Year of Boulevard: Now a trilogy

Supporters braved the cold to give the project a warm kickoff
MailChimp's Lain Shakespeare and Kwanza Hall

Anyone arriving just in time for the Year of Boulevard’s 2014 kickoff meeting might have assumed Monday’s single-digit temperatures would guarantee a low turnout and make it easy to nab a space at Fort Street United Methodist. No such luck. The church’s sizable lot was full, as was every curbside for blocks. Trotting through the cold from their distant spots, late arrivals discovered a packed sanctuary. Overflow seating and a mega-sized screen were set up in the basement fellowship hall. Of course, some people deliberately lingered downstairs, finishing up the pre-meeting goodies supplied by Highland Bakery (hot soup was a favorite).

“On this cool, cool, cold night, we feel the warmth of the love of those in the Fourth Ward,” said Fort Street United Methodist’s pastor Joseph Crawford as he delivered the benediction, thanking God for “the relationship we have with one another.”

The weather quips continued as the reverend turned things over to city council member Kwanza Hall, who said he’d feared the meeting might have to be cancelled, in which case he and chief of staff Jay Tribby would be “out building snowmen in the street and coming up with a hashtag like #SnowBoulevard,” a reference to the project’s “Yo Boulevard” slogan.

Hall swiftly checked though 2013 highlights: the expansion of summer camp enrollees from 450 to 700; more than $2 million in funding for Boulevard projects, including streetscape improvements slated to start this year; opening of a school playground; two new dog parks; regular community cleanups; and an Atlanta Streets Alive event during which “people who never stepped outside of their cars, just drove down Boulevard with the cardoors locked, were getting out and walking and playing on the street.”

A video recap captured feel-good moments from an eventful year. But more than the camera friendly images and soundbites, the real evidence of the project’s progress came from scanning the people crowded into pews for the event. Neighborhood association officers who greeted YOB guardedly back in 2012 cheered “Yo! Boulevard!” with gusto. Gene Lockard, the man who runs the Village of Bedford Pines housing project, renounced as a slumlord two years ago, was greeted with hugs and backslaps. Brawny guys from the Public Works department, sporting safety-yellow slickers, grinned as they accepted a City Hall proclamation thanking them for volunteering on weekend cleanups. Everyone gamely listened as Hall read the names of dozens of partner organizations, donors, and volunteers. These range from the Atlanta Women’s Club and Girls Who Code to the Ponce de Leon Zaxby’s and Joystick Gamebar (which hosted a fundraiser to buy Saturday lunches for local kids). New partners for 2014 include Greening Youth, a training and summer job program for teens and young adults, McDonald’s, and MailChimp. The latter, slated to move into nearby Ponce City Market in 2015, presented a $20,000 donation that will fully fund the Year of Boulevard urban farming camp at Truly Living Well this summer.

Hall, who’d been sworn in for a new term at that morning’s inauguration, said constituents in other areas of his district sometimes fret that he spends too much time and energy on Boulevard. But, he said, even critics concede that the Boulevard experiment is important. “They come over here and see this is real. We are not playing around.”