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Locked Out of Legacy

 

New urban renewal perpetuates old patterns of displacement, leaving Black residents in Grove Park and Bankhead looking for real solutions

Story by Nikishka Iyengar and Genia Billingsley

Photos by Aboubacar Kante

 

 

April 7, 2022

  The Bankhead Issue

How we reported this story:  Canopy Atlanta asked Bankhead community members about the journalism they needed and this story emerged from that feedback. Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Genia Billingsley, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, is one of the authors behind this storySupport our community-powered work today.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Canopy contributor Nikishka Iyengar is the founder and chief ecosystem officer at The Guild, an organization developing equitable real estate and programs for communities of color.

“If you really want to talk about the beauty of this city,
you gotta start in the parts that nobody wants to go to,
that so many people came from.”
— BankHead Priest, from the mixtape Westside Of Atlanta

IT’S A CLEAR, SUNNY SATURDAY AFTERNOON and Quincey Patterson is sitting in a car outside his childhood home on South Eugenia Place, reminiscing. His light camo jacket is no match for the deceptively cold Atlanta day, but the heat inside his car complements the warm memories he has of growing up in the Grove Park and Bankhead area, back when it was bustling with kids walking to school, playing in the streets, throwing footballs, and riding bikes. “Until that streetlight came on, we were out here every day,” he recalls fondly on his mixtape Westside of Atlanta

 

Atlanta’s Westside shaped Patterson’s identity as BankHead Priest—the rap moniker he goes by as an independent artist—but it’s no longer home. The street he grew up on in the ’90s is quiet now, checkered with vacant houses and an abandoned lot. 

 

You don’t see no kids out,” he says. “You don’t see nothing.” 

 

The home Patterson’s grandparents bought in 1965 and passed on to his aunt fell into foreclosure in 2008. The family became one of more than 240,000 Black homeowners across the country who lost their home when the recession hit. 

 

The 35-year-old rapper and small-business owner has had his eyes on the home recently, checking Zillow often with the intention of buying it back to preserve the family legacy. The house sold for $29,900 in 2008. It was then listed for $11,000 in 2010 before being lowered to $8,000 a month later, and eventually removed from being listed altogether. It finally sold for $49,000 in 2018.

 

Then, a few months ago, the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home made its way back on the market, listed for $339,000—a whopping 593 percent appreciation in just over three years. Even by Atlanta gentrification standards, it’s staggering. “How could you put a house in that price range when the other property values don’t match?” he says, gesturing to the surrounding vacant houses as he hints at the role speculation has played in the cultural erosion of his neighborhood. After the $44 million, 280-acre Westside Park opened in summer 2021 and Microsoft paid roughly $150 million to acquire land in the neighborhood with the goal of building a 90-acre campus, home prices immediately spiked, reaching the $400,000 to $500,000 range. 

 

Once an against-all-odds, tight-knit community of families that had remained resilient in the face of disinvestment after white flight occurred in the ‘60s, Grove Park is now starting to see its Black population shrink. Residents that have remained now have to drive miles to access a major grocery, pharmacy, or bank. “They took everything out and brought nothing back in except high-priced houses,” Patterson says. “They want that New Atlanta.”

“They took everything out and brought nothing back in except high-priced houses. They want that New Atlanta.”

— Quincey Patterson

In many ways, the New Atlanta he’s talking about is an old pattern we’ve seen unfold for years in historically Black neighborhoods like Grove Park and Bankhead. Redlining, compounded by highway construction and urban renewal beginning in the ‘50s—or as James Baldwin called it, “Negro removal”—followed by the demolition of housing projects and a sustained period of disinvestment, all but guaranteed these communities would remain devalued and vulnerable to speculation and gentrification. 

 

While the federal government may have been the key orchestrator of old urban renewal programs, the new model is fueled by public-private partnerships. Corporations, philanthropic institutions, private real estate capital, and city governments now work together in pursuit of the much-lauded goal of creating mixed-income communities. But mixed-income development does not inherently mean equitable development. This is especially true in the city known as the Black Mecca, where renewal is often synonymous with the removal of Black people.

 

As if on cue, a Maserati with Gwinnett County tags parks in front of Patterson’s childhood home. A couple of prospective buyers get out to take a tour. Patterson squints and points, “People like that is the only people able to afford these homes.” 

 Quincey Patterson outside of his childhood home on South Eugenia Place.

Grove Park Foundation, the largest nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the neighborhood, is currently following a mixed-income development playbook from the organization Purpose Built Communities (PBC). Originally created by the East Lake Foundation after the East Lake Meadows housing project was torn down in the mid ‘90s, the PBC model is geared toward breaking up “concentrated poverty” and racial segregation in inner cities. It is now being replicated in more than 20 cities across the country. 

 

But more than two decades after it was first instituted in East Lake, a new study contrasts the model’s touted success with a more sobering takeaway: The changes in poverty, crime, and educational attainment rates were possibly “the result of changes of people, not changes for people,” writes senior fellow and director of the Community Economic Development Hub at the Urban Institute Brett Theodos. Theodos points to the inherent displacement and replacement of low-income Black residents. Roughly 25 percent of the original residents of East Lake Meadows got to return and enjoy the transformation of the neighborhood. Subsequent development resulted in East Lake’s Black population decreasing by 31 percent and its white population increasing by 24 percent between 2000 and 2015.

 

Legacy residents of Grove Park are worried they’ll meet a similar fate, and have voiced concern about all the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood since surrounding housing projects like Bowen Homes and Perry Homes were torn down. “When the housing projects were in effect, we had a community,” says Tim Freeman, a local auto mechanic and dog trainer best known as a rabble-rouser in the neighborhood. Today, Grove Park is just a neighborhood, he clarifies, not a community. 

 

The tale of two Atlantas is perhaps best epitomized in the differences in how people view the city’s former housing projects. Whereas newer residents, institutions, and city government officials distance themselves from any mention of them, older Black residents recognize their value. When the projects were demolished, it wasn’t just affordable housing or a sense of community that was lost. There was also a clear dissolution of an organized political block that had advocated for the rights of poor and working-class people, according to scholar and author Akira Drake Rodriguez. 

 

In her book, Diverging Space for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing, Rodriguez outlines how Atlanta’s projects, including Perry Homes and Bowen Homes, were catalysts for building Black political power through their tenant associations. These resident groups were often led by Black matriarchs. Atlanta has the dubious distinction of being the first major city to demolish all of its large-scale housing projects—after being the first in the nation to build them. At a time when social and public housing are reentering the national dialogue as solutions to the affordable housing crisis, Atlanta’s history remains complicated.

 

For mixed-income private development to be truly equitable, Rodriguez offers a solution: Resource community organizing in a way that helps build back power and self-determination for legacy residents. Traditional community development—with its focus on creating affordable housing units, commercial corridors, or other physical assets like parks and recreational centers—is only one part of the formula. Community organizing, with the goal of creating lasting social change, is an often under-resourced but necessary second part.

Bankhead and Grove Park homes like this one have experienced price spikes reaching the $400,000 to $500,000 range. 

Over the past several years, in an attempt to get resident input into developments, multiple nonprofits and developers have hosted community listening sessions in Grove Park. But residents have been quick to point out the difference between check-the-box strategies and organizations actually listening to and implementing what residents want. 

 

“They tried to ‘meeting’ us to death and make us give up,” Freeman says, pointing out how the traditional community engagement process is exclusionary by design. “You can’t keep going to this stuff. Ain’t nobody paying you. But most of them that are coming to present, they on payroll for somebody.” 

 

Freeman believes institutions that are invested in the neighborhood should pay legacy residents for their time and labor to show up to such meetings. “Don’t make them feel like it’s a civic duty when we haven’t really been treated right as citizens,” he adds. 

 

Gavin McGuire, Grove Park Foundation’s Executive Director, acknowledges that there is work that remains to be done in this area. Since joining the organization in October of 2021, McGuire has been working to bridge the gaps in community engagement that have generated criticism from residents in the past. He is now working with Freeman and others in an attempt to support community-led initiatives. “There’s a quote that drives me: ‘Don’t do anything for me, without me,’” he says. 

 

In gentrifying neighborhoods like Grove Park, the question of who gets to be the voice of the community adds another layer of complexity. Developers and philanthropic institutions tend to only engage the neighborhood association, but according to residents, the loudest voices often come from the gentrifiers themselves. Instead of more outreach programs, residents say they need community benefits agreements (CBAs) from major developments.

 

Local leaders such as Devin Barrington-Ward, community organizer and recent city council candidate for District 9, which includes Grove Park, agree. “City council should mandate that any development seeking or receiving tax incentives should have a mandatory community benefits agreement,” he says. 

 

As legally binding contracts, CBAs are meant to hold developers accountable for sharing some of the wealth by providing additional amenities, livable wage jobs, or set-asides for deeper housing or commercial affordability. In Atlanta, however, CBAs—or the promise of them—have been used as a tool by developers to temper demands from community organizers. There are two prominent examples from the last decade: the community benefits plan following the Mercedes-Benz stadium development and the community investment plan following the Braves’ relocation from Turner Field to Truist Park in Cobb County. Ultimately, neither was legally binding, both fell short of what community groups were advocating for, and both failed to prevent gentrification in the neighborhoods surrounding them. 

 

In Grove Park, Microsoft’s recent investment has brought the subject of CBAs to the forefront again. It remains to be seen if Microsoft will pursue a watered down, nonbinding agreement or meet legacy residents’ demands to stave off gentrification. Recent community listening sessions for Microsoft have been of a different, but related flavor: public safety concerns. The corporation has hired a senior risk mitigation and threat consultant, who plans to have meetings with the Atlanta Police Foundation and Atlanta Police Department.

 

While residents have concerns about crime in the neighborhood, some legacy Black residents are worried about the potential for overpolicing and surveillance. This is typical in gentrifying neighborhoods, the result of a practice called development-directed policing. A recent study shows that for every five percent increase in property values, gentrifying neighborhoods experience a 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent increase in discretionary arrests. 

 

At a time when the recent Cop City development in the South River Forest passed in city council despite an overwhelming opposition from residents, policing concerns in Grove Park and similar Black neighborhoods cannot be addressed in a vacuum. 

 

“It’s easy to say that we’ll invest in this network of cameras in Atlanta when we are already one of the most surveilled cities in the country,” says Barrington-Ward of some of the solutions being discussed in these public safety meetings. “We have thousands of cameras in the city, and it doesn’t prevent crime. What prevents crime is good schools. What prevents crime are social programs that get to the root causes of poverty.” 

“We have thousands of cameras in the city, and it doesn’t prevent crime. What prevents crime is good schools. What prevents crime are social programs that get to the root causes of poverty.”

— Devin Barrington-Ward

It can be tricky to unpack all the layers within gentrification while holding others accountable for inequitable development. Beyond CBAs, current residents want to see existing nonprofits like Grove Park Foundation and Grove Park Renewal do more to foster homeownership. 

 

Grove Park Renewal uses grants and donations to acquire and renovate properties, renting them out at affordable rates. While the nonprofit is aiming to keep legacy residents in place with these lower-cost rentals, some residents feel like the organization is benefiting more than the renters are from the acquisitions. 

 

“You need to be moving people into immediate home ownership,” Freeman says. “I ain’t talking about no affordable housing where we rent, which is good, but y’all can do better than that. We need homeowners here.” 

 

Grove Park Renewal’s Executive Director, Justin Bleeker, says the criticism is warranted. “We’re working against 400 years of momentum towards segregation and holding, particularly, the Black community, but many communities of color, out of homeownership,” he says. “Homeownership rates do need to increase.”

“We’re working against 400 years of momentum towards segregation and holding, particularly, the Black community, but many communities of color, out of homeownership. Homeownership rates do need to increase.”
— Justin Bleeker

However, Bleeker notes that the nonprofit’s model is designed to address a more immediate need. Grove Park Renewal’s renters are often individuals or families on the brink of displacement, with eviction notices giving them anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months to find a new place. Grove Park Renewal is currently working with Grove Park Foundation and other nonprofits in the neighborhood to move stabilized renters toward homeownership.

 

Barely 25 percent of the homes in Grove Park are currently owner-occupied. To address both the gap in ownership and the lack of true community input, Grove Park Foundation has plans to implement an independent community land trust in the next three to five years, and has received a $20 million gift  from Fifth Third Bank to put toward that goal. 

 

Born out of the civil rights movement, community land trusts first emerged as a way for Black people to collectively steward land in the face of persistent racist housing policies. In addition to permanent affordability, land trusts ensure community control and grassroots participation in decision-making, with residents serving a governance role on the trust’s board. Since the pandemic and the subsequent eviction crisis, land trusts have made a comeback across the country as a solution to the speculative housing market.

 

Back outside his childhood home on South Eugenia Place—with its current list price still beyond his means—Patterson ponders a pivot from his original plans. Though he’s unfamiliar with the land trust model, he harbors dreams with the same goal of community preservation: purchasing land to build amenities and affordable housing so Black families are no longer displaced. “This is a motivational thing I say to myself I’ll do,” he says, “I’d buy the land they took.”

 

For Patterson, it is no longer just about preserving his family’s legacy, but about transforming Grove Park from a neighborhood back into a community—with kids throwing footballs in the streets, just like he remembers.

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