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SEVERAL sleek skyscrapers that have cropped up in Atlanta over the last few years look poised to blast off into space: The pointed tops of the buildings resemble the tips of rockets glinting in the sun, reaching toward the heavens.
These gleaming structures are metaphors for this capital city - the economic engine of the South. Atlanta seems to be on an endless quest to propel itself into the future as one of the world's great metropolises.
Part of the impetus to forge ahead is the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, a prize event the city captured in 1990. For three weeks, the eyes of the world will be on Atlanta. And Atlanta wants to keep that gaze focused on itself and become known as an international city, a status it has been struggling to achieve since the 1970s.
"On the circuit to win the bid, people would say to me: `I know about the city. I've heard about Atlantic City,' " laughs Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. "Now that mistake is not made. Atlanta is known."
During a five-minute interview in the sparkling new marble and glass-enclosed city hall, Mayor Jackson lists some of the efforts to push Atlanta into the global arena. "We're building 24 new international gates at Hartsfield Airport," he says. "We're doing a lot with trade; we're among the most successful states at attracting foreign investment."
Though the leap into the international ranks has yet to be realized, Atlanta is growing significantly from a national perspective. The metropolitan area of 2.8 million leads the United States in construction of single family housing and added 37,000 new jobs in 1992.
Small businesses in computer software and health technology have helped fuel the growth, and Atlanta is the No. 3 telecommunications center in the US, says Donald Ratajczak, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University here. In 1991, Fortune Magazine named Atlanta as the top city for business.
"Idaho, Utah, Nevada are growing faster than we are, but we're doing darn good," Dr. Ratajczak says.
As a result of the growth over the last few decades, more than 75 percent of the people who live here are not native Atlantans but have been flocking - mainly to the suburbs - from the South, Midwest, and other regions of the US.
"I'm from New Jersey where everything is closed in. Here it's wide open," says Jackie Drummond, sitting on a bench near a busy downtown intersection with her children, Jasmine and Jihad. "Atlanta is steadily growing, and there are so many opportunities here."
The idea of Atlanta as a hub of growth is echoed in conversations with city officials, business people, educators, and others who can't seem to promote the city enough. Boosterism has been a fact of life here since General Sherman's Union forces burned Atlanta in 1864.
"You always have the huckster image of the South," Ratajczak says. "What's wrong with that? If you have the product, all you're doing is informing people, and if you don't have the product, you won't be able to carry it off too long anyway."
But for many, Atlanta is not a land of opportunity. Not far from the city's glittering high-rises are areas ravaged by crime, drugs, and poverty. Violent crime increased by nearly 300 percent over the last five years, and an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people are homeless. The city ranked ninth poorest in the US in 1990, according to the US Census Bureau. One of Atlanta's residents, former president Jimmy Carter, is attempting to tackle these and other urban problems through the Atlanta Project, which cha nnels thousands of volunteers and talent from the community to help the inner city.
In the basement of a community center next to St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Brian Allen and Charles Harris are huddled over a computer. They are working with the Atlanta Project on a plan to help the homeless by providing them with a center, open 24 hours a day, where they can make phone calls for jobs, take showers, and utilize other services.
"We're trying to get homeless people to get back up and help themselves," says Mr. Allen, who has been in and out of homelessness and currently lives in a building about to be boarded up. He predicts that the number of homeless will have soared further by the Olympics "unless we can come up with a plan to house people and get them off the street."
When the conversation turns to Atlanta's pros and cons, Mr. Harris, a Louisiana native who made circuit boards for the military until he lost his job and spent three months being homeless last year, says, "I love it. There are a variety of activities, employment opportunities ... but Atlanta is too money hungry. If they can't make a dollar off something, they don't want it."
The city's eagerness to make a buck has drawn criticism from some city council members, who question how ethical some strategies are. Last year, for example, the mayor hired an adman whose job is to raise millions of dollars for the city by renaming streets and parks for corporate sponsors. As part of this plan, Visa USA in January became the "official credit card of Atlanta" and will pay the city $3 million over the next five years.
"I think it's kind of silly," says Dana White, a history professor at Atlanta's Emory University, "but I'm to a point where nothing surprises me."
Dr. White, an expert on Southern cities and cultures, helped write and host an eight-part series that aired on Atlanta's public television station, called "The Making of Modern Atlanta" (four installments ran in 1991 and four in March 1993). He says Atlanta, unlike a number of other US cities that have distinct ethnic enclaves or neighborhoods, basically has had only two groups that have shaped life here: blacks and whites.
It's known that blacks, who account for about 69 percent of the city's population, control the politics, while whites control the money. Atlanta is "black-operated but not black-owned," Harris says. "It's like I run the house, but you own it. It's a robotic city."
Still, the city is proud that it never suffered the race riots of the 1960s. Mayor Jackson boasts: "We've never claimed to have perfect race relations, but we have the best race relations of any city."
Atlanta also has probably the fastest-growing black middle class of any metropolitan area in the country, White says, explaining that two black middle classes exist in Atlanta. One group, though living in the suburbs, still maintains ties to established downtown churches. The other group, many of whom are corporate transferees, have virtually no connection with black Atlanta and live in black enclaves farther out in the suburbs.
Home to the Carter Center; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc.; Cable News Network; the "Underground" shopping area; professional sports such as the Braves baseball team, Falcons football, Hawks basketball, and Knights hockey; and large corporations like Coca-Cola, Atlanta faces several challenges, White says. These include revitalizing downtown so the city is a place that attracts people at night as well as during the day and integrating the disadvantaged into a prosper ous metropolitan center.
"After the euphoria of the Olympics announcement, the city went into sort of a decline in confidence, which I think is still going on," White says. "We've just gone through several months of [questioning] whether they would build [an Olympic] stadium.... It's taking a lot of time to get things done, and Atlanta has always prided itself on getting things done right away. It's not working out that smoothly."