This article originally appeared in our March 2013 issue. Photographs by Neda Abghari.
For decades we’ve heard talk of the need to “do something” about Boulevard, the blighted thoroughfare that runs through the Old Fourth Ward and the King historic district. So when city council member Kwanza Hall declared 2012 “Year of Boulevard” and announced an ambitious plan to revitalize a street known for 24/7 drug deals, kudzu-choked vacant lots, dilapidated storefronts, and the Southeast’s largest Section 8 housing complex, the response was, understandably, skepticism.
Turned out there was something behind Hall’s sloganeering. Things got done.
The Atlanta Police Department opened a mini precinct and area crime went down 14 percent. Wingate Companies, which owns and operates the Village of Bedford Pine subsidized housing development, renovated and painted buildings, and contributed to everything Hall organized—whether summer camps or curbside trash cans. The Atlanta Hawks Foundation gave $50,000 to refurbish basketball courts in nearby Central Park. Members of TedX Atlanta crafted a brilliant branding campaign: “Yo Boulevard!” And those are just four of Year of Boulevard’s three dozen partner organizations—government agencies, nonprofits, churches, big companies like Coca-Cola, and entrepreneurs like TrueValley Landscaping—not to mention hundreds of volunteers.
During nineteen years as pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church on Boulevard, Dennis Meredith has witnessed other do-gooding. But this effort, he says, “has been the most profound initiative I’ve seen.”
M. Jamil Atkins (pictured above) lived in Bedford Pine as a girl and, despite swearing it would never happen, ended up back there in 2009; as a divorced mom, it was the only place she could afford. The first time she heard “Yo Boulevard!” was during the July block party in front of her building. “I thought it was just a political move,” she said. “I thought they just wanted to laugh and play and have a party like we don’t have any problems over here.” But six months later, as she walked to her job at Wendy’s, a representative of Next Step Staffing, a Year of Boulevard partner, asked if she might be interested in learning about jobs with the city. She attended the 2013 Yo Boulevard kickoff at Tabernacle Baptist and listened as Hall explained to a packed sanctuary what it’s like for a single parent to get a job only to learn it means rent goes up and food stamps go down and you end up worse off. “What he described, that exact scenario, is me,” says the twenty-six-year-old mom with three kids under six. Next Step gave Atkins a temporary job answering phones; she’s hoping to get on with the city’s waste management department this spring.
When thinking and talking about Boulevard, it’s important not to pin all the blame on Bedford Pine. The corridor is home to other pockets of deep poverty, properties in far worse condition, and dozens of known crack houses and flophouses. Yes, crime went down, but it was stratospheric to start with.
Obviously problems that took decades to evolve can’t be resolved in a year. “Mo’ Boulevard,” quips Hall when asked what 2013 will bring. There are three central challenges: revitalizing the area without driving out poor residents, helping people get jobs in a system gamed against them, and reducing the crime that plagues everyone—at every income level—who lives in the area. During 2012 the gentrification stakes got higher as Old Fourth Ward surged—new apartments, clubs, and restaurants; the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail; and the Ponce City Market project.
But a true measure of revitalization won’t be spiffy shops and fancy condos. Atlanta, Hall likes to say, is good at putting up buildings, but needs to work on “building up people.” That’s an approach Jamil Atkins endorses. “People talk about ‘the community,’ like it’s this location, a place,” she says. “But I think of communion in church, of sharing. A community is really like a potluck; everyone brings a little something and we blend it all together.”