The Westside Work continues: There are no silver bullets

By FRANK FERNANDEZ, senior vice president of community development of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

The Westside is indeed On the Rise.  It is not perfect and long-time residents are rightly and deeply concerned about displacement and gentrification. However, Atlanta’s historic Westside is a different place than it was five years ago when our collective place-based efforts began.

Frank Fernandez

Frank Fernandez

Crime is down more than 43 percent – thanks to partnerships between the community and the Atlanta Police Foundation; more than 800 Westside residents have accessed living wage jobs and earned more than $22 million for themselves and their families, as a result of Westside Works; On the Rise Financial Center has helped more than 500 Westside residents become better educated about their finances, improve their personal credit, and become homeowners for the first time; and the Westside Empowerment Center recently opened to provide individual and family counseling at no-cost to residents.

Physical transformation that is truly benefiting residents is happening, as well. Accomplishments include:

  • Three new parks have been created while two existing parks improved, thanks to the Trust for Public Land, Park Pride, Super Bowl Host Committee and The Conservation Fund;
  • Extensive street improvement work has been completed and green infrastructure installed thanks to the City of Atlanta’s Park and Watershed departments;
  • Hundreds of affordable homes and apartments are coming online thanks to the Westside Future Fund, Quest Communities, Habitat for Humanity, and Higher Ground Empowerment Church, among others.;
  • The YMCA of Greater Atlanta has moved its corporate headquarters to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, on the Westside and will be opening 100 high-quality early learning slots for residents by the end of the year.

All great stuff with incredible momentum.

fernandez, english avenue

A youngster sits on the steps of a home in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood. Credit: Kevin D. Liles

Yet, the Westside work continues with a deep level of humility. It took more than five years for Atlanta’s historic Westside neighborhoods to fall into disrepair; and, it is going to take more than five years to fully revitalize and restore its former vibrancy, especially if it’s to be done in a way that supports and lifts up legacy residents and businesses.

While the trends are moving in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that legacy Westside residents can stay, if they choose to, and benefit from the positive changes that are happening. The Blank Foundation remains committed to the Westside over the long-term and will continue to partner with residents, nonprofits, the public and private sectors, and other funders to build a different, more inclusive and more equitable model for community revitalization, together.

In reflecting on the last five years, there are many lessons learned and mistakes that were made that we are devoted to solving.  Three in particular stand out.

Plan for success

  • When we started our efforts in 2014, most people were not concerned with gentrification and displacement. Blight, crime, and disinvestment were the primary concerns, and the ones we immediately began to work on. However, as the collective revitalization effort moved forward and started to demonstrate progress, the housing market quickly began to flip. Homes that were selling for $20,000 in 2014 are now listed for more than $100,000 – with some renovated homes now in the $400,000’s. And, while our partners, like the Westside Future Fund, are aggressively moving to create permanent affordability for legacy Westside residents, if we, the collective we, had started earlier, we would have been able to secure more property for affordable housing at cheaper prices. As my father always said, “control dirt and you control destiny.”
fernandez, LaTia Perry

Longtime Westside resident LaTia Perry helped with the Christ 180 Community Health-Worker Program by speaking with residents to gather health data. Credit: Kevin D. Liles

There are rarely silver bullets

  • Whether working in community development, business, or for that matter, our personal lives, people crave and seek silver bullets that can solve, “all of our problems.”  Wouldn’t that be nice? However, there are no silver bullets in helping to rebuild and restore a person, family, neighborhood, and community.  It is high touch, relational work that happens at an individual level. It is about addressing comprehensively and systematically the multiplicity of challenges that concentrated poverty imposes on poor folks – whether that is toxic stress, substandard infrastructure, or structural racism. It is about bringing together the public and private sectors, alongside the community, to forge a different and better path.

It’s about execution

  • Henry Ford once said that vision without execution is just hallucination. Prior to 2014, there had been more than 13 different Westside revitalization plans developed, but no meaningful change. In the last five years, we have seen transformative change because great residents, nonprofits, public sector agencies and businesses have come together and executed around a common vision for what is possible in Atlanta’s historic Westside. The Blank Foundation is proud to be a part of this community-focused endeavor, and we recognize how hard it is to do this work in a thoughtful and impactful way. It is not for the faint of heart.
Fernandez, home for sale

Long-time Vine City resident affectionately known as Ms. Bernice lists her property for sale. Credit: Dominick Aprile

As we move into the next five years of our Westside efforts, the Foundation’s work will continue to evolve because we know that to address the challenges on the Westside, we must also attack the root, systemic causes of the conditions on the Westside. This is why the foundation has helped support and catalyze House ATL, a cross-sector group of civic leaders committed to building the political and community will for a comprehensive and coordinated housing affordability action plan in the City of Atlanta. It also is why we are working with Atlanta Career Rise, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta to develop a more robust regional workforce development system, much like we were able to do with Westside Works. To make meaningful, lasting change we must address the issues on the ground, while at the same time the systemic forces that caused them.

Five years later, the work, continues.

In this work, we are stronger together, and working side by side the Westside Future Fund, we welcome any partners who want to join us at the table of transformation. We are grateful for those like AT&T, Equifax, the Home Depot, PulteGroup, SunTrust, and so many others, who already have.

Note to Readers: For more information, visit blankfoundation.org or follow the Blank Foundation on Facebook (@blankfamilyfoundation), Instagram and Twitter (@blankfoundation).

fernandez, marta mural

Artist Fahamu Pecu, stands in front of his mural, ‘The People Could Fly,’ in front of MARTA’s Ashby Station. Credit: Dominick Aprile

 

fernandez, mattie freeland park

Tia Perry pauses to sit beside a mural Mattie Freedland Park. Credit: Kevin D. Liles

 

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