Thursday, July 2, 2015

Can the Bluff be Revitalized Without Being Gentrified?

Atlanta city officials and community organization leaders discuss past success in the Old Fourth Ward and East Lake, and how similar strategies may be used to rehabilitate Atlanta’s most dangerous neighborhood. 

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, left, and East Lake Foundation President Daniel Shoy, Jr., were among the speakers at a recent Atlanta Press Club event, titled "Breaking Cycles of Poverty While Gentrifying with a Heart." (Photo Credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

At the height of the Great Recession, reporter Jim Burress recalled pitching a story about the cheapest real estate in Atlanta. He said he was amazed to find listing after listing of homes in the English Avenue and Vine City area priced $10,000 and less.

For the assignment, Burress contacted a realtor about a house for sale in the neighborhood. Burress said he was told that it was physically impossible to enter the home; its doors and windows were completely boarded up. However, the realtor said he would walk Burress around the property -- just as long as he had a police escort with him.

The dilapidated community, commonly referred to as the Bluff, intrigued Burress so much he decided to revisit the area. That drive, Burress said, was short-lived. When more than a dozen people crowded around his car at an intersection, he said he sped out of the neighborhood.

The 30314 and 30318 ZIP codes are among the most notorious in Atlanta. In 2010, a Walletpop report listed the Carter Street area as not only the most dangerous community in the city, but the fifth most dangerous area in the entire nation. Each year, one out of every eight residents living there becomes the victim of a violent crime.

According to 2010 Census data, the combined Vine City and English Avenue population is barely 6,000. In both neighborhoods, the median household income is just half that of the rest of the state, and roughly a third of the rest of Atlanta. The likelihood of being robbed there is 10 times the national average, while the odds of being murdered is eight times greater. Poverty is deeply entrenched in the community; in English Avenue, nearly a fifth of residents earn less than $9,000 a year.

“How did people not know about this extreme level of poverty?” Burress asked at an Atlanta Press Club roundtable discussion last month. “That’s when I found out it was the center for the heroin trade, not only in Atlanta, but the southeastern United States.”

Addressing public safety

Numerous revitalization plans have recently surfaced for the communities residing in the shadow of the Georgia Dome. As part of a financing arrangement with the city of Atlanta for the new Falcons stadium, the Arthur Blank Family Foundation has agreed to invest $15 million into workforce development in the area. Another $15 million has been committed to the community by Invest Atlanta, via funding from the Westside Tax Allocation District.

Last year, Mayor Kasim Reed announced the formation of the Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit, independent entity designed to draw philanthropic and corporate support to the Vine City and English Avenue corridor. Among its board members are representatives of Bain and Company, Jackmont Hospitality and United Distributors.

Before any revitalization efforts can take place, however, Atlanta’s top cop said the drug trade in the Bluff has to be stamped out.

“We have to provide a safe community before we can do anything, then we have to think about how we‘re going to educate people more effectively,” said Chief of Police George Turner. “We have to make sure that people feel secure … they are not coming to that community if they don’t feel secure.”

The talk of new neighborhood revitalization initiatives, he said, is reminiscent of similar efforts that took place a quarter century ago.

“Years ago, we built the Georgia Dome, with all the promises that are being made now,” he said. “I remember working as a lieutenant in Zone 1, with Mayor Franklin when we did a ribbon cutting on homes over in the same community.”

Within 10 years, Atlanta Chief of Police George Turner said
he believes the Bluff will be a revitalization success story, a'la
East Lake Meadows and Centennial Olympic Park.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)
Today, he said that same area leads Atlanta in homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults.

He said the city, however, is heavily investing in public safety in the Bluff. In addition to installing more surveillance equipment and license plate readers, he said the police department has purchased homes in the community, which will soon be manned by officers. That, Turner said, will create more opportunities for "community policing" techniques in the area.

“We have to have leaders within our police departments that understand this whole concept, that they’re reaching out to these community leaders and they are developing processes, developing ways to be able to police these communities," he said. "It comes down to dialogue."

To keep juvenile offenders from entering the “school-to-prison pipeline,” he said the Atlanta Police Foundation will also begin offering more youth diversion programs in the neighborhood. “If we can prevent that child from moving deep into the systems,“ he said, “we have a chance of that person being educated.”

The neighborhood’s enormous heroin problem, he said, is being tackled with help from high-ranking federal officials.

“I had a visit from Sally Yates, who is now our Deputy Attorney General,” he said. “She came and said ‘I want to try a drug market deal in Vine City and English Avenue’ … for the last four months, with our federal and state partners, we went in and purchased the drug heroin from over 80 different buyers, multiple times.”

He said 28 of the most violent offenders were apprehended under federal warrants. Late last month, he said the remaining offenders were called in and given an ultimatum; as long as they complied with their orders -- which included obtaining an education and finding legitimate employment -- the charges against them would be dropped.

A “reversal” took place shortly thereafter, Turner said, with officers taking over a location and arresting drug-seekers. “We are going to let the individuals coming into that community know that this is not the same market it once was,” he said.

Although crime in the Bluff remains serious, Turner said the overall crime rate in Atlanta has decreased by nearly a third over the last five years. He said Mayor Reed is “laser-focused” on bringing Vine City and English Avenue’s numbers down as well, primarily through a greater emphasis on economic development.

“When you start talking about Westside Works, really understand that people have to be able to provide a living for themselves,” Turner said. “When I call a community 'a community,' you have to have someone living there.”

Interest in revitalizing the area, he said, is growing. “Last year, I probably had 20 different meetings with 20 different groups trying to do 20 different things in Vine City,” he said. “With all of the efforts associated with the Vine City and English Avenue community, I’m confident that community will be another one of those success stories, as you see in East Lake Meadows as well as Centennial Olympic Park.”

The East Lake model 

Circa 1995, the community surrounding the East Lake Meadows public housing project was gripped in despair. Fueled by a large drug trade, the crime rate in the neighborhood was 18 times the national average, while the unemployment rate rest at 86 percent. Education outcomes were abysmal; less than a tenth of the fifth grade students at nearby Charles R. Drew Elementary met the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) standards.

“Sixty percent of the adults that lived in East Lake Meadows relied on welfare, and the annual income was about $4,500,” said Daniel Shoy, Jr., president of the nonprofit East Lake Foundation. “You were more likely to be the victim of violent crime than you were to graduate high school.”

Over the last two decades, Shoy said major changes have happened in the community that was once nicknamed “Little Vietnam.”

The wide-scale revitalization efforts in the East Lake Meadows
community have paid off, said East Lake Foundation President
Daniel Shoy, Jr. Over the last two decades, crime in the area
has fallen by 90 percent, while educational outcomes have
improved by more than 80 percent. (Photo Credit: James Swift)
Violent crime in East Lake Meadows is now just a tenth of what it was 20 years earlier. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is down to just 20 percent, while 98 percent of students at the Charles R. Drew Charter School  -- the first of its kind in the Atlanta Public Schools system -- meet state testing standards.

“Our model is not rocket science,” Shoy said. “We decided if you focus on a geographic area at the level of a neighborhood, if you focused on housing, if you focused on education, if you focused on wellness and you had a community quarterback, what we call a lead organization, to really drive that work working with partners, most anything was possible.”

When the East Lake Foundation began, there were 1,400 residents living in 650 public housing units. Of those, Shoy said close to two-fifths were unlivable, with shattered and boarded-up windows a common sight.

In 1998, East Lake Foundation founder Tom Cousins struck a deal with the Atlanta Housing Authority to demolish the East Lake Meadow units. Replacing it was the Villages of East Lake -- a mixed-income, 542 unit housing development consisting of both subsidized public housing and market-rate apartments. It marked the beginning of a large-scale revitalization project, which also included the construction of new educational facilities and family centers within the community.

The arrival of a Publix supermarket in 2000 marked the opening of the first new grocery store in the area in four decades. An "unbanked" community for years, Shoy said the opening of two banks alongside the grocery store solved one of the problem's biggest crime challenges; before, he said residents had to use check cashing businesses and keep the money in their homes, encouraging burglaries.

The quick turnaround in living conditions was encapsulated in a quote from the late Eva Davis, a past president of the East Lake Meadows Residents’ Association who died in 2012. “We tore down hell,” she famously remarked, “and built heaven.”

Finding a balance between subsidized public housing, low-income affordable housing and market rate units, Shoy said, can be a challenge. The same “disruptive model” employed in East Lake, he said, may not prove as effective in the Bluff.

“It’s not this linear thing and it’s not this static thing at all,” he said. “The mixed-income housing approach that we have, the 50 percent public housing units and the 50 percent market rate … you really want a third, a third and a third.”

Rebuilding the Fourth Ward

Neighborhood activist Mtamanika Youngblood moved to Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward in 1985. Her home along Sweet Auburn Avenue was just blocks away from the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you wandered one block away from Dr. King’s birth home, you found yourself in what I could only categorize as an abyss,” she said. “Mostly who were there were low-income, elderly female residents who really were hanging on in a neighborhood that had been devastated by disinvestment, and to some extent, crime.”

A national historic site with a Hilton Hotel nearby, she believed it wouldn’t be long before someone made efforts to revitalize the community. After two years, however, she said no such progress had occurred.

In 1987, she joined the Historic District Development Corporation, an organization founded by Coretta Scott King. Youngblood then started asking residents about their top priorities.

“The Historic District was basically a neighborhood of vacant lots and dilapidated houses,” she said. “We needed residents, we needed to be a place that was like a neighborhood.”

Youngblood, who would eventually become president of the organization, said tackling housing was the first step toward revitalizing the neighborhood. Structure rehabilitation initiatives began, and the corporation partnered with local banks to build new housing on empty real estate. Using “neighborhood activist tactics,” she said her organization was able to wrest homes away from poorly-managed operations.

Historic District Development Corporation Past President
Mtamanika Youngblood said she is concerned by the rapid rate
of gentrification in Atlanta. "It's becoming very economically
unaffordable just for regular folks," she said, "and if we don't do
something about it, we're going to be like San Francisco." (Photo
Credit: James Swift)
“We rehabbed their homes, and always offered to move them back at no expense to them at no additional increase in rent,” she said. “The point of what we were doing was really to maintain that fabric of community, which was mostly elderly but really dedicated folks.”

As of 2010, the Old Fourth Ward population stood at a little over 10,000. With new developments along the BeltLine, Highland Avenue, North Avenue and Ponce de Leon Avenue, the neighborhood has come to more or less represent the modern face of gentrification in Atlanta. Once comprising a near totality of the community, African-American residents now make up little more than half of Old Fourth Ward population; spurred by developments like the Ponce City Market and a slew of upscale multifamily units along Historic Fourth Ward Park, the white residential population increased more than 50 percent over the course of a decade.

Rising housing costs, Youngblood said, is not just pushing out lower-income residents -- it’s also a threat for mid-income earners, such as recent college graduates and older residents looking to downsize.

“We’re whitening Atlanta,” she said. “It’s becoming very economically unaffordable just for regular folks, and if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to be like San Francisco.”

Youngblood said a potential solution to this ongoing gentrification -- which could be used in early revitalization efforts in the Bluff -- are community land trusts.

“They are mechanisms for the community to own and control the land and therefore, whatever is on it, houses, businesses,” she said. “You have got to have a broad, diverse group of people working together to insure that you have a place for folks through their life cycles.”

The same approach that worked in the Old Fourth Ward in the late 1980s, she said, may not be enough to revitalize Atlanta’s distressed communities today.

“The underlying issue is really about public policy,” she said. “That’s the way to get a mix of incomes that includes moderate-income folks and middle income folks, and not just high-income folks.”

The city’s solution?

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall recalled growing up in southwest Atlanta.

“I had to catch the train from one part of the westside all the way through downtown and back to the other side of westside to go to high school,” he said. “We went through probably 10 different neighborhoods, with 20 different gangs and little crews.”

Atlanta’s old public housing projects, he said, were important community structures. “Even though people don’t have a lot of money, they can still have a community,” he said. “Once the projects left and you took 5,000 people out of a neighborhood, you ended up just have the shells of buildings.”

As Atlanta developments ramp up in the wake of a post-recession economy, he said neighborhoods in the city find themselves facing tough questions about increased gentrification and density.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall said he supports an
economic inclusion strategy. "We can't let market forces control
it all, because that won't be right," he said. "You get right by kind
of moving the pendulum somewhere closer to the middle, and
then it makes it work for everybody." (Photo Credit: James Swift)
“You don’t want new people unless they are the people you want, and you don’t want it to be bigger because it’s not in my backyard,” he said. “So how are you going to make it work?”

During master planning for the Old Fourth Ward, Hall said catalysts for spurring investments were carefully outlined. The best outcome, he said, was not rebuilding from the ground up -- instead, it was an approach that took existing assets and lifted them up.

“We’d have thousands of people come out to be a part of our vision assessments, and it was very inclusive,” he said. “As we went through that process, it gave us courage, it gave us pride about our neighborhood and everyone began to love Fourth Ward.”

Hall said he is a proponent of economic inclusion strategies, which he described as job planning around developments.

“We can’t let market forces control it all, because that won’t be right,” he said. “You get right by kind of moving the pendulum somewhere closer to the middle, and then it makes it work for everybody.”

In the Old Fourth Ward master plan, Hall said it was eventually decided that the 700 low-income units at Bedford Pines -- home to approximately 3,000 people -- would remain in the community and coupled with another 700 mixed-income units.

“You can have $700 or $800 a month units, $900 to $1100 and then you go higher,” he said. “That gives everybody a place to stay.”

Three new projects within the Boulevard section of Old Fourth Ward, Hall said, encompass that very philosophy. In addition to an 80-unit senior resident building, a rehabilitated unit for middle-aged residents and a new building targeting millennial tenants are both on the drawing board.

Real estate in the district, Hall said, is much sought after. “People who turned down $80,000 Fourth Ward homes in 2010 now want to buy the same properties at $500,000," he said.

A top priority, Hall said, is convincing developers they don't have to build 1,600 units to reap a profit. In exchange for building micro-units -- which are typically within the 300-to-400 square foot range -- he said he is willing to grant developers as much as a 50 percent increase in density.

With space for housing decreasing, he said he anticipates "experimental" units of the like becoming more common, not only throughout the Old Fourth Ward, but all of Intown Atlanta.

Will educational investments save the Bluff?

While initiatives seeking to curb crime and increase developments may make English Avenue and Vine City more desirable for revitalization investments, the panelists at the recent "Breaking Cycles of Poverty" discussion also pinpointed another possible driver for change -- education. 

Through educational investments, Turner said he personally witnessed the transformation of the East Lake Meadows community. 

“I came on the Atlanta Police Department. in 1981, when quite frankly, East Lake was one of the most challenged communities we were facing,” he said. “It was a combination of things that took place there ... obviously, it was a holistic effort to realize that education is a driver to success, in moving people out of poverty.”

Throughout Atlanta, Hall said he would like schools place a greater emphasis on job preparedness.

Atlanta reporter Jim Burress said doing a story about the Bluff
"shook" him to his core. "I just laid in bed, staring at the ceiling,
thinking 'how do I wrap my head  around this? It's so bad, I don't
even know where to begin,'" he said. (Photo Credit: James Swift)
"We need to get young people directly in line with the true skills the companies need,” he said. “If they are relocating in three years, why not have a program in the high school preparing them, so by the time it gets here when you are a ninth grader, you can go work for that company?” 

The ever-shrinking population in English Avenue and Vine City, he said, poses a huge problem. Due to low enrollment numbers, he said several schools within the Bluff had to be shuttered. 

"Atlanta's been great at building buildings, but not so great at building people," he said. "We don't really have schools that match up to these great, shiny things we're building ... we're just going to import people and push a lot of other folks over to the side." 

The state of local education, Shoy said, should be of great interest to developers and investors.

"The opportunity for the corporate community is to have a good, strong public education system," he said, "so that they can have people who are able to work for them, because they feel like they have high quality education choices.”

Establishing a “cradle to college pipeline,“ Shoy said, was a major component to East Lake’s success. In addition to the Drew Charter School, the new site also houses an early learning academy and an early education and family center.

“You can have the housing and the nicest amenities, but if you don’t have high quality education for families that have young children, then the rest really doesn’t matter,” he said. 

Attendee Dr. Joyce Morely, a member of the DeKalb County Board of Education, agreed. 

"I think poverty is recycled," she said. "You give people vouchers, but you never help give them an awareness, insight and understanding of what you are doing of what really goes on and how they move to the next level ... you take them from one neighborhood and move them to another neighborhood and you never prepare them.”

Via education, however, Morely said low-income residents are granted the "power and the authority" to make informed choices and make better decisions. "You can build a neighborhood, but until you build the people, the totality of the people," she said, "it’s not going to work.”

Burress recalled entering the Bluff with representatives of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. To prevent the spread of HIV, the organization hands out clean needles to IV drug users in the neighborhood. 

"It shook me in a way I have never been shaken before,” he said. “I just laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking ‘how do I wrap my head around this? It’s so bad, I don’t even know where to start.'”

In the newsroom, he said he and his colleagues frequently discuss the increasing costs of living inside the perimeter. 

"We put a lot of high income developments around the low income,” he said. “When we talk about diversity, it seems you need a mix of everybody, so how do you insure that?”

Burress said understanding the complex socioeconomic issues within Vine City and English Avenue requires deeper discussions about the impact of racism on poverty, and how poverty impacts educational opportunities. 

"There are so may factors in play that we don't talk about," he said, "that we have to." 

The problems in the Bluff, Youngblood said, are emblematic of a much larger issue within the city. 

"Atlanta is the poster child for economic inequality," she said. “If we want to think about how we can change this paradigm, we really have to think about the broader economic place we find ourselves in.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

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