Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories, which have recently appeared in Atlanta magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
Nearly six years ago, while reporting on the proposed Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, I found out about a neighborhood called Lightning that once existed where the stadium would be built. Looking on an official city map, I couldn’t find any mention of Lightning. But this neighborhood kept surfacing in conversations I had with residents of other historic black neighborhoods that sat in the shadow of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium as it was being built.
Lightning was razed to make room for the Georgia Dome, which became home to the Falcons once it opened in 1992. After building the Georgia Dome, city and state officials embarked on a quest to make Atlanta a Super Bowl host city, a goal they accomplished in 1994 and, again, in 2000. A demolition crew imploded the Georgia Dome in 2017 to make way for the site of the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where this upcoming Sunday thousands of football fans, clad in their New England Patriots and L.A. Rams jerseys, will watch Super Bowl LIII.
Throughout Atlanta, visitors will see freshly painted murals celebrating the city’s civil rights legacy. Those murals will bear the faces of fallen civil rights activists, pay tribute to the students who stepped foot on the Atlanta University Center’s campuses, and recognize the plight of the region’s undocumented youth. Passersby will also be reminded of the potential and unfulfilled promise of the beloved civil rights community.
They won’t, however, learn about Lightning.
Lightning’s former residents, meanwhile, have never forgotten about what happened to their neighborhood. Likewise, they never forgot about how one of their final wishes—to simply be remembered—went ignored. And it’s a wish that officials can, and should, grant them once the Super Bowl ends. One way of doing that: A historic marker for Lightning.
Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a pastor who once organized on behalf of Lightning residents, says it’s “never too late” to erect a marker—but that we must find ways today to “give voice to neighborhoods before it’s too late.”
“The time is right to bring attention to that long lost community,” says Herman “Skip” Mason, a former Morehouse College archivist, who administers the 21,000-member Facebook group Vanishing Black Atlanta History. “[Lightning] is an important part of the history of Atlanta, particularly black Atlanta. Just because it’s wiped out physically doesn’t mean it has to be wiped out historically. This is a community that should be remembered.”
Ahead of Super Bowl LIII, I interviewed nearly two-dozen people who had lived or spent time in Lightning, and compiled their stories of the razed neighborhood for an oral history project for the Bitter Southerner.
In that black working-class community, mothers once made home-cooked Christmas meals inside their shotgun shacks and fathers punched the clock at nearby factories and railroad yards. While Lightning’s children felt the heavy weight of poverty—it was one of Atlanta’s last neighborhoods to get paved roads, electricity, and sewage—they could see flickers of the possibility promised by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived in a red-brick ranch just a few blocks west in Vine City.
The roots of Lightning’s erasure can be traced back to the years after King’s assassination. The value of its land, combined with years of government disinvestment following urban renewal, made it attractive to developers eager to expand Atlanta’s downtown footprint. For years, officials pushed forward the expansion of the Georgia World Congress Center, a massive convention hall that hosts national conferences, and quietly drafted plans for the Georgia Dome. In some cases, the state condemned Lightning families’ homes and businesses. Local organizers trying to ensure “fair play for Lightning” pushed for higher sums of relocation funds for residents and featured a plea to preserve one of Lightning’s oldest houses. But their calls mostly went ignored.
“The oldest…working-class housing … (Victorian, Craftsman, and bungalow) is in Lightning,” one activist wrote in a memo to a local preservation group. “No historic conservation status has ever been assigned to the area, and it receives no mention in books prepared on the historic housing of Atlanta. This has been an oversight.”
Atlanta made immense sacrifices, and took gaudy steps, to host Super Bowls. The minimum requirement for a city to lure the Super Bowl is a pledge to build a new stadium. Atlanta, though, went well beyond the stadium structure itself. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the city’s bid for the Super Bowl was reportedly worth $46 million—a combination of public and private funds that included a six-figure party for the media, “VIP private airport accommodations” for NFL team owners, and a commitment that the league will keep all revenue from ticket sales.
Beyond that, the city built a $23 million pedestrian bridge from the stadium to Vine City’s MARTA public train station that one critic described as a "bridge for a billionaire." (The bridge will be closed for this year’s Super Bowl.) Officials are quick to tout the financial benefits of pro sports stadiums (an assertion challenged by sports economists), but rarely mention the cost of displacement. They overlook the fact that cities from North Carolina to California built facilities on land that once belonged to minority communities. Look ahead to the Rams’ forthcoming stadium in Inglewood, California—the site of the 2022 Super Bowl—and you’ll hear residents already concerned about how gentrification might displace even more residents.
Jerome Banks, a former Lightning resident, knows the pain of erasure first-hand. As a 12-year-old boy, Jerome Banks prayed Atlanta would one day become a real football town—a town with a team he could root for on Sundays. And then his dreams finally came true with the creation of an NFL franchise, the Falcons, on June 30, 1965. That summer, he’d run from his house to a nearby empty field in Lightning, where his friends would throw the football around, like the athletes they admired.
“There was this strange irony of happiness and pride with the city landing a football team,” said Banks, now in his mid-60s, who has written a manuscript inspired by his experiences, “compared to the unbelievable and silent destruction of [Lightning].”
The field where Banks and his friends played would eventually be erased to make way for Georgia Dome and, today, the site of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The financial backers of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, notably Falcons owner Arthur Blank, are seeking to compensate for the damage done to black neighborhoods beyond the stadium, such as Vine City and English Avenue. Blank has personally committed to investing more than $30 million in jobs training initiatives, after-school youth programs, and health care resources serving residents of these neighborhoods. But some of Lightning’s former residents are skeptical of those efforts.
“I think of Vine City—how you can ride through, how you can see what you have left,” says Rosalyn Dupree-Tillis, whose mother was born and raised in Lightning. “You can’t ride through Lightning.”
Should former residents and new visitors return to that area, they won’t find vestiges of Lightning’s past. But they will see a historic marker for the now-demolished Georgia Dome. It doesn’t mention the neighborhood sacrificed so that it could be built in the first place.
In a city heralded as a Black Mecca, touting itself as a hub of opportunity for black people, Atlanta must grapple with past and present systemic discrimination against its low-income black communities. Lightning wasn’t the first black Atlanta neighborhood to be erased. Plans for the Atlanta Civic Center led, in the 1960s, to the demise of Buttermilk Bottom, a working-class black community on the city’s east side. And a 1970s MARTA station parking deck project replaced Johnsontown, a black community in one of the city’s whitest neighborhoods.
Lightning likely won’t be the last to vanish in a city with a poor record of historic preservation. We need to commemorate Lightning both for the community it was and the cautionary tale it became for the price of urban progress. Lightning’s erasure, and the very fact that officials deemed it disposable, make it worthy of a historical marker.
When I spoke with Atlanta Councilmember Michael Julian Bond about Lightning—a neighborhood he once canvassed on behalf of his father, civil rights icon Julian Bond—he pledged to push for a historic marker. That won’t fix the dark legacy, he conceded, but recognizing it is a start.
“There’s probably so much history that’s been covered over, dredged, dug up, taken away from areas,” Bond told me. “And we’ll never know.”