By King Williams
It started out with a simple question, “Momma, where did the people go?”
I was a young teen at the time, and the seemingly simple question perplexed my mom and also perplexed everyone else I would ask until I reached my senior year of college.
“Those people” were the people of East Lake Meadows, a public housing project on the Eastside of Atlanta which sat right in-between the city limits of Atlanta and my native city of Decatur.
What made ‘the Meadows’ unique was that it was a public housing project that sat next to one of the most famous golf courses in the world – the East Lake Country Club – home of the most famous amateur golfer Bobby Jones.
I still pass by a small red brick house on Alston Drive across the street from the golf course every now and then. It was home to a fellow musician friend of my dad. At that time, the homes across from the golf course were affordable for the artists and creative types – with rents that were less than the entry level homes in the suburbs.
The house was about a half a mile from the main entrance of the golf course, and when my dad would go over to hangout, we looked at the golf course the same as any recreational park.
For most of my young life, I never thought much of the golf course. Even as kids, we all knew about “the Meadows” reputation. Despite being on that side of town, we never felt the fear that was being reflected in news reports on television and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
East Lake Meadows was one of the worst public housing projects in Atlanta, and
at its lowest point, its crime rate was 18 times the national average. Its employment rate was in the single digits. And for many years, it was the topic of discussion for both local and national media as the poster child of the problems in the inner city of Atlanta.
East Lake, like many areas of Atlanta, experienced massive disinvestment with the initial building of highways and the subsequent white flight that impacted the city in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Events like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the desegregation of public schools and election of Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s first black mayor contributed to a shift of population from the city to the suburbs.
I’m not sure exactly when I noticed the Meadows had disappeared, I just knew it was no longer there. As my memory began to fade, I asked myself what happened.
When I went to Georgia State, I decided to do something about the gentrification of these public housing projects. But I didn’t film anything until my senior year.
In the summer of 2007, I posted a question on Facebook. Did anyone want to help me on a documentary on Atlanta? I got one response. That response came from the future co-producer of my documentary film “The Atlanta Way:A Documentary on Gentrification” – Zettler Clay IV.
Our first official shoot happened on an unusually warm afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008, when we found ourselves accidentally documenting the last days of traditional public housing in Atlanta. Over the next three years, we filmed both current and former residents of Atlanta’s public housing developments as well as politicians and developers.
I also witnessed the demolition of the last large-scale housing project – Bowen Homes on Bankhead Highway – on my birthday in June 2009. That was followed by the implosion of the Roosevelt House, directly across from Georgia Tech.
After 2011, much of Atlanta’s development contributed to gentrification – the Atlanta Beltline, Underground Atlanta and the expansion of student housing, mainly for Georgia State. Many of the former public housing residents had now moved to inexpensive apartments scattered throughout the region.
Privately, I meet people in Atlanta who love gentrification. Areas of Atlanta that once were considered too dangerous are now hip. They cite the positive attributes of gentrification – an increased tax base, expanded services, removal of blight and a higher level of home ownership. They refer to the notion of “saving” communities.
I’ve been studying the issues related to gentrification for more than 10 years. Through my weekly column for SaportaReport, I will weigh in on the various issues related to gentrification, housing affordability and development.
We may have lost the battle in some communities, but I believe there is still hope. The purpose of this column is to cover what happens next.