Atlanta’s gentrification, now a challenge, started as sign of city’s spirit of civil rights
By Guest Columnist HATTIE DORSEY, civic volunteer, founder and retired president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership
Gentrification is a word used to describe what happens with housing development patterns in cities, particularly in the North, Midwest and West Coast cities, when neighborhoods change by race and by income. It was not a pattern that happened in the South, because housing in this region was segregated by race even years after the civil rights movement.
This article is about gentrification within the City of Atlanta, a place I believe did not anticipate how rapidly the transition would take place within its boundaries. Gentrification here is real and will have impact on several historic neighborhoods bordering Downtown Atlanta. How the leadership within Atlanta government, civic and corporate communities continues to tackle this issue, and hopefully design the right approaches, will be the challenge of the next decade.
Atlanta did not anticipate the rate of gentrification because several factors were thought to negate gentrification from happening as rapidly as it did. Racial boundaries had become entrenched over the course of decades. Neighborhoods located to the south and west of Downtown were predominately African American; communities moving northward were predominately white. Household incomes were lower in the African American neighborhoods, and higher in the white neighborhoods.
Mixed income and desegregated communities were not the norm when I returned to Atlanta in the late 1980s. Living patterns of white and black residents began to change in the 1990s and picked up momentum following the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Neighborhoods that were close to Downtown Atlanta and largely occupied by African Americans formed community development corporations, and they began to revitalize neighborhoods.
No new housing starts had taken place in these neighborhoods for decades. I remember a visit by a minister who pastored a church in Vine City, the Rev. W.L. Cottrell. Rev. Cottrell asked that I help to rebuild housing in Vine City as a result of the Georgia Dome being built bordering its neighborhood. I didn’t know why a friend pointed him in my direction, since I was working for Atlanta Economic Development Corporation, now known as Invest Atlanta, and housing development was not then a part of its mission.
Rev. Cottrell did not accept my excuses, reminded me of whence I came, and motivated me to begin what became my final mission for the rest of my career. This neighborhood is where the revitalization efforts in Atlanta began and where it continues through today with the continued redevelopment of the Westside.
What I believe was not thoroughly understood was that young white and African American individuals did not, and do not, really carry the heavy baggage of racism from the past. Although there will probably always exist some level of racism, both had gone to schools and universities together and basically did not care about the color of one’s skin.
Atlanta was on its way to becoming an integrated city and, based on early research by the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership of other cities that had gone through similar transitions, we understood what was beginning to take place. This was especially in neighborhoods close to Downtown Atlanta and other work centers.
At the same time, the Atlanta Regional Commission was beginning to host similar conversations about changes that were beginning to take place throughout the region. Looking back, that period of time was demonstrating Atlanta’s its true spirit after the civil rights movement.
In the 1990s, Atlanta was beginning to acknowledge that people were beginning to move back into the central city. The neighborhoods that surrounded the downtown were unprepared – especially those communities bordering the northeast, westside and eastside of the city.
As president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership in the 1990s, and having lived in mixed income and racially mixed communities in other cities, I saw and anticipated the change that was about to happen.
ANDP was created to rebuild deteriorating and segregated neighborhoods that surrounded the central city, and it was empowered and financed by the City of Atlanta, local and national foundations, along with the business and corporate community. We began to build a network of neighborhood community development corporations with the belief that decisions of neighborhoods should be made by the people who lived there.
The staff and board of ANDP began to apply lessons learned from other cities and realized that the repopulation of Atlanta was taking place in plain view – that young professionals were looking to avoid an ugly commute and would prefer to live close to their places of work, and retirees wanted to downsize. Early private sector pioneers began to take the risk of developing downtown housing following the 1996 Olympics. One such pioneer was Jim Borders, who was introduced to ANDP by Central Atlanta Progress as someone who desired to develop apartments and condo units in downtown following the 1996 Olympics.
Downtown housing was seen as a risk in the 1990s. What was underestimated was the number of young professionals who desired to live close to places of employment, who wanted accessibility by walking, biking and public transportation. Like northern cities, young professionals preferred intown living and were not particularly fond of suburban living.
If you consider cities in the northeast, you found young professionals raising families and living in apartments or condos in downtowns or close-in neighborhoods. The realization that everyone did not want a full-scale house with a lawn was slow to take hold and, once it did, today’s city does not resemble Atlanta of 20 years to 30 years ago.
The rebirth of the center city and its surrounding neighborhoods began to happen at a rapid pace after the Olympics. Atlanta witnessed the development of condos in both Downtown and Midtown that, to the amazement of many, were rented, sold and occupied. I credit Borders as having the vision that housing would succeed in the central city and ANDP was happy to be one of his early supporters and partners.
The timing could not have been more perfect as corporations and new businesses were seeking to relocate back to or near the center city, and neighborhoods once considered undesirable began to experience a repopulation that included both young Black and White individuals.
The former president of Georgia State University, Carl Patton, was a member of the ANDP board and believed that the students attending GSU would prefer living close by the campus (not in one central site). Patton was a supporter of intown housing and saw that GSU built student housing in walking distance to the university’s classrooms.
With the traffic issue continuing to grow and resulting into horrendous hours of sitting in traffic, the rebirth of neighborhoods close to Downtown and Midtown began to result in the addition of new single- and multi- family housing. The Old Fourth Ward was a leading example of intown renewal, spurred by the Old Fourth Ward Community Development Corporation. With help provided by organizations such as Vine City and Reynoldstown community development corporations, Atlanta was in the midst of a new rebirth!
Transportation was the key factor that would strengthen the region’s growth, or contribute to its lack of growth and inability to attract new corporations to relocate in close proximity to the central city. MARTA’s rail system is the answer, but was limited in geographic reach because of earlier racial fears, and the cost to later add rails to outer suburban communities. It is still an issue to be tackled as Atlanta’s population continues to grow. Gwinnett County voters on March 19 will determine if the county will enter a contract with MARTA and add a 1 percent sales tax to fund transit services
As I close this article, I am delighted that I moved back into a neighborhood where I lived and attended high school as a teenager. At that time, it was a segregated African American community that hosted many of Atlanta’s historical families. Although it was African American, it was mixed income and made up of residents who cared about their neighbors, reported on the bad behavior of the young teens to their parents (to our chagrin), and hosted thriving black-owned businesses.
We are now a thriving racially mixed and desired community, largely made up of young professionals and some retirees, like me, who love the busy movement of people walking on our sidewalks, young babies in strollers, and bicycles avoiding pedestrians.
Although I am happy to see the rebirth of a neighborhood that represents many of the characteristics of pride and caring of its past, I do not want to lose the richness of our history that makes this neighborhood and others like it the “soul of Atlanta”.