ATLANTA -- A river runs through it.
In this landlocked city, the "river" is a thin, blue line, a 26.2-mile streak of paint marking the route that the world's top marathoners will follow when the Olympic Games that begin tonight head toward the finish line in their event.
It is a route that takes them from the cradle of the civil rights movement to the lingering ghosts of the Civil War. It leads past both classically Southern, white-columned homes and glassy, nouveau Southern skyscrapers. There are stretches where you could be nowhere else in the world, and others that plunk you in generic Starbucksville.
The route, in other words, paints a portrait -- a quick sketch, actually -- of the city which plays host to the Games in their 100th year. And it's a route that is better appreciated at a slower pace, or better yet, in a car, rather than with sweat dripping into your eyes and cramps stabbing your calves as the marathoners no doubt will experience it.
For the first-time visitor, it almost too tidily ties together the city's two most iconic personalities, whose birthplaces come near the start and end of the route.
"To most people, Atlanta is Margaret Mitchell and Martin Luther King [Jr.]," said Yuji Kato, a producer with NHK-TV, a Japanese network, who has filmed segments at both locations.
Leaving Olympic Stadium downtown, the runners will head north past the Braves' stadium and the State Capitol before turning eastward toward Sweet Auburn, the black historic district that -- gave birth to the eloquent, martyred leader of the civil rights movement.
Just down Auburn Avenue from Ebenezer Baptist Church, the pulpit that was his springboard to international renown, is the two-story house where King was born in 1929. Tourists, including many blacks, have long flocked to the house and now, with the influx of Olympic visitors, all languages and accents can be heard on the porch of this national historic site.
One day earlier this week, Kato and a crew shot a live segment in front of the house. Even as the Japanese anchor, in running attire, jogged in place on the blue line painted on the street -- among Japan's best hopes for gold is the women's marathon, Kato explained -- another film crew, from France, arrived to set up.
Elsewhere on Auburn, route-followers will see a business district that struggles to survive as the population, black and white alike, has moved outward from the central core into the suburbs and edge cities of modern-day America. The big, old churches remain, as do established businesses like the family-owned Haugabrooks Funeral Home. But in the place of the doctor's and other professional offices of this one-time bustling district are the depressing tiny convenience stores and endless hair salons of inner-city life.
The Olympics have brought visitors and jobs, but for how long, wonders Walter Brown, 34, pausing from mixing the cement he'll use to build a structure that will house new vending machines on Auburn Avenue.
"It's only until the Olympics," he says of the sudden influx of construction work. "But after the Olympics, you don't know what you're going to find."
A run by the park
The marathon route, after its jog into Sweet Auburn, loops back toward downtown, offering runners a peek of the skyline as they proceed north on Piedmont Avenue. Running through a district of civic buildings and huge hotels that have made Atlanta a favorite convention city, the racers will pass the city's largest green space, Piedmont Park, home of the ultra-establishment Piedmont Driving Club -- which only accepted its first black member in 1994 -- where the city's elite held a reception for the stars of "Gone With the Wind" before the movie premiered in Atlanta in 1939.
Unfortunately for the runners, they won't have a chance to veer into the cool green Atlanta Botanical Gardens, where 3,500 plants have been meticulously arranged into the shape of a 150-foot Olympic torch, mostly for the benefit of the blimps and corporate and news helicopters flying overhead.
Nor will they have the time to slip into the businesses farther up Piedmont that have drawn many other visitors here -- nude clubs.
"Girls Girls Girls," announces the neon sign at the club at 2075 Piedmont Road, the very one that inspired the 1987 hit song of that name by Motley Crue. It's Tattletales, a 20-year-old bar that has drawn the likes of Mick Jagger, Stephen Baldwin (during the filming of the just-opened movie "Fled"), Charlie Sheen, Chuck Norris and a lot of Chicago Cubs (friends of bouncer Reed Young, himself a former athlete).
Such a friendly place
Tattletales prides itself on friendliness -- it does have a down-home, blue-collar feel -- rather than joining the trend toward the more upscale, "gentlemen's club" style of competitors like the Gold Club up the street or Cheetah's, which showed interest in opening a club in Baltimore.
"Portia says hello to someone in Baltimore that she won't name," a minx-eyed, raven-haired dancer says mischievously before heading down the catwalk to strut in high-heeled, thigh-high boots and a sequined bikini. (Hint: the unnamed someone is an Oriole.)
Those who like their entertainment fully clad will find it farther north on Piedmont in the Buckhead area that is the choice nightspot of the Land Rover set. There is the pink- and blue-neoned Buckhead Diner -- an upscale place where the meatloaf has shiitake mushrooms rather than oatmeal filler -- and the Baja Beach Club and other now tired and familiar chain
After the marathon route takes an extended foray northeastward, heading up a stretch of Peachtree Road full of gated communities and rich people's stores (Saks, Lord & Taylor) toward Oglethorpe University, it goes back down Peachtree, through the heart of Buckhead. There, revelers will find a mix of old Buckhead -- the hardware store, the newsstand -- as well as the new and the temporary.
Many clubs have opened in time to capture Olympic dollars, including facsimiles of the kind you have to stand in line and pay a cover to enter, a la New York and South Beach. It seems every free inch of space has sprouted a temporary stage for outdoor concerts and plastic tents selling Coke, Speedo and other officially sanctioned merchandise.
Heading down Peachtree -- which incidentally has no actual peach trees -- the route takes runners into a strictly modern downtown Atlanta, with just a few reminders of its past.
In the space of a few blocks of Peachtree in midtown, Margaret Mitchell was born, raised, wrote "Gone With the Wind," and died. Now dominated by skyscrapers and businesses, Peachtree was once home to generations of old Atlanta families like the &L; Mitchells.
Where she went to school is now the Equifax building; where she was raised is commemorated only by a plaque (at 1402 Peachtree). And where she wrote the best-selling novel of all time -- a sweeping elegy to the Old South that was shattered by the Civil War -- is a burned-out apartment building just off Peachtree and 10th.
The building was left abandoned for years, no one thinking to restore it for the thousands of tourists who come to Atlanta looking for Tara, until recently.
"It was at the center of Atlanta's ambivalence about its history," says Mary Rose Taylor, a former broadcast journalist who heads the foundation restoring the apartment building.
The self-proclaimed capital of the New South could not find a way to acknowledge Mitchell without seeming to embrace the Old South of plantations and slavery that her book represents.
Fixing up 'GWTW' birthplace
Since then, though, Atlanta has become "more comfortable in our own clothes," she believes. With a bow to political correctness and good old-fashioned civic boosterism -- not to mention the fuel that runs Atlanta, corporate sponsorship, in this case $4.5 million from Daimler-Benz -- the birthplace of "GWTW" is being restored. Two suspicious arsons have slowed down the job expected to be done in time for the Olympics.
Today, Mitchell's image has been retooled as a forward-anticipating civil rights figure. The foundation emphasizes that Mitchell funded numerous scholarships for black students to be able to attend Morehouse College.
One of the beneficiaries of that largess, Otis Smith, became a pediatrician and president of the local NAACP chapter.
He remembers standing on the street watching the motorcade carrying the stars to the premiere of "Gone With the Wind" at the old Grand Theater, where the Georgia Pacific Building now stands. "We couldn't go to any of the other festivities," Dr. Smith, 71, said of those days of segregation.
Still, he is comfortable with the book, choosing not to reject it for its portrayal of slaves as other African-Americans have.
"That's the way things were then," he says. "You can't change history."
But as Atlanta's history has shown, you can shape the future. This city has risen from the ashes before. Tonight, a friendlier torch will pass through the gates of a spanking new stadium, and tomorrow is another day.
Pub Date: 7/19/96