‘88 national convention: Atlanta’s coming of age
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
How quickly we forget.
Until I received an email from Judith Webb a few days ago, it probably would not have occurred to me that we had just passed a milestone for Atlanta.
Twenty years ago - July 18 to July 21, 1988 - to be exact, Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention at the now-demolished Omni Coliseum. (Denver will have that honor next month).
Judith, a public relations consultant, was marketing director for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Forward Atlanta campaign. As such, she had a unique perspective on how the convention helped propel our city nationally and internationally.
Please read her email with her musings to a couple of us old-timers. They were too good not to share with the rest of you.
From Judith Webb
Revisionist history has always been big in Atlanta, and current wisdom would suggest that we finally became an international city July 19th, 1996, when the Olympic torch arrived here.
But actually it was 20 years ago today, with Henry Grady’s words ringing in our ears, that Atlanta had its coming out party. Our brave and beautiful city made its global prime time debut with the opening gavel of the 1988 Democratic National Convention, and for a few of us it would forever change how we marked time, and measured success.
By some reckoning, probably half of the people that live in greater Atlanta today weren’t here then. But those who were — well, most of us were well rooted in the red clay and restive times the 1980s had brought to our city. And we knew we’d been handed a gift so precious, so unique, that we frequently held our collective breath, hoping, praying we were worthy of the task.
It wasn’t a small one. Despite our self-confident swagger, we were as insecure as your average 16 year old on a first date. Would we be pretty enough? Smart enough? Could we keep from embarrassing ourselves with our naiveté and our self-promotion hormones in overdrive?
From the AJC to WSB to CNN, from the Atlanta Chamber to ACVB, from the Mayor’s office to Industry and Trade, we went into high gear.
And in so many ways, because of hundreds of physical assets and a thousand intangible ones, we pulled off something extraordinary, and things were never quite the same.
From the city’s leadership to the world media, there was an overwhelming sense that our hosting of the convention was a success. Nothing happened from any standpoint to cast a shadow on the city (Rob Lowe’s escapades, not withstanding). The economic impact turned out to be better than expected. Everything worked mostly. The complaints were mostly related to convention logistics. The Omni was too small (though we know part of the problem was that the podium and stage kept growing) and the hotel rooms were too far out.
But we showed off our city as a modern, efficient metropolis, a great place to live, and work, and do business. And in the days leading up to the gavel, we came together as a true community with a renewed sense of urgency to get some projects underway or off the drawing board — MARTA to the airport; the widening of International Boulevard, just to name two. Delta began air service to Tokyo and Seoul, and Midtown was being birthed, with IBM and AT&T painting a new skyline. There was an interesting effort going on in the background with something called the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation that was morphing into the Atlanta Organizing Committee even as the gavel struck.
But it was how we told the bigger story that summer — the story of a city coming of age— that even today makes me so proud. We developed what is still a wonderful video about Atlanta that was rich with imagery and imagination, and distributed more than 14,000 media kits. We trained some 200 PRSA volunteers and deployed 50 students to help out in four round the clock media centers. We answered 51,000 questions (my favorite one still was the earnest call from the Today Show asking if grits was singular or plural) assisted with 2,600 stories (first time we’d hosted a live Today Show and we had huge profiles in National Geographic, the FT, Economist, USA Today and all manner of European and Asian papers). W coordinated more than 550 interviews (OK — Andy Rooney’s interview with me about why there weren’t peach trees on Peachtree Street was a personal favorite). But my real heroes were Andy Young and George Berry, who always made time for talking to the media and always hit their marks.
And all that effort, the coordinated, seamless, do the right thing approach, paid off in spades. For days, you couldn’t turn on a TV newscast, read a newspaper or magazine that did not mention Atlanta, (and yep, for all intents and purposes, the Internet was still an engineer’s wet dream).
For the most part, it was everything we could have hoped for. The stories talked with some astonishment about the reality of Southern hospitality (remember the Boston Globe reporter who wrote about TRYING to get someone to be rude to him and not being able to make it happen?) The beauty of our city in a forest took a lot of people by surprise as much as the modernness of it. Our thriving business environment got lots of attention — accomplishing one of the key reasons we went after the convention in the first place. And of course the strength and leadership in our African American community got a lot of well-deserved attention.
Some of the coverage reminded us of problems we still needed to address. An effort to move the homeless out from under the viaduct got lots of coverage and led to a white hot spotlight on the vast divide (racial and economic) that was still present then. And, to be fair, is still present now — at least the economic part.
We went on later that fall to be named the US city that could compete for the opportunity to host the 1996 Olympic Games, and with that, a not so subtle shift in our sense of community began. When the torch was lit that July night 8 years later, we weren’t the same city as we had been, and because of events — some beyond our control and some of our own making — it was a very different Atlanta that was showcased to the world.
But for a handful of us, it was 20 years ago today that our brave and beautiful city was - for a moment — the shining city on the hill. And it was really something.