Looking back, Beaty sometimes thinks she should have been prepared.

"Atlanta was announced as the winner. We were all here shocked," Beaty said. "And then I got a call from our friends in Toronto, who had just been successful in preventing a bid from going forward. And they said, 'Where were you? Were you asleep?'"

Anita Beaty and her colleagues woke up to a relentless campaign to create an Atlanta the world would admire without reservation. The city planners figured that would have to be an Atlanta without poor people, and specifically, without homeless people.

So they trotted out some new laws. One would have made it a crime to remove anything from a trash can. Thousands of Atlanta’s poorest residents were issued one-way bus tickets to the cities where they had relatives. They had to sign papers promising they wouldn’t return. Some 9,000 poor Atlantans were arrested during the 18 months before the opening ceremonies. At one point Beaty came into possession of piles and piles of arrest citations pre-printed with the designations “homeless” and “African-American.” All the arresting officer had to do was fill in a name.

"And we immediately printed it up, blew it up, put it on foam core and had press conferences," Beaty said. "And then we, of course, filed a lawsuit against the city. But even progressives in Atlanta were, horrifyingly, going along with everything, and saying, 'Y’all over there need to just chill, because it’s just going to last for two weeks, and then we’ll get back to normal.' And we said, 'Normal? We’ll never be back to normal.' And that has been absolutely true."

The Stories Of Techwood And Summerhill 

Authorities in Atlanta didn’t go after the homeless exclusively. Olympics-related policies eliminated or repurposed whole neighborhoods. One of them was Techwood, the nation’s first housing project, located in what had become prime real estate adjacent to Coca-Cola’s headquarters and Georgia Tech.

"Even progressives in Atlanta were, horrifyingly, going along with everything and saying, 'Y’all over there need to just chill, because it’s just going to last for two weeks, and then we’ll get back to normal.' And we said, 'Normal? We'll never be back to normal.' And that's absolutely been true.”

"Almost immediately the idea is, 'Well, why don’t we house the Olympic athletes on part of the Techwood/Clark Howell site?'" MIT Urban Studies Professor Lawrence Vale said.

Vale has written about displacements in Rio and Atlanta in a piece titled, “The Displacement Decathlon.”

"And the way it’s pitched to the residents at the beginning is, 'Well, here is an opportunity to get $25,000 a unit for renovating your homes that have become rather decrepit over the decades.'

"And then, of course, developers say, 'Well, what are we gonna look at across the street from the athletes’ village? More public housing? And so it gradually expands to an idea of not renovating the apartments but really finding a way to completely obliterate the homes of 1,200 people and to move them out of the center of Atlanta. And presumably many got to communities that were less violent and less low-income than what they had been in public housing, that was in pretty terrible shape. On the other hand, they lost a great location and they lost a community that many people valued very greatly."

A bulldozer operator clears away what left of a house torn down to make way for a temporary parking lot adjacent to Centennial Olympic Stadium in the Summerhill section of Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
A bulldozer operator clears away the remains of a house to make room for the Centennial Olympic Stadium for the '96 Games in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Elsewhere in Atlanta, despite the efforts of thousands of protesters, the neighborhood of Summerhill was sacrificed for the construction of the Olympic Stadium, which was to become the home of the Atlanta Braves, from which the Braves will shortly depart, since, after only 19 years, they no longer consider that home adequate.

'You're Staging A TV Show'

Hosting the Olympics did serve as the catalyst for the construction of Centennial Park and, eventually, the Civil Rights Museum and various other downtown attractions. The area looks good now, and it looked good then, which, according to Atlanta journalist John Ruch, was precisely the point.

"You’re staging a TV show," he said. "All the city’s a stage, and you have to make it look good."

But, Ruch suggests, looks aren’t everything. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

"It really does intrigue me that it’s a scam that keeps working," he said. "And I think there is a mix. That there are some deliberately bad intentions of people who go around and just suck money out of city after city. But I think it also just plays on people — giant developers, tycoons of various sorts — who actually think they are philanthropic. It’s this dynamic that kind of enables it to keep happening."

Even so, Ruch feels there’s hope.

"There is certainly a trend of increasing scrutiny," he said. "The gaps and the cracks in the myths are starting to be seen."

And it’s not just community organizers and urban planning professors who are seeing them. Toronto isn’t the only city where people have turned down the opportunity to host the Games. Just last year, Boston’s citizens told the politicians, developers, construction magnates and public relations pros, “Thanks, but no thanks.” In the wake of the rubble-side of Rio, more cities may opt out of the competition. But in contemplating what he calls his “fantasy world,” MIT Professor Lawrence Vale entertains an alternative possibility.

"I wish that there was a way that people would say, 'OK, we’re going to host the Olympics. What are the two things that our city really, really, really needs to cope with?' I’m hoping that they would share my list of those two things: deal with affordable housing, and deal with climate change. And that would become the driving force for the kinds of investment choices," Vale said. "Why not really do something that embraces the opportunity to support the lowest income people and the most vulnerably situated people in a city? Wouldn’t that be the Olympic spirit that we ought to embrace?"

As another edition of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” entertains us, maybe it’s an appropriate time make that fantasy a reality, and to add “Wiser, More Just, More Compassionate” to that Olympic motto.

This segment aired on August 6, 2016.


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Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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