Kickoff Q&A with Kwanza Hall


In early February, a few weeks after the “Year of Boulevard” initiative was announced, I sat down with city councilman Kwanza Hall to talk about the project’s launch. Hall, whose parents were civil rights leaders and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, spent much of his childhood in the area. A former member of the Atlanta Public Schools board, Hall has served on Atlanta City Council since 2006. He lives in the Old Fourth Ward and represents District 2, which includes Downtown, Sweet Auburn, Inman Park, the Old Fourth Ward, and Castleberry Hill. We met in the Starbucks at the Atlanta Medical, a few yards from the future site of the  Zone 6 mini precinct.

What was the impetus for declaring 2012 the “Year of Boulevard”?

Every big initiative requires some kind of catalyst, some kind of driver. We did our Old Fourth Ward Master Plan, but obviously Boulevard is a place that’s in need of attention — and has been for years. It’s kind of been the white elephant in the room, right here in the shadows of the King district. In the Old Fourth Ward community, we’ve made so many strides in every other area.

Policies can affect change in communities, and as a legislator there are some things I think I might be able to do. There are some things we generally haven’t expected the school board to do or held them accountable for. Then there are things our county commissioner can do, our state representatives and the governor can do. And at the federal level there are things organizations such as HUD and HHS, can do, as well as the Department of Energy and the Small Business Administration.

The time is right. We have all of the elements. A great environment. It’s a finite space. But this is our lowest point, so to speak. To raise this area we’ve got to raise the tide. We need a tide to come in. And the tide will be comprised of these elements: infrastructure, public safety, education, employment opportunities, and empowerment, the three Es. And there’s an investment component.

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

There’s a pure economic development/investment component. First would be investors. And we’re not interested in speculators. They aren’t welcome. We’re more interested in people who love the community, want to make it better, who don’t want just a quick win. If we got a hundred of our friends to get one parcel, one building, one store, and make it better, that could change the community. Just 100 individual investors.

The next level that is needed is private business owners at the other level, more than $500,000 and up to several million. Those can be private and/or work with the city through Invest Atlanta.

Then there’s the bigger stuff tied to our largest property owners: Wingate Management, which owns the most property over here; Atlanta Medical Center; and some of the contiguous parcels that could be assemblages. They would be at the bigger scale. Deutsche Bank and Bank of America have been around the conversation for a while. We’ve talked to some Chinese investors. That’s further out, but you get the idea and the three levels of real estate investment.

Then there’s bringing in services that are needed from a retail perspective. Could we have a grocery store? What things are needed here?

I live on Boulevard, and except for convenience stores there’s nothing. I can assure you; we need a grocery store.

The most interesting short-term policy is right in our face and it’s related to APS. Currently all the children who live in the area are zoned for Hope-Hill Elementary or attending Intown Academy, the charter school. We have predominantly poor children, and if you have that concentration of poverty, it’s hard on a school. [Note: At the time of my interview with Hall, APS was considering closing Hope-Hill and zoning the area for Cook Elementary. The proposal was roundly opposed by residents of Old Fourth Ward and adjoining communities like Inman Park.]

One conversation we’ve had is floating among parents and residents is the idea of splitting the Boulevard area into three or four sections, sending kids to Mary Lin, Springdale Park [aka “Spark”], Centennial, maybe Morningside – while we come up with a solution. If that’s the case, how many parents would move into the houses off Boulevard? How many would think, “I could get a lot for $30,000 and my kids could go to Spark? I’m moving over.” Instant improvement of the area. Instant de-concentration of poverty.

The other idea, which would be running concurrently, would to look at Hope-Hill and the other properties in the area owned by APS – David T. Howard and Walden [both vacant] — and come up with an education plan that would somehow use investment in Howard, changes in Hope-Hill, or a middle school at Walden that would take pressure off Inman. You’ve got enough diversity in the neighborhood, and a balance in the schools, it changes the game. You’d get an instant influx of investment.

At the same time, look we need to look at where Invest Atlanta, can take down some of these larger lots or buildings, and put a couple 200-unit moderate income and up — not low income — buildings, seeding into the community.

Stuff happens fast over here. You know we can get three new restaurants in a month. We can get three new buildings in a year or two. The market is right for the right type of renters — they don’t have to be buyers but they could be — if you have the right kind of schools. There are already people who live one block off Boulevard in $800,000 houses, so it’s not really an issue about getting people to live that close to Boulevard. It’s really that people don’t have that additional [school] option.

Slightly longer – and much harder – would be changes in HUD policy that would enable Wingate to do things differently at the Village of Bedford Pines than the guidelines they have to work in now. [Note: HUD guidelines for privately owned developments that accept only people who qualify for Section 8 housing assistance, developments such as the Village of Bedford Pines, don’t permit the same kind of restrictions that city-run programs, like the Atlanta Housing Authority, can place on tenants.] Changing HUD will take longer because it’s federal and we’re in an election year, but schools we could change right now. Those are big ideas about having market-driven change.

What we’re trying to do here with Boulevard is set a new standard for the city. To allow it to be a living laboratory for innovation so that we can share with our colleagues across the city and work with the mayor and council president. We’re on the edge of something very unique in the city.

This is something I know I can’t do alone with my district office. The city alone can’t do it. It’s a team effort. We have called out all the departments to help us. State and county. Property owners. It’s like the most giant community clean up you’ve ever seen. This is Atlanta’s chance. It’s like the Olympic moment applied to a community.

What do you see as your primary role?

In part being a catalyst. There’s also a degree of being a steward of the legacy I inherited from my parents who worked in civil rights, being in the King district and taking it to another level, beyond the usual conversation and rhetoric around civil rights. There’s definitely a conversation that could be started around what change has happened [since the King era] and what change needs to happen.

I have to play a role as a bridge builder, between past and future, the old and new guards, different economic groups, people from different levels of education. I see it as being a central connector.

When people hear about this project, how often do they assume that “Boulevard” is synonymous with the Village of Bedford Pines?

Some think we’re talking about Bedford Pines. But it’s beyond that. The coverage area is east and west of Boulevard, from Ponce and down to DeKalb Avenue.

It stops just 125 yards of where I live on Boulevard SE. You don’t want to extend this effort a little bit? I love living over here, but the tunnel under DeKalb Avenue is pretty scary some times.

There’s a love for the community across the board. We’ve got to frame that – and let that guide us. Whether it be history, the new park, riding bikes here, just loving to see the weird stuff that goes on — even if it’s not all positive. I’m not trying to glamorize it, just saying that’s the reality we’ve had to live with. Going forward, how can we accelerate out of it – without losing touch with our past? How do we tell the stories of the past? Vernon Jordan being over here. Jewish families living over here, including the Ferst family. A lot of interesting things. All these names and layers of history, like old paint on a house where under all the layers the bones are still good.

The biggest issues still go back to education and employment opportunities. You can change all the physical [structures] but if you haven’t changed opportunities for people, all you’re going to do is push them out.

I’ve covered plenty of projects with people painting murals or planting trees in blighted parts of Atlanta, but that kind of thing doesn’t change the underlying situation.

We’ve got to do the cosmetic nice stuff – just because. But we’ve got to change things for people. We do a lot in Atlanta, but we don’t always look at it in a holistic way. Or we change one person’s life. I want to look at big numbers. I want to be able to measure it. I want to be able to say, “Okay, how many kids in Boulevard graduated from high school? Where did they go?”

Can we tell stories of people’s lives getting better as opposed to the same old stories? We were doing a story with WSB, and the videographer said, “You know I grew up over here on Jackson Street, and my wife lived in Bedford-Pines.” He’s gone on to college, got a degree, works at Channel 2. That’s a story I want him to bring back and share with the kids here.

There are successes, but what’s the percentage of successes to failures? Not failures as in the person giving up on life, but failures in terms of too many drugs, too much crime, too much death, too many incarcerations. How do we reduce those numbers?

We need to look at best practices around the country. With 2012 being the year of Boulevard, it means this is going to be the year that we’re going to acknowledge it’s our challenge and opportunity.

Have you been surprised by anyone getting on board that you might have anticipated being reluctant or skeptical?

I’m the most excited that Wingate is coming to the table in the way that they have. I think they are going to be our change agent of the next year or two. Atlanta Medical has been phenomenal. It also is regular people saying they will do their part. There’s been a buzz about this.

I’ve been surprised by the school zoning conversations and the frustration and anger and desire to see something different around the concentration of poverty and quote-unquote segregation of schools. Not just here in the Old Fourth Ward, but across broader Atlanta. It’s going to require people to get involved in the school system, whether they have kids or not. You live in the neighborhood, you chip in to the schools. We need a PTA budget. Hope-Hill’s got a $1,000 PTA budget. It should be $100,000.

I haven’t had anyone say it’s not going to work. The only thing is people not believing, especially those who live in Bedford Pines, that a new opportunity is going to come to them. That is our biggest challenge to deliver. What I’d like is to get help — from the mayor, the state, President Obama; I don’t care where it comes from — for people to have employment. If we’re not going to help them get jobs, can we get training so they can be in business? It can be small, medium, whatever. Helping people get food trucks, start a cleaning business, helping seniors start a dog-walking service. We should be able to create a hundred entrepreneurs out of this area. Surely teens, maybe young adults, then some seniors. These could be whole new jobs. How about a cell phone screen repair business? Buy glass and some tools, and repair phone screens. Instead of people buying a new phone for $500, they’d pay $50 to get it repaired. If a teen did that, it’s the same $50 they make selling dope.

There are jobs in tech, healthcare, the music and entertainment business. We have a lot of restaurants over here, and I’ve heard owners say, “Where can my employees stay?” and “How can I get more skilled line chefs?” We could put housing in the old [Georgia Baptist Hospital] nurses building, which has a basement kitchen that could be a training facility.

Construction trades will be coming back, especially around transportation. Job training in that arena is important. There could be great partnerships with technical colleges, sixty-day training courses that get you certificates.

Some of the theory behind this effort reminds me of the Atlanta Project that Jimmy Carter spearheaded in the mid 1990s. The idea was to bring Atlanta’s rich and poor together, to bring together businesses and nonprofits and churches. It was a huge project, and at times it felt like people were coming into poor parts of town and telling people what they should do, instead of asking what they needed. How are you ensuring community buy-in?

The Atlanta Project on a small scale is kind of what we’re trying to do. But only in a way. We spend a lot of time on the ground. But we still have the challenge to make sure that the community owns the vision. Make sure everyone buys in.

This Sunday, I walked up one side of Boulevard and down the other. Literally being at the ground level was valuable to thinking about this. Some things like the vacant lots and boarded buildings are obvious. What really struck me is how there’s no decent playground.

The biggest thing I see is the young mothers. We’ve really got to empower them. I’ve been talking with Helene Gayle at CARE, which is based in Atlanta and works with young women around the world. This is really like a third-world country:  the level of poverty, the level of education, the number of children per mother. Can we borrow what’s being done in other places and bring tactics for empowering women in ways we haven’t done before? How can we break out of cycles we see recurring three even four generations deep? Helene could look out of her office Downtown with binoculars over here and see things like CARE deals with.

Has anyone told you the whole idea is crazy?

No. They just say you can’t eat that whole elephant at one time. You’ve got to walk around that elephant, look at it from all angles, in the night and in the day. We’re spending time on Boulevard in ways we haven’t before. Uncomfortable ways. Lay on the ground and look under the elephant and see what it looks like and then figure out how to approach it. We’re on a new frontier of what’s been done before. I like that place.

We have to be prepared for potential failures. Borrowing from our past experiences, what worked, what didn’t. Every day will be a debrief on Boulevard.