A “Living Laboratory”

Can Kwanza Hall’s project transform intown Atlanta’s most notorious street?

A couple of months ago, the mashup of old-school and hipster entrepreneurs in the squat brick building at the corner of Howell and Irwin streets might have seemed a sign that a troubled neighborhood was turning around. The lower-level storefronts included Banna Grocery, Suhrid Das’s convenience store; Retro Razor, Mister Saffold’s barbershop (yes, Mister is his first name); and Sugar-Coated Radical, where pastry chef Taria Camerino sells confections crafted with fair-trade ingredients. Then, on the evening of February 22, a man entered Banna Grocery, one arm covering his face, the other holding a gun. He shot Das in the stomach and left him bleeding. Hours later another man broke into Camerino’s upstairs apartment, threatened her two kids, and forced the candymaker to go downstairs and empty her register. That night, Das died.

A week after the shooting, neighbors called for a vigil in front of the building. I arrived late but no one was there, just a WSB-TV truck idling at the curb. Banna was padlocked. One plastic flower lay on the sidewalk, and on the doorframe someone had scrawled, “RIP DAS. We love U. You will be missed.” Inside Retro Razor, Saffold trimmed a client’s hair. It was his first appointment of the day; after Das’s death, every call was a cancellation. “I’m being forced out,” he said. “My clients don’t feel safe coming down here.” 

Eventually a half dozen men clustered in front of Banna; most of them were white, middle-aged, and members of a neighborhood safety committee. WSB reporter Ryan Young gamely interviewed Matthew Garbett, president of Fourth Ward Neighbors, with Banna as a backdrop, but everyone knew it wouldn’t make for impressive footage. The TV truck pulled away and the group walked up the hill to the Helene Mills senior center, where the NPU-M public safety committee was gathered. Special guest: Major Keith Meadows, two weeks into his new job as commander of Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 6, and charged with cleaning up the Boulevard corridor. 

It’s not going to be easy to clean up a community where no one comes out to mourn a murdered shopkeeper. This is an area where drug deals are frequent and blatant. I’ve witnessed three deals during morning rush hour while stopped at the intersection of Boulevard and Irwin, a block and a half from Banna and across the street from the “Drug-Free School Zone” sign at Hope-Hill Elementary. Half a mile up the road is an infamous open-air drug market: Boulevard-Angier Park, a triangle of cracked paving stones, metal benches, and gnarled trees. Dealers who work out of the park hire kids as lookouts. The culture of dealing is multigenerational; last year dealers reportedly worked out of not one senior citizens home, but three. 

There are corners of worse crime and pockets of denser poverty in Atlanta than Boulevard, but this street is notorious because it literally connects Atlanta’s haves and have-nothings while figuratively tracing a century of disconnect between the city’s polished image and the messy reality of misguided public policies. 

Boulevard NE runs 1.6 miles from the CSX tracks at Decatur Street to Ponce de Leon Avenue. The road bisects the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district, crosses Freedom Parkway, fronts clusters of lofts and new high-end apartments, transports worshipers to services at historic churches, and provides access to Atlanta Medical Center. Running along a ridge, Boulevard offers a spectacular skyline view. Yet the street is dotted with trash-choked lots whose owners have been AWOL for decades. It is home to the Village of Bedford Pines, the Southeast’s highest concentration of federally subsidized housing. 

In January city councilman Kwanza Hall declared 2012 the Year of Boulevard, and outlined an ambitious agenda: crime prevention, job training, education reform, economic development, and summer youth programs. He secured commitments from Atlanta Medical Center; the Atlanta Police Department; Mount Zion Second Baptist Church; the city’s zoning, public works, cultural affairs, and parks and rec departments; an after-school program; Atlanta Public Schools; four neighborhood associations; and—crucially—Wingate Management, the company that owns and operates the Village.

Hall thinks this holistic effort could turn Boulevard into a “living laboratory for innovation,” a model for other cities. His strategy has a better prognosis than past efforts. First, thanks to his work on projects like 2011’s completion of Historic Fourth Ward Park, the imminent redevelopment of City Hall East, and ongoing construction on the BeltLine, Hall stockpiled enough political capital to lean on area residents, businesses, and property owners for support. Second, an APD reorganization in late 2011 brought greater scrutiny and more resources to the Boulevard corridor. Finally, the gradual uptick in the economy could reanimate stalled development plans. Boulevard NE may be blighted, but it’s prime real estate.

Our year on Boulevard

The problems on Boulevard evolved over the course of a century, leaving observers to wonder how much can actually be done in one year. Intrigued by the “Year of Boulevard” concept, Atlanta magazine commited to covering the project for the duration.

Rebecca Burns will be filing updates in print and online throughout 2012. Have feedback or suggestions? Post comments below or send an email to Rebecca directly.

>> Browse more Boulevard coverage

In the early 1900s, Boulevard ran through the Fourth Ward political district, which included some of Atlanta’s oldest and most racially diverse neighborhoods. Margaret Mitchell’s family lived on Jackson Street, while A.D. Williams, grandfather of Martin Luther King Jr., was pastor of nearby Ebenezer Baptist. North of Irwin, the road was lined with stately homes; below was a mix of middle- and working-class cottages. The area was transformed by the Great Fire of 1917, a blaze that raged along the Boulevard corridor, razing fifty blocks and 1,938 structures. Brick apartments replaced most of the destroyed single-family homes. Other fire-gutted blocks were reused for industrial purposes; it was common in Jim Crow Atlanta to zone such buffers between black and white communities. Legal segregation extended to street naming: The section south of Ponce, designated for blacks, kept the name Boulevard, while north of Ponce, where whites lived, the road was rechristened Monroe Drive.

In the 1960s, “urban renewal” efforts eradicated more homes and corner shops. From a 1960 population of 22,000, the Old Fourth Ward dropped to 6,000 by 1980. Over the past decade, the number has crept up: a couple of dozen people in a loft development here, a few hundred in an apartment complex there. But for three decades, the largest, most stable community has been the Village; some residents are now third-generation. 

The Village of Bedford Pines is a sprawling testament to failed public policy. The dozens of buildings contain 689 apartments; with some 2,100 residents, it’s about the size of the city of Lithonia. Everyone who lives in the Village qualifies for Section 8 subsidized housing. That concentration of poverty is a catalyst for crime, says Kit Sutherland, president of the Fourth Ward Alliance and an urban historian with experience in public housing issues. “Men who don’t live there ingratiate themselves to young women in exchange for being able to carry on activities such as selling drugs or guns. If they are arrested, they give the addresses of the women on the leases. Those tenants are evicted, and the men come back and foster relationships with someone new.”

Princess Wilson, a board member of the Fourth Ward Alliance neighborhood association, experienced the area’s evolution firsthand. She spent her early childhood in Grady Homes and attended Our Lady of Lourdes School in the 1950s. She remembers Boulevard as a peaceful place where “everyone knew everyone.” A half century later, after years away from Atlanta, Wilson moved into her grandmother’s house on East Avenue. When she walks down Boulevard today, she says the change that “breaks my heart” is not boarded windows and vacant lots, but the moms who live in the Village: “All these babies. Young girls pushing baby carriages.”

For years, none of the neighborhood associations in the Old Fourth Ward wanted to claim the Village, so it existed as a kind of demilitarized zone. “A lot of people want to keep us on an island,” says Marcel Benoit, who has lived in the Village since 1994 and now works as program director for Operation P.E.A.C.E., an after-school and summer program for area kids.

For decades there has been finger-pointing between Village management and adjoining neighborhoods. Wingate says it hires security and can’t control outsiders or what happens off its property. Critical neighbors claim Wingate cares about raking in HUD subsidies (north of $8 million annually) and ignores crime and the general condition of its properties. Local media alternate between airing grievances of Village tenants and gripes from neighbors. Wingate’s regional vice president, T. Gene Lockard, says some media reports reinforce the perception that any problem on Boulevard has to do with the Village: “People see a story on TV, they show buildings boarded up with graffiti, and people assume it’s Bedford Pines when it’s not.”

Over the past fifteen years, Wingate spent $250,000 to $300,000 annually to hire off-duty cops to patrol the area. As part of its Year of Boulevard commitment, Wingate is adding something new, turning over a Village unit to be used as an APD processing center. While the financial commitment (waiving $12,000 in subsidies) is pocket change, the symbolism is significant. By inviting APD onto its property to process arrests, Wingate’s sending a tougher anticrime message than it has in the past. “The management company’s hand is being forced by Kwanza to do things that they should have done awhile ago,” says Benoit. 

Wingate also donated $10,000 to the Old Fourth Ward Patrol, a privately funded operation launched last summer. There are more than fifty such patrols in Atlanta neighborhoods; residents chip in to underwrite the type of community policing that should be in the APD budget but isn’t. Although they’re off the APD clock while on patrol, hired cops can make arrests and issue citations. 

Aside from the patrols, there’s been more police presence since a December 2011 reorganization, when APD shifted Boulevard from Zone 5, which also includes Downtown and Midtown, to Zone 6, which includes Inman Park and Cabbagetown. Between January 1 and February 4, 2012, Zone 6 reported 126 narcotics arrests, compared to ninety-two arrests for all of 2011. Central to the Year of Boulevard project is a new APD mini-precinct to be operated out of space donated by Atlanta Medical Center and staffed by twelve additional officers.

Hall’s initiative focuses on all of Boulevard NE, not just the blocks occupied by the Village. That’s critical. There’s plenty of work to be done in the other 1.2 miles. 

But what happens in the Village will be a linchpin to success. Wingate will announce redevelopment plans by summer, says Lockard. How to redevelop the Village and revitalize the surrounding area, without rendering its residents homeless, is the “catch-22 that kept things on autopilot for so long,” says Sutherland. “No one wants to put 700 women and their children on the street.”

Hall says transforming Boulevard is more about “human capital” than real estate development. “You can change all the physical structures, but if you haven’t given people real opportunities, all you’re going to do is push them out.” 

Translating terms like “human capital” and “real opportunities” from policy jargon into solutions isn’t simple. Things are bound to get messy in the coming year, which Hall realizes. “It’s like if there’s a vacant lot across from your house. At what point do you decide you’re going to cut the grass? Then before you can cut the grass, you’ve got to move debris. You’ve got to bring some friends to help out. As you get in, you may discover there’s poison ivy, old fences, glass, bricks; you can’t even use the lawn mower. That’s where we are. But we’re accepting it’s our opportunity and we’re going to own it.”

Photograph by Rebecca Burns

This article originally ran in the April 2012 issue of the magazine.