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Excerpted from “Poverty By the Numbers”
This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”
—From “Where Do We Go from Here?” King’s presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967
One of the city’s poorest neighborhoods is a block-shaped section of the westside known as The Bluff. Nearly 4,000 people live there, on the rough end of the wealth gap. Some parts of The Bluff look so third-world, you can hardly believe you’re in Atlanta. If you’re white and drive through, the people who live there assume you’re looking for drugs. If you’re looking for drugs, you’re in the right place.
One Friday not too long ago, Victoria Carson was looking for food. She waited with her boyfriend, Will, in the rear of the fellowship hall of Antioch Baptist Church North. This is on Northside Drive, within sight of many of the rising, glimmering changes in Atlanta. The church’s grocery pantry would open at noon, but Vicky and dozens of others had started arriving hours before. The busiest man in the room was Collumn Jaffar, who was passing out numbered slips of paper to those in line. 1 . . . 50 . . . 100 . . . 150. He’d used a bright blue Sharpie this time. Jaffar used to write the numbers on notebook paper, in ordinary black ballpoint ink, but the more resourceful of those who arrived late got wise to the system and found their own paper, their own black ink, and wrote themselves a ticket to a few days’ worth of canned beans and fruit cocktail and salvaged bread.
Most had come on foot, wheeling shopping carts, collapsible dollies, empty baby strollers, large pieces of luggage—anything that would hold a box of food—until the church parking lot looked like an assemblage of misdirected grocery shoppers and wayward travelers. Vicky and Will were living over on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and had walked here. It was the second week of January but bright and slightly warm, and they had walked through King’s old neighborhood, Vine City, and up into The Bluff. Vicky has a broad, pretty face and a soft voice and looks younger than fifty-three despite untended teeth. Will, in his forties, tall and serious, walks with a slight limp (back injury; last job). “He doesn’t talk much,” Vicky said.
She had on tight brown loafers and navy blue cotton pants marbled with dust from the floor of the place where she and Will had been sleeping. Once a boarding house, the property was now in abandoned foreclosure, but Vicky and Will had sneaked in and intended to stay until someone ran them out. The plan had its hazards beyond the obvious. One day when Will went out to try again to find a job (he’d lost the one at the car wash), a guy they knew from the neighborhood came to the door, which Vicky barricades whenever she stays there alone. “That you, Vicky? You still here?” he said through the door. Vicky said it was. Already they had no electricity, no heat, no furniture, and already this man had made off with the water heater, and now he wanted the stove. Vicky told him he couldn’t come in; she made an excuse about not being dressed. “You better get dressed, then, and get out of the way, because we’re coming in,” the man said, and did. Others returned for the wiring—there’s value in copper.
Vicky is resourceful, too. Once, she said, she stole dog food right out of the bowl. “It wasn’t bad,” she said. Other days, she and Will pull their meals from the garbage behind the chicken place or the Chinese place, or they eat pecans from the yard. She washes clothes behind the house, with a hose and a bucket. “It could be worse,” she said. “Some people don’t have clothes. Some people can’t get dog food.”
Her mother lives in New Jersey and sometimes sends money, and adult diapers. The need for diapers—that’s the AIDS. Vicky pulled up her pant leg and showed a keloid radiation scar on her left calf. The need for radiation—that’s the cancer. Vicky keeps telling Will to leave her, to find someone who isn’t sick, who can work, who can run, if necessary. Will wants Vicky to live in a home for people with AIDS. But she won’t leave him. And he won’t leave her.
Vicky wouldn’t mind getting on disability, but she can’t figure out how. Her medication ran out and her T-cells are dropping, not that she really minds. “I just want to get it over with,” she said, meaning life.
The Bluff is also known as English Avenue. It lies roughly along Northside Drive just beyond the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center and barely a mile from Downtown. Ninety-eight percent of the population is African American. More than 40 percent live below the federal poverty line of $17,170 (the income threshold for a family of three). The Bluff is among a handful of neighborhoods where roughly 35 to 68 percent of the population has lived in severe poverty for more than thirty years, a reality the city is addressing, somewhat controversially, by razing and rebuilding public housing units and replacing them with mixed-income development. The Bluff’s dwellings range from tumbledown wooden houses with tarpaper roofs, to apartment buildings, to Habitat for Humanity homes built before the 1994 Super Bowl, to new single-family construction in the form of incongruous two-story homes that with their fresh paint, garages, and unbroken windows look like shiny new Cadillacs stranded in a junkyard. Land prices are tripling in the area, just as they’re escalating across a city growing so fast the brickmasons and cranes can barely keep up. Any intown location with developable acres, interstate access, and a skyline view will only get hotter, no matter what’s on it.
Even Antioch Baptist has entered into real estate, through its nonprofit development arm, Bethursday Development Corp., which occupies an office next door. “We’re buying up everything we can find,” says Joe Beasley, Antioch’s director of urban ministries and one of the city’s most well-connected and outspoken advocates for the poor. The church owns thirty-eight acres that it’s developing through Bethursday. It’s a complicated position to be in. Church leaders have criticized the revitalization of public housing—they feel it turns the poorest of the poor out and runs them out of town—yet they take advantage of city tax incentives in hopes of bypassing traditional gentrification (usually in which wealthier white residents move into poorer black neighborhoods) and rebuilding English Avenue in its own way, for its own people. “We’re not trying to change the complexion of the neighborhood,” explains architect Bob Jones, CEO and executive director of Bethursday. “We’re trying to integrate the very low, low, and middle incomes.”
So far, Bethursday’s projects include the Gateway apartments on Northside and more than two dozen townhomes on Kennedy Street, the first eight of which were expected to be available by the end of March. Gateway opened in 2005 with 261 units, forty of which are reserved as government-subsidized housing and thirty-nine, or 15 percent, of which to rent at market rate. The townhomes are projected to sell for $200,000. If this sounds beyond the reach of most in the community the church intends to serve, Jones says prospective homeowners will be able to apply for special housing subsidies. The vivid architectural renderings in his office show future streetscapes not dissimilar to those of upscale developments such as Atlantic Station. The proposed city BeltLine, which runs right through the westside, stands to raise property values even more. “To have an invigorated community, you have to have housing, schools, you have to have greenspace,” Jones says. “We want all the amenities of the suburbs right here.”
Ideally, he adds, the redevelopment will create jobs for “those who can’t be readily employed.” Basically he means convicts. These days, felons especially can’t land a job that pays a living wage, and it’s almost impossible to get into public housing with a criminal record. In some neighborhoods, it’s harder than ever to start over.
“This is 30318,” as Beasley puts it. “And in 30318, you name it, we got it.” He’s talking about some of the city’s highest rates in the worst societal indicators: crime, mental health, unemployment, underemployment, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, recidivism, hunger—“things that go along with being poor, things that make you feel you’ve been thrown away on the scrap heap of society,” he says. “An illegal economy has grown up here because many of these people feel they’ve been locked outside the legal economy. People are going to survive one way or another.”
After getting her box of food, Vicky had popped the top of a can of Campbell’s Chunky Sirloin Burger soup and started drinking it cold. Across the parking lot, others were turning up their own cans. Now, blocks away from Antioch, Vicky wore a line of tomato sauce across the bridge of her nose. Before long, she and Will made it to the old Eagan Homes area (now “Magnolia Park”), to Greater Bethany Baptist, which was known to serve a free lunch.
Derrick Johnson came out of the dining hall and lingered to talk. He is thirty-eight and goes by “D.J.” He wore a big flannel shirt and a trucker hat with “PIMP” in glittering gold lettering. D.J. gets regular meals from Bethany, where he was baptized as a child. He said his parents are dead now and he’s estranged from his siblings. Whatever he’d been drinking carried strongly on his breath. He had no plans for the afternoon. “Sometimes all you can do is lay down and wait for another day.” From the parking lot he pointed toward the former Eagan Homes site, where he grew up. “It wasn’t no gated community like it is now,” he said. “It was rough. You know how it is in the ’hood.” He paused. “Well, you probably don’t know. I’ll just say this—it was open house, all the time.”
He looked around. “It’s so different here now. Back then every corner had drugs. This neighborhood, they’re trying their best to move people out. But they can’t. This is Atlanta. It’s the gateway. If black people need to push their way forward in life, they come to Atlanta.” He raised his arms at the neighborhood. “This is what Dr. King built. We’re trying to keep it whole. They’re putting these big new houses in and they think people are just gonna move in. It ain’t that simple.”