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Four perspectives on gentrification 

From a neighborhood group prez to a public housing tenant, a loft-dweller to a landlord

Dennis Madsen

Madsen, who moved to East Atlanta in 2000, is president of the East Atlanta Community Association. In that capacity, he looks out for the best interests of residents old and new.

click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER O'QUENDO

[When I moved to East Atlanta], most of my neighbors were African-American. A couple of folks had been there 20, 30, 40 years. I did meet the original owner and builder of our house, who was a white gentleman who actually moved there in the late '50s. So we had a cross-section of how it had been a white suburb, and then, with white flight moving out into the suburbs, had changed demographically. And then it was in the process of changing back.

I probably know more neighbors in this neighborhood than any other place I've lived in Atlanta. The part that I see sometimes that's a little disturbing is the folks who come in saying, "Well, this needs to be more like where I came from." And you want to say, "This is really a community that has to shape itself." It's not about coming in and stamping one idea on it.

A lot of them came not from the suburbs but from some other intown neighborhoods that were a little nicer. And they just wanted people to keep their yards cleaner. They don't like the old car parked in the front yard. [They want to] have it be a little more Stepford than I think a good community ought to be.

To move to a community like we're in, you have to be open-minded, and you have to be willing to say, "You know what? My neighbor is going to paint his house purple, and I'm OK with that." I don't want covenants. I don't want mandatory hydrangea bushes five feet on center in front of my house.

We have had some folks who are like, "Why are these people standing on the corner?" I was like, "Well, you see that blue and yellow and orange MARTA sign right there? They are waiting for the bus."

It's little differences like that.

Louise Watley

Watley was one of nearly 100 residents who refused to move from Carver Homes in 2001, when the Atlanta Housing Authority was redeveloping it as the Villages at Carver. She was a longtime resident of the project on Pryor Road, south of downtown, at the time of the redevelopment.

click to enlarge SONIA CLARK

The people didn't have any faith in [the Atlanta Housing Authority]. They felt that if they moved out, [authority officials] wouldn't want them to come back. They figured that they were going to bring in people that were younger and working. All of us, we're on fixed income.

We talked about it. We had legal advice from lawyers, and we just made a decision that we weren't leaving. Some other parts of the country had done the same thing, and there it worked out fine.

All of those who [refused to leave] who haven't passed [away] are still here. A lot of the younger people, they were glad to get out. They wanted to leave. I think they felt they could do a little better.

They call me from time to time. Some say that they've been misplaced, or that they have lost their apartment. Some of them are doing better. If there was a mother and father in the family -- there wasn't that many families like that, though -- a lot of those moved on and bought houses. A lot of them went into Section 8 [a program in which low-income families receive a voucher for reduced rent and must pay their own utilities]. But see, the gas bills skyrocketed. They had huge gas bills. And they were having problems. They had to get help to pay those big gas bills they had.

A lot of them went different places where they had relatives. But those of us who were Georgia-born and Georgia-bred, we weren't going nowhere.

A lot of folks think because it's new, it's better. But a lot of times that's not true. Twenty years from now, I wonder what [Villages at Carver] will be like.

Cliff Sparkman

Once the stomping ground of panhandlers and streetwalkers, Castleberry Hill has morphed from artists' refuge to too-boho-for-its-own-good. Sparkman has seen it all -- from a loft that, these days at least, is far from modest: exposed brick, walls of windows, wood-beamed ceiling, private elevator. He stumbled upon the space more than 20 years ago, with $65 to his name. A decade later, he bought the loft he'd rented for all those years. He paid less than $100,000. It just appraised for $630,000.

click to enlarge SONIA CLARK

I started venturing downtown [in the early 1980s] because I came from a small town in Kentucky, and downtown was just fascinating. So I was always migrating down here every day, for some reason or another. That's how I found the area. A man in front of this building asked me, "Are you Bob from New York?" And I said, "No, I'm Cliff from Kentucky. What's up?" His initial idea was to rent. I told him that if Bob fell through [as a tenant], to give me a call. Well, Bob fell through.

I think I got two or three years of paying practically no rent. I had to improve the space. ... My bedroom used to be up here on my loft, over my dark room. And I was lying there with my girlfriend one night, and I said, "Did you see that? I think I saw someone throw a body off the Peters Street bridge." That was '84 or '85. All the hookers used to take their tricks under there. There were panhandlers here all the time. ...

There was a guy that helped me hang the Sheetrock, a guy that I had made friends with. He would say, "You ever wonder why nobody messes with you?" Because I'm 5-7-and-a-half, right? I weighed 140 pounds at the time. And he said, "They think you're crazier than hell. Because you actually live down here."

In '94, I decided I wanted a more conventional house. So I [kept the space] and just worked here. And when I got divorced, I moved back [in 2003]. And all of these people were moving in. [In the '80s], we would all pool our tools together. We grew together as a family. There was no other development. And suddenly, all these [new] places were there, but I never saw the people who lived in them.

Don Bender

Bender, the unofficial mayor of Little Five Points, is president of Neighborhood Commercial Redevelopment Inc. and owns much of the property in Little Five and East Atlanta. For more than 30 years, he's been active with neighborhood groups and managed his property with an eye toward developing hip, unique intown business districts.

click to enlarge JIM STAWNIAK

I only deal with independents, and some of those independents have been challenged by some of the chains that have moved in. Things that used to only be in the suburbs are now intown. That's a positive. And intown is taken seriously. Used to be, it was only considered a fringe kind of place.

[But] I guess I consider any move toward chains to generally not be a positive thing because decisions are not made locally. My big issue is having someone in Chicago decide what happens in Atlanta. I like decision-making to be as close to the local level as possible.

Obviously, the things that have come in at Edgewood [a new retail center on Moreland Avenue] have been much more mainstream, but it hasn't made Little Five Points or East Atlanta less diverse. In some ways, it enables them to remain more diverse. [The chain stores] are in a box that more fits their way of thinking. Obviously, we've had some [shops] that were casualties, and always there are multiple reasons.

I think the Variety [Playhouse] -- the key players of the cultural intown scene -- they are doing fine. I think with good leadership, the arts community can do very well and be positively impacted by this change. But it really challenges us to be more creative. Some of these guys have suburban values, and that's what really bothers me. I mean, [by] suburban values, not putting an emphasis on diversity. And not putting the primary emphasis on walkability and accessibility -- being too willing to make concessions to the automobile. They also have a little bit more of a sense of entitlement so they don't want to settle for anything that's not like what they think it ought to be.

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The report was compiled by Mara Shalhoup and Michael Wall, with assistance from Ken Edelstein and Sarah Winterfield

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