By David Pendered
“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
That sentence, popularized by President Reagan, could well sum up the first challenge facing the effort to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods around the future Falcons stadium.
From the 2006 shooting death of Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police during a botched drug raid, to the cheating scandal that touched Bethune Elementary School, to recurrent flooding problems – the neighborhoods of English Avenue and Vine City have seen plenty of efforts to help them either go no where or go awry.
Neighborhood residents have their own share of problems, as well.
Atlanta Councilmember Michael Julian Bond said during the recent debate over public funding for the stadium that he went door-to-door to help folks benefit from jobs at the Georgia Dome. That was back during, and after, his successful 1993 campaign to serve as the area’s district representative on the council.
“The social conditions of people were such that many of them could not qualify for work – they had [criminal] records or had used drugs or marijuana and had been fired from jobs, or didn’t have the level of education,” Bond said during a Feb. 20 discussion at a meeting of the council’s Finance Committee.
Portions of the neighborhood certainly are conducive to that sort of behavior.
One small area, the Bluff, reportedly got its start as an outlaw hub during the Prohibition era, when it came to be a place to buy alcohol. It evolved into the region’s distribution point for heroin, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. With the heroin comes distribution of a host of other drugs, such as the narcotic pain reliever OxyContin.
The Bluff’s reputation grew in 2011, when it appeared as the backdrop for the film, “Snow on tha Bluff.” The indie film premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, which is an alternative to the Sundance Film Festival. In Atlanta in 2012, a melee reportedly broke out between rival gang members when the film was screened in at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Despite the difficulties that come with harsh urban blight, some residents and their advocates are working hard to reclaim and uplift the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods.
Walmart built and opened a store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, right across the street from the old Paschal’s restaurant and motor lodge. Next to Paschal’s is the Busy Bee Cafe, an “Atlanta tradition” since 1947 that didn’t win a hoped-for concession contract to open at Atlanta’s airport, but still serves its signature fried chicken plate for $12.99, marked down to $9.99 when it’s the Friday special.
Parks are in the discussion, as well, for English Avenue and Vine City.
Park Pride has proposed a 200-acre park that is being viewed as a good starting point. The emerging idea is to create a system of parks that could also be used to curb flooding in areas around the headwaters of the Proctor Creek basin, which now can be overcome by storm water runoff from the central business district.
The PATH Foundation is working on a plan to link Washington Park with Centennial Olympic Park. The plan is to extend the Westside Trail, which now ends near Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard.
Not to be overlooked is the Sunset Avenue Historic District. The district protects the last home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the homes of other civil rights leaders, and some of Atlanta’s earliest European settlers.
Bond, who now is elected citywide, said it is this mix of challenges, as well as the opportunities that will be brought to bear by the stadium project, that prompted him to back Atlanta’s role in helping to finance the project.
“This is more than building a stadium, more than building an arena for players to contend out on the field,” Bond said when he introduced the stadium legislation to the Atlanta City Council.
“This is a chance to fix mistakes that weren’t intended as mistakes … to finally transform that community, where I was born and raised, into the community it was when I was a tyke,” Bond said. “The community failed, despite the efforts of a lot of people.”