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Clayton County's tribulations 

Dunderheads, dumb growth and race in the southern suburbs

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Gene Hatfield arrived in the county in 1976, a newly graduated Ph.D. ready to teach political science at Clayton Junior College, now known as Clayton State University. He found a blue-collar bedroom community that was growing as the nation inched its way out of a recession. The population was upwardly mobile, he says, gainfully employed with sound union jobs at Eastern Airlines and the Ford plant in adjacent Hapeville.

But shortly before the 1996 Olympics, residents noticed the face of the county beginning to change. Between 1990 and 2006, it underwent a dramatic shift in demographics – from 75 percent white to 64 percent black.

"Back in the 1950s, Forest Park was one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the country," Hatfield says. "Clayton County was growing dramatically. But that was a largely self-selected population that wanted to get out of Atlanta and the problems of the big city. Over the recent years, the population growth has been from those seeking lower-cost housing, and they've had relatively larger numbers of children."

As gentrification swept through Atlanta and the city tore down its public housing, many of those displaced shifted to Clayton. Data from the Atlanta Regional Commission show that from 2000 to 2005, 94,698 people migrated there from the 20-county metro region. Nearly half of them moved from Fulton County. According to Bell, two-fifths of the new residents are single women and their children. And while new, poorer residents were moving in, many longtime Clayton residents began an exodus to neighboring counties such as Fayette, Spalding and Henry.

Despite that emigration, the building boom continued. According to an analysis by the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, housing permits from 2000 to 2005 outpaced growth in households by 12,058 units. To this day, the county has a glut of inexpensive housing.

Kem Kimbrough, an Emory law graduate who ran for sheriff in last week's Democratic primary, moved to Clayton County in 1999. "You could buy one heck of a house and not only were you going to get a bargain on the house and the size and the yard, but the taxes would be low," Kimbrough says. "The economy seemed to be booming, and Clayton County had it going on. There was a significant air that Clayton County was the place of opportunity."

Loans were easy to obtain, and many borrowers were encouraged to take what later became known as subprime mortgages.

"No matter what your income was, they'd get you a house," says Bobby Cartwright, a city councilman in Lovejoy. "You had a lot of people who were living in metro Atlanta who wanted a home of their own. Clayton County had all these $99,000, $150,000 homes, and it wasn't hard to get that credit."

The national housing market meltdown was particularly cruel to Clayton residents. In June 2007, the county had the highest foreclosure rate in the metro region. It also ranked second in the nation for homes purchased with subprime mortgages, an astonishing 38.9 percent. By this May, one in 10 homes faced the risk of foreclosure.

"All of this has combined to make the present picture in Clayton County rather bleak," Hatfield says. "So on one hand, this has been some time in developing. On the other hand, it's taken on a life of its own and is dramatic in its implications. I doubt if there are many counties that have seen this kind of dramatic transformation in such a brief time frame."

Today, there are remnants of a Clayton County that no longer exists.

Jonesboro, the county seat, served as the setting of the fictitious Tara estate in Gone With the Wind. The main strip downtown boasts the Road to Tara Museum, just half a mile from Stately Oaks plantation, an antebellum architectural artifact that sits downhill from the city's low-income apartments. Robert E. Lee Drive is a few blocks away. Two years ago, residents unsuccessfully petitioned to rename the county's asphalt spine, Tara Boulevard, after Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks. Old Dixie Highway crosses the county, and Jeff Davis Boulevard snakes in from neighboring Fayette.

"There was always racial tension in Clayton County," says David Barton, a white lifelong resident who is now a lobbyist for the South Metro Realtors Association. "I can remember as a kid in Riverdale when the Klan used to stand outside Highway 85 and Upper Riverdale Road. They used to pass out fliers and leaflets. My mom would always roll up the window and ignore them when they came up."

Jon Antoine grew up in Los Angeles, where gangs were a problem; his family came to Clayton when he was a teenager. "The first time I ever saw a Klansman was when my family moved here," says Antoine, an African-American who now works as an investigator for the district attorney's office. "And there were two black women posing for a photograph with him. And he was laughing! Seeing a Klansman didn't scare me. Seeing a Crip did, though."

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