'Rising Up' Documentary Follows Building Of 'The Benz' — And Revitalizing The Community
Businessman and philanthropist Arthur Blank made his fortune as co-founder of The Home Depot. He owns two professional sports teams, the Atlanta Falcons football team and Atlanta United FC soccer team, and is responsible for what is now a Westside Atlanta landmark: Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
One of the richest men in America, Blank in recent years established the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to funnel the majority of his wealth into philanthropic projects. A new documentary follows the ambitious construction of the place known as “The Benz,” as well as The Blank Family Foundation’s efforts at giving back to the community living in the stadium’s shadow.
Former investigative journalist and now established filmmaker David Lewis was advising Blank on another project when he brought up the idea of documenting the process on film. Lewis got the green light within months to start shooting what became Rising Up: A Westside Story. Blank is a main funder of the film.
In 2014, Blank laid out his vision for building an iconic, world class stadium in the middle of three Atlanta neighborhoods that had suffered from decades of poverty, crime and neglect.
“The first part of the job is building the stadium. That’s the easy part,” Blank told a crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony. “The more difficult part of the job is to make a lasting change in these communities and ways that we look back in years to come and say ‘We changed the human capital. We made a difference in people’s lives.’”
Lewis spent six years tracking both of those challenges. Time-lapsed footage shows construction of what turned out to be a phenomenally challenging build. The stadium’s signature eight-petal roof design proved to be an extremely complex feat of engineering — and, at $1.5 billion, expensive. Several real-time scenes track problems popping up on the site, and some tense team meetings with architects, builders, and project directors, and Blank himself.
Lewis’s camera in Rising Up also spends a lot of time on the surrounding streets with residents and community leaders. He went for ridealongs with police officers, developers, activists and community leaders, such as the Rev. Howard Beckham of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, who shared his concerns with Lewis on a nighttime drive through English Avenue and Vine City.
“We’ve had deaths, we’ve had overdoses,” Beckham said. “It’s hard to have a hero, when the person who has the most assets in your community is a drug dealer.”
Beckham is also founder of Integrity Transformations, a community development corporation. Like many residents, he had heard plenty of broken promises from developers, city officials, and well-intentioned programmers who scattered small grants here and there over the years, and then left.
Rising Up follows representatives of the Blank Family Foundation on the ground taking a different tack.
“What they really did was they spent a long time just talking to people," Lewis said. "Really engaging with the community. It wasn’t, ‘Gods descending to save the poor folks.’ It was people saying ‘Tell us what you need,’” Lewis said. “And they really sat down and they listened for a long time... not imposing their solutions from the outside, but there, in the community, figuring out what the best solutions would be.”
Blank’s foundation made a 20-year commitment to the Westside, setting up an office and the Westside Works job-training program in the community. There, people can get training in certified nursing aid, childhood development, information technology, the culinary arts, and construction — often a pipeline to work at the stadium building site.
In the film, Lewis tracks several trainees over the years. Most had little education. Some had been homeless, or incarcerated, such as Stephen Ware, a single father of twin boys that Lewis regarded as one of the heroes of Rising Up who acknowledges his past mistakes in the film, but speaks to the challenges of finding work with a criminal record.
“If you’ve spent time in jail or prison you get out, that’s still held over your head,” Ware said. “It’s hard to not go back and do some of the things you used to do, because you feel like you’re not being accepted.”
Some of the most moving scenes in Rising Up are of Westside residents thriving at their new jobs. A few end up in new furnished apartments. They can pay the bills and take care of their kids without the constant distress of worrying about money. Some, such as Thomas “Chef T” Ford, are told by family members, maybe for the first time, that they make them proud.
But, as Lewis’s film reveals, things did not work out for everyone. Lewis got close to all of them through the years, and feels haunted by the ones who came upon hard times or old habits and lost their jobs.
“A couple of the most heartbreaking stories for me are people who came so close, did so well, and then just screwed something up, and — and failed.” Lewis said.
Among them? Ware.
“He wanted to change [his boys’] lives and grabbed the opportunity,” Lewis said. “He did well as a regular construction worker and worked his way up to an office job and then, you know, something happened and he got fired. And it feels like he hasn’t recovered. And that just, for me, that was a heartbreak, because I was rooting for Steve. And I still am.”
While Ware dropped out of touch with Lewis after the filming, others he followed proudly share their stories to youth and community groups. There’s a lot of praise Westside Works and associated programs.
Still, some viewers may wonder if those Lewis saw slip through the cracks perhaps reveal opportunities for the Westside initiatives to adapt even more to community needs.
But the Blank Family Foundation is only six years into its 20-year commitment on the Westside. And, as Arthur Blank makes clear in Rising Up, he is not leaving the neighborhood.
Rising Up: A Westside Story, a documentary film by David Lewis Productions, airs Monday, Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. on GPB-TV, or stream in at GPB.org/live.