Where'd the neighbors go? 

Wilma Jackson Jones grew up, raised children and suffered tragedies in Carver Homes. Now after three decades, she's watching the city dismantle her community.

Seven years ago, the Atlanta Housing Authority began to dispel its reputation as one of the worst public housing providers in the country. Armed with more than 100 million federal dollars and a new director, the authority has carried out the demolition and reconstruction of five of the city's 42 housinxg projects. Its mission: build neighborhoods that mix poor and middle-income tenants, thereby diluting crime and improving the quality of life for residents. Once ranked among the country's five worst public housing providers, the authority now is recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a national trendsetter for future urban neighborhoods.

Carver Homes, one of the city's largest public housing complexes, is one of the next all-poor projects set to become a "mixed-income neighborhood." The 100-acre complex three miles south of downtown is being reconstructed at a cost of $145 million. When all four phases are complete, there will be 648 apartments, 66 townhomes and 250 houses.

Since construction began last year, Carver Homes has slowly been dismantled. Those 97 families and almost 300 others await word as to whether there will be room for them in the new complex. The other 600 families that used to live in Carver Homes either received vouchers for reduced rent somewhere else in the city or were cut off from housing authority assistance.

She is thinking how sick the building across the street looks, so little flesh left clinging to 50-year-old bricks, so hollow after the people who lived there trickled away a year ago. All that had been inside the old building -- the little things one acquires in a lifetime -- is gone. A green blanket is crumpled on a concrete stoop, an open umbrella upturned in the yard. The wings of a bird, its body gutted by a predator, lie spread under a window. The building above appears to be dying.

The way my son looked seven years ago.

Wilma Jackson Jones cringes, then waves her hand around her head as if a halo of flies was buzzing around her. Whenever she speaks of the hardships she's faced, she cringes and waves, as if shooing away a bad memory.

I wanted to always be a part of making history, of making life better in the community, for the people and for myself.

Wilma raises her eyes to the building's roof. Firefighters have torn it up, busted holes in it to practice for future rescues. Crazy to tear up a good building like that. But it's for the good of the greater whole, Wilma supposes. You tear things down so you can help people, right?

Come on over Miss Marjorie, I'd yell out my front door to the lady across the street. I've got fish frying, and you sure look hungry.

The people who lived in the building moved out so that the housing authority could start construction on something new and bright and clean, a neighborhood with two clubhouses, a pool and jogging trails. Like Mayor Bill Campbell told CNN back in 1996: "In order to preserve, sometimes you must first destroy." He was talking about what was going on at East Lake Meadows, a housing project that was razed and rebuilt soon after the Olympics. But he might as well have been talking about any of the projects that are (or will be) refashioned as "mixed income."

Public housing complexes in Atlanta traditionally have been called "homes," as in Perry Homes or Harris Homes or Carver Homes. But they're being renamed "villages" or "parks" or some other idyllic name, as if by calling something a garden, you can forget that it was ever a cement jungle. The city tore down the unseemly Techwood and Clark Howell Homes, and rebuilt them under the name Centennial Place, where some former project dwellers -- thanks to reduced rent -- live next door to white collar professionals. Then it was East Lake Meadows turned Villages of East Lake. John Hope Homes became Villages at Castleberry. John Eagan Homes became Magnolia Park. Carver Homes is next. Almost half of the original 50-year-old buildings have been torn down. The rest will likely be gone by the year's end.

But I'm not going nowhere. At least not until June or so. I'll be getting a new apartment in Villages at Carver.

Sure, there were times when Wilma wanted the hell out of Carver, times when women blocked their front doors with couches to keep out the violence, times when the drug trade, once confined to certain buildings, started crossing all boundaries. It crossed Wilma's front door and left with one of her sons.

But despite the hardships, Carver Homes is to Wilma what the name says: a home. She knows no other. She came to Carver Homes more than 31 years ago and has never left.



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