In 1976, I became an Atlanta urban pioneer, staking out a bit of embattled turf in Inman Park.
One memory: An elderly neighbor came by and effused on how glad she was that "you young folks" were moving in, although she pointed with a cane at my residence and frowned, "You know Yankees built that, don't you?"
Horrors. Yankees aside, her comment about young folks resonates today. The woman was glad a different generation had arrived because, she said, we'd tidy up the place and make it safer.
Inman Park was hardly the tony address of today. You couldn't give away property in the neighborhood. About 80,000 Atlantans, mostly white and middle class, were fleeing the city for the 'burbs in the 1970s and 1980s. Only through inducements such as interest-free and low-interest loans to restore homes was the city able to lure a few of the more adventuresome back.
Criminal predators -- white gangs from Cabbagetown, black crews from Edgewood -- were on the prowl. You didn't absolutely need a tail-gunner in your car, but it helped.
Here's how bad it was: My best friend was a young police detective, Lou Arcangeli, who would eventually become Atlanta's No. 2 cop. But back then, he was just street heat who wasn't always successful at dodging bad guys' bullets.
Arcangeli was distressed at one building in the neighborhood. It was home to a 24-hour crap game, and attracted a crowd of lowlifes. My pal's solution? A dog had been run over in a nearby street. Arcangeli took the carcass and planted it under the derelict house. Within a few days, the odor had driven out the gamblers, pimps and druggies.
"Creative urban crime deterrence," Arcangeli laughed last week when I reminded him of the dead-dog story. Creative, perhaps, but there are better strategies today.
Intricately linked to debates over gentrification is the crime factor. How do we make neighborhoods safer? Arcangeli, the veteran cop, says, "Any ghetto is a magnet for crime. A poor ghetto or a yuppie ghetto." He recalls watching young professionals moving into gentrifying neighborhoods -- yuppie ghettoes. "They'd have all of their big TVs, stereos and computers in the yard as they figured out where to put them. Down at the end of the block, the crackheads were watching, planning their next burglary."
At Creative Loafing's Political Party last week, the broad subject was gentrification -- but an underlying theme was healthy communities.
Panelist Noel Khalil, a developer of affordable housing, put it in simple terms: "I want to make nice places for a black girl to walk, where she's not used or abused."
How do you do that? The solution isn't miraculous or new. "A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe," famed new urbanist Jane Jacobs, who died last month at 89, wrote in 1961 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
"Ghettoes," whether rich or poor, don't produce well-used streets. In gentrified neighborhoods, all the lawyers, execs, entrepreneurs and professors go to work at about the same time -- leaving, for most of the day, a ghost town that's the delight of burglars.
Khalil calls it "an incredibly positive thing" that "a lot of young people with high incomes want to live in an urban area. They're not put off by living with black people, with poor people."
Yet, the downside of gentrification is that when the yups move in, property values rise. Soon, soaring rents and taxes drive out the longtime residents. The poor, the minorities and the elderly become refugees.
Few of us are sad to see the big boxes of public housing torn down. And Atlanta has been good at that, beginning with razing thousands of units to spiff up the town for the 1996 Olympic Games.
City leaders, however, weren't bright enough to see the downside of eliminating about 6,000 of the city's 15,000 public housing units -- homelessness, for example, since many public housing residents were driven to, and remain on, the streets. And "Section 8" vouchers to pay rent often chased people into suburban counties, where they found few support services and community networks that made poverty a little more bearable.
But you look at what has grown where the awful Techwood Homes once festered, and you have to say, "It's much, much better today."
So, how do you preserve a space in a rapidly gentrifying city for the elderly (including those of my boomer brethren who are quickly becoming old farts) and the poor?
"Our priority must be that the people who are here can afford to stay," Mtamanika Youngblood, president of the Center for Working Families, says. The tool to do that is public policy.
Atlanta has long been in the business of allowing developers to build projects with greater density if they provide some affordable housing. "But the private, independent developers aren't accountable," says City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong. "They say 20 percent affordable housing, but [the city] don't have a clue" if developers deliver.
That one factor, if enforced, would transform the landscape. "We want a city of different lifestyles and perspectives," Youngblood says. "At 9, when the old folks go inside to sleep, younger people come out. You have to have housing each age can afford. By mixing various residents, it enlivens what happens."
And such an environment produces what Jane Jacobs called "many eyes on the street." Nothing chases the bad guys away better than the spotlight.
Instead of mere gentrification, where the wealthy give the heave-ho to the poor, neighborhoods are "revitalized," Youngblood says.
"Oh, yes," she says, "we'll [have] a marked decrease in criminal activity when a community is revitalized, when we have all ages and incomes in the neighborhood. The prostitutes and the drug dealers will be the losers."
Yup, next to the li-barry.
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