When Marie Cowser moved to Old Fourth Ward in 1979, the neighborhood that had given birth to Martin Luther King Jr. was already a shell of its former self. Sweet Auburn had turned sour. Edgewood dangled on the precipice. Urban renewal had given way to urban removal, while desegregation brought about the mass exodus of a stabilizing black middle class. But where most people saw despair and desolation, Cowser saw potential.
"I just fell in love with it," she recalled six years ago in a StoryCorps interview with Atlanta journalist and friend Maynard Eaton. "And I think to be in love with anything is to get entrenched with it."
Over the next 20 years, Cowser dug in so deep that Old Fourth Ward became her all-consuming passion. As a tireless community activist, she worked there. As a single mother, she raised her daughter there. And in 2009, when she died of cancer at 49, she left behind a foundation for the neighborhood to build a future upon — one that hinged on development without displacement and investing in people in addition to infrastructure.
The community she called home will dedicate a neighborhood park on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Randolph Street in her memory this June. Creative Loafing will help facilitate the project as part of our first Do Good campaign by matching a $2,500 sponsorship from the Home Depot Foundation to money raised by Old Fourth Ward's nonprofit Historic District Development Corporation. The resulting $5,000 will enable the HDDC to refurbish the park's future site. It'll mark the culmination of the neighborhood's quest to honor one of its own. But the commemoration of Marie Cowser Memorial Park will also be about preserving the spirit of someone who fought to salvage the soul of a community that was all but forgotten.
As much as it's been written about in recent years, it's hard to imagine anyone writing off Old Fourth Ward. While the eclectic restaurant and nightlife scene on Edgewood has garnered national press, Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall's ongoing Year of Boulevard initiative has turned the city's attention toward the 700 families living in Bedford Pine, the concentrated area of Section 8 housing crammed along the Boulevard corridor. The stark contrast between those dual realities epitomizes the economic disparity that continues to define the neighborhood.
With its abundant mix of upscale loft developments and renovated Victorian homes, a new park that's become the crown jewel of Beltline revitalization, and a forthcoming $72 million streetcar project partially funded by the federal government, it's almost easy to forget what gave the neighborhood its character in the first place — especially in the City Too ADHD to Remember Its History.
Proclaimed Best Bet For the Next Hot 'Hood by Creative Loafing in 2010, Old Fourth Ward earned recognition from the New York Times a year later as a "symbol of gentrification" — without a hint of irony. Despite the wealth of benefits gentrification has brought, however, "it's been a double-edged sword," according to Councilman Hall.
"Bringing in new that lifts the community is one thing," he says. "Bringing in new that displaces another group is not necessarily a good thing."
A onetime resident of Bedford Pine who eventually became a homeowner after buying and renovating a former crack house on Wabash Avenue, Cowser had a perspective that was equal parts realist and idealist. When she was still alive, her house was easily identifiable by the huge sign planted in the front yard. "Move ... Or Be Moved," it read, along with an animated drawing of real estate prospectors cashing in under the guise of empowerment zone redevelopment as residents were squeezed out.
"You can't sit and be idle," her sister Susan Cowser-Bailey says, interpreting the sign today. "You've got to make a change or you're going to get moved out. That was her whole attitude."
Intended to prepare residents for the wave of gentrification due to come in the wake of the city's revitalization efforts in the '70s and '80s, the sign took on a double meaning in the '80s and '90s, when drugs infested the neighborhood.
If the adage "It takes a village to raise a child" is true, Cowser would prove that the inverse applies, too: It takes a mother to raise a village. Her 36-year-old daughter Giovanni Daou still remembers the war of words her mother would wage with neighborhood drug dealers who set up shop in the lot across the street from their house.
When her protests resulted in threats from dealers who promised to burn her house down, she responded in kind: "Well, call two fire trucks because we're going to be burning yours down, too," Cowser recounted to Eaton for StoryCorps.
But Cowser's battles were never merciless. They were fought with the understanding that everyone had something to contribute, and she often took it upon herself to help them unleash their hidden potential.
"Yeah, she did that to everyone she touched, no matter what walk of life you came from or what path you were on at that particular point," says Hall. He met Cowser as an intern with Fulton County when she still ran the indigent burial program under former Fulton County Chaplain Rev. Howard Creecy Jr. In addition to pushing him toward a deeper level of public service, Hall recalls how Cowser fostered a level of connectivity, through community meetings and coffee klatches hosted in her own home, that enabled new and old neighbors to bridge their economic and cultural differences. "For whatever reason, she would just force us to be together, and it would be uncomfortable sometimes for people of different cuts of cloth to be in the same room and in the same conversation breaking bread together. But once you did it, you looked at the world differently in the end."
When Cowser started working at the HDDC, co-founded by Coretta Scott King in 1980, the organization's focus was on preserving the buildings and homes that make up the King historic district. But as she became focused on ensuring that the neighborhood's underserved and underprivileged residents were prioritized, the nonprofit's mission expanded. In a sense, it was a continuation of the war on poverty King launched before his death.
Cowser's efforts extended well beyond her day job or the multiple committees she chaired or co-chaired — including the Community Empowerment Advisory Board and the Atlanta Empowerment Board. She worked in the trenches, organizing everything from neighborhood cleanups to youth and senior initiatives. "Marie was the glue that held this neighborhood together," says lifelong O4W resident Helene S. Mills, 85, who considered Cowser an adopted daughter. The Helene S. Mills Senior Multipurpose Facility on John Wesley Dobbs is named for her partly because Cowser first proposed it.
At one point during her 2007 StoryCorps interview, Cowser attempted to explain to Eaton why she was able to see past her neighborhood's flaws. "Even with the crime, the drugs, the dilapidated houses, there is something magical about the Fourth Ward community," she says, before Eaton counters with an incredulous, "What?"
"It's the people," she says.
With everything the new Fourth Ward has become, her daughter Daou echoes her mother's hope that its most treasured residents don't get lost in the shuffle: "I think change is good, but I don't want the pulse of the neighborhood to change," she says. "Every neighborhood has that identity, that something, that makes it authentic. I don't want the neighborhood to be stripped of everything."
Marie Cowser would no doubt agree.Correction: In the original version of this story, the wrong age was given for Giovanni Daou; she is 36.
Updates: To read more about the progress and completion of this project, see "O4W Do Good gets Happy Hour at Corner Tavern," "Nailed it! All three Do Good projects surpass fundraising goals," "Do(ne) Good: 04W dedicates Marie Cowser Memorial Park Today" and "Marie Cowser Park preserves the spirit of its namesake."