How gentrification really changes a neighborhood

I knew the price of my new home in Kirkwood, just not what it would cost the neighbors who’d lived there for generations
Gentrification in Kirkwood
A photo of Anna Thornton’s Kirkwood home in 2012, against the street today. The author’s home is on the right.

Photograph by Josh Meister

To neighbors, she was “Miss Anna,” and to her children, she was the strictest, strongest woman in Kirkwood.

Anna Thornton stuck with this neighborhood four miles east of downtown through decades of decline, determined to help spare from jail the local kids she’d once babysat. Anna watched over her beloved Warren Street like a one-woman police force and benevolent monarch. Her kids say she liked to cut loose during Saturday night parties, watching children imitate James Brown on the living room floors she kept gleaming like mirrors, her eyes peeled for mischief outside.

By early 2014, when my family moved in next door, Anna was in her 80s and had withered to a shadow of the robust teacher and nurse she’d once been. One night I watched paramedics wheel her down her driveway—a common occurrence, other neighbors told me. She wore a silky red nightgown that hung loose on her emaciated frame, and beneath her wispy hair, her face was filled with pain. In the seven months we were neighbors, Anna and I spoke just once. Her feebleness kept her inside, and I never took the initiative to walk next door and chat. One day as I was rushing to an appointment, she was sitting outside in her wheelchair.

“What you got?” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“What you got in there? That little baby?”

“Oh!” I said. “It’s another girl.”

Our second child had just been born, and I joked about being outnumbered by women. Anna bashfully held her hand to her lips, as if I’d told a dirty joke, and I went on my way. I didn’t stick around to hear what Anna would, sooner or later, tell anyone who visited her home at 51 Warren Street about her stubbornness to stay put: “I’m-a die at 51,” she’d say. And that September, that’s exactly what she did.

Anna had been a widow, so her death left her property in the control of her youngest daughter and primary caretaker, Anita Banks, who sold Anna’s house at “lot value” before it even reached the market. I knew the deal had closed when Anita—a 54-year-old grandmother who’d always been affable and warm, wearing an eyebrow ring and calling everyone “darlin’”—became quiet and ducked conversations that autumn. The sale of the family’s Warren Street house would bring Anita a windfall, but offloading it would sever deep ties to the neighborhood and drive a wedge between Anita and some of her siblings.

The moving truck showed up a few nights before Christmas. We were coming home from dinner when Anita saw me. Across the fence, she wept while recalling her wedding in the backyard, her mom’s glorious rose bushes, and how her dad used to drink coffee in his shed—his sanctuary—all year long. And then she mentioned, for the first time, that my land—a lot that used to belong to Anna and her husband—had once been a bountiful urban farm. The farm had been a food source for families that had fallen on hard times, which were many during Kirkwood’s post–Jim Crow nadir. I suddenly felt that I was standing on sacred ground, which I’d barely been able to keep green with grass. I realized I had to know more about this little farm and the family who operated it. It was obvious that Anita and I were experiencing gentrification on the most human level that night—quite literally from opposite sides of the fence.

Tommie and Anna Thornton
Tommie and Anna Thornton in 1963 in their Kirkwood house

Photograph courtesy of Anita Banks

As I came to know more about Miss Anna after her death, my sense of what can only be called “gentrifier’s guilt” intensified, as the opportunity to know my neighbor and hear firsthand her version of local history was lost. Maybe the guilt was unreasonable in the first place. Some metrics say my zip code, 30317, is already too wealthy for the household income of my wife, a tenured Atlanta Public Schools teacher, and me, a freelance writer and author, to technically be gentrifying it. The arrival of middle class families in formerly downtrodden areas has been called the last phase of gentrification, after the trickle of “urban pioneers,” often artists or gay couples. And waves of white newcomers have been planting roots in Kirkwood for nearly 20 years. Still, it’s hard not to feel like an interloper after you’ve moved into a historically black (well, after it was historically white) neighborhood with a blonde wife and two Nordic-looking cherubs, and your brand-new soft-modern house towers over the prewar brick cottage next door. The guilt intensifies when you realize that your one-sixth-acre slice of Atlanta had actually belonged to the family next door for longer than you’ve been alive. I never really got to know Anna because of that guilt. I figured she valued the chain-link fence between us and preferred to quietly coexist. I could never shake the feeling, however ridiculous, that she resented me for taking over her former land. And I’d made the ignorant assumption that we’d have nothing to talk about anyway.

The truth is that I, like many, had also been part of Atlanta’s ongoing cycle of displacement, though it left my family in more a state of discomfort than dire need. We’d outgrown an Inman Park condo and couldn’t afford a bigger place in that neighborhood. In Kirkwood, though, we found a 2,400-square-foot home that was twice the size of our condo, solidly within our budget, and squarely in the middle of a vibrant, diverse, and walkable community .

It wasn’t so different from what Anna herself had found in Kirkwood, 50 years earlier.

Hosea L. Williams Drive in Kirkwood today

Photograph by Josh Meister

The same street, from a different angle, in 1944

Special collections and archives, Georgia State University Library

As with other intown neighborhoods, Kirkwood’s allure stems from its proximity to the city’s core, a limited inventory of quality housing for sale, and the sort of organic urban texture—towering oaks, century-old storefronts, restored Queen Anne Victorians—that’s impossible to replicate. In a neighborhood derided as “Crackwood” just a few years ago, demand is so strong that one in three Kirkwood properties sold for asking price or more in the third quarter of 2015. Compare that with the late 1990s, when urban pioneers could snatch a Kirkwood house for $61,500. By late 2012, the average sale price had climbed to $173,000; today it’s twice that. “I run reports for all the different sections [of Atlanta], and we’re definitely appreciating the fastest,” says real estate agent Kerry Lucasse, owner of Nest Atlanta Group at eXp Realty and a Kirkwood resident since 2008. At one point last spring, as I tried to work in my home office, I had to contend with nail gun thwacks from a bungalow renovation two doors down and another across the street, the growls of a backhoe ripping apart a dilapidated home behind us, and the sledgehammers next door reducing Anna’s old house to a pile of rubble.

But Kirkwood is also unique. It has managed to strike a balance between young and old and black and white that seems remarkably copacetic, at least on the surface. For example, my family often eats on Elmyriachi’s patio, which bustles with hipsters and recently transplanted families, while facing the occupied chairs of Langford’s Barber Shop, still a thriving Kirkwood landmark after almost 50 years. “We’re a close-knit community around here,” co-owner and manager LaMichael Langford tells me on his lunch break one day. “Anytime you’re going through a transition in a community, you’re going to have some buttheads that come in and try to change things from what they were, and people from who they are, but I haven’t had any trouble from anyone.” Down the street, Marchet Sparks has watched her artisanal neighborhood cafe, Le Petit Marche, blossom into a citywide destination since she moved from Los Angeles in 2007. As for Kirkwood’s changes, she says, “I think overall it’s for the better.”

Langford’s Barber Shop, a neighborhood landmark for almost 50 years

Photograph by Josh Meister

No one I talked to for this story, black or white, could recall any racial friction in recent years, despite the rapid demographic shift. Consider that before 1990, just 1 percent of Kirkwood’s roughly 8,000 residents were white. By 2010, the black population here had fallen below 50 percent. Statistics aren’t available yet for the past six years, but if the transformation I’ve seen from my front porch—which has included the demolition of lower-income apartments—and my conversations with longtime residents and real estate agents are any indication, nonblack residents likely now hold a solid majority in Kirkwood.

Displacement, in fact, is a part of Kirkwood’s deepest roots. During the Civil War, the bloody Battle of Atlanta began at what’s now Memorial Drive, a few blocks from my house, and some of Kirkwood’s first settlers came here after General Sherman’s marchers had scorched much of the city. “Kirkwood” is a portmanteau of two family names—the Kirkpatricks and the Dunwoodys—who owned the majority of what Kate Hester Robson, an early settler, described in her 1912 memoir as a “paradise” of bucolic farmland. Kirkwood was incorporated as its own city in 1899 (it was annexed into Atlanta in 1922), and for the next 60 years, the neighborhood was made up almost exclusively of working-class white residents.

In 1960, as Atlanta’s population crested at 487,455, federal urban renewal policies and freeway construction demolished substandard housing. Droves of displaced black residents headed east and west from places like the Old Fourth Ward. Fearful Kirkwood residents described the encroachment of nonwhite homebuyers like the advancement of an opposing force.

One day in June, a black family moved into a home on Woodbine Avenue, just over the southwestern Kirkwood border in Edgewood. That night someone set fire to it. No one was hurt, but nearby, several homemade signs proclaimed the area a “White Neighborhood.” A week later, on the same street but this time in Kirkwood proper, a black woman and her daughter trying to move in were met with 100 shouting protesters, one of whom threw a rock through the kitchen window. The crowd would have been larger if many neighbors hadn’t been attending a hearing for a real estate agent charged with “blockbusting.” Unscrupulous brokers used this scare tactic to convince white homeowners to sell, warning of a pending black takeover, crime, and plunging property values.

Soon, white opposition became more organized. Members of seven churches in south Kirkwood founded a committee that urged homeowners to stay put. “[H]elp us ‘Keep Kirkwood White,’” one committee letter read, “and preserve our churches and homes.” To gauge homeowner concerns, the city’s Metropolitan Planning Commission mailed out a survey. Not everyone circled the “sell” option, but the tone of many responses typified what was called a “sellout panic.” Wrote one homeowner: “I wish to sell as we are old, and negros have taken Whitefoord [Avenue].” Another: “Due to the circumstances of the section going colored, we have sold our house. The school is surrounded.” One anonymous landlord was perhaps the most blunt: “We own about five houses in that section, and we wish to sell all of them, if even one negro moves in.” Given these attitudes, it’s not surprising that some 40,000 homes, in Kirkwood and beyond, were sold by whites to blacks—for as little as $10,000—in just a few months in 1961, as Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau reported later that decade.

It was against this backdrop that Anna Thornton, a mother of nine who’d left her job as a butcher at Fort McPherson to become a nurse, decided the family’s two-bedroom house in southwest Atlanta was too small and set her sights on Kirkwood. They closed on the three-bedroom, one-bathroom, circa-1930 cottage at 51 Warren for $30,000 on July 2, 1964. Next door, on the lot that would become mine, stood a grand home with two driveways. Only one other family on the street was black. The racial shift happening on Kirkwood’s southern fringes had yet to reach Warren Street.

Thornton family
The Thornton family in January 1973 at home

Photograph courtesy of Anita Banks

Anna and her husband, Tommie Thornton, were workaholics. Routinely, Anna would step off the bus on her way home from work and bake pies, cakes, and bread for the neighbors, black and white. She sewed her children’s clothes, her husband’s suits, and the drapery in her church, while finding time to lead local Girl Scout and Brownie troops and substitute teach at the elementary school. Tommie worked the factory line at Atlantic Steel for nearly 40 years, cutting steel. He’d grown up farming in Butts County, quit school in the third grade to help his family, and later served as a U.S. Army sergeant in World War II. He came home from the South Pacific so shell-shocked that passing helicopters would send him cowering into a corner, clutching an imaginary rifle. “We all talked him through that, and he got over it,” says Al Banks, Anita’s older brother and one of several siblings who shared bedrooms. The home was financed with Tommie’s GI Bill, and they paid it off in just a few years.

Anna stressed tolerance, and many of Anita’s first good friends in Kirkwood were white, but the changes that had swept the neighborhood’s southwest side soon progressed to the core business district, roughly a mile away. In 1965 the Atlanta Board of Education voted to enroll black children at Kirkwood Elementary. At the close of school one Friday in January, the 470 pupils there were all white; on Monday, all but seven were black. Along with their teachers, the white students had transferred to all-white schools in nearby East Atlanta, Candler Park, and East Lake. Only the white principal stayed in Kirkwood.

To keep sellout anxiety to a minimum, many white families moved out discreetly—often without posting “For Sale” signs, and sometimes at night. “You’d look up,” recalls Al, “and just all of a sudden, there’s an empty house.”

One day Anita, maybe four years old, asked her mother, “Why’s everybody moving away? Because the black people are moving in?”

“No,” Anna said, “they just want to go back south.”

“But we are in the South.”

“No,” Anna shot back, “they want to move farther south.”

In truth, white flight meant hightailing to the suburbs. In a 2004 interview for a neighborhood history project, a Kirkwood native named Lamar Feagans recalled that his white family eschewed generations of landownership to move to Decatur in the early 1960s—and then, a few years later, some 30 miles farther east to Covington. After that, Feagans’s father said, “I am not moving again. They will just have to come live next door.”

Anna Thronton
Anna in front of the Kirkwood post office

Photograph courtesy of Anita Banks

By 1967 the neighborhood’s several thousand houses were occupied almost entirely by blacks. The influx of these traditionally larger families spurred school overcrowding, and residents began complaining that police patrols—and basic city services such as trash collection—had waned. Businessman and philanthropist Reverend Hosea Williams, a compatriot of Martin Luther King Jr. who would raise six kids in Kirkwood, staged press events that called for Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. to address the “emergency.” Showing a DeKalb New Era newspaper reporter around Kirkwood, Williams pointed to men sitting amid garbage piles and asked, “Why shouldn’t they riot? They have nothing to lose and nothing else to do.”

Meanwhile, on Warren Street, Anna was making her children march down to the corner of Trotti Street at least once a week to check on the old lady there—the sole remaining white resident. Anna installed a chain-link fence to keep the bullies away from Anita and her younger brother. Alongside her husband, she swore off alcohol and committed herself to the Pentecostal church, embarking on evangelical missions that would take her around the world.

Then, late one night in 1970, Anita heard a commotion and peeked outside to see the big house next door—which had sat vacant for several months—in flames. The damage was total, the cause never determined. In the winter of 1972, once the rubble had been cleared, Tommie bought the land that would one day become mine—a sloping little parcel shaped like Idaho—for $500. He immediately began preparations for spring.

By the first growing season, each square foot of the land was occupied by either fruit-bearing trees—a peach tree stood dead-center—or rows upon rows of corn stalks, cantaloupe, yellow squash, watermelon, cucumbers, okra, collards, string beans, and on and on. Other families had backyard gardens, but this was the only bona fide urban farm in the Kirkwood area. Anna would can the fruit and freeze the vegetables to keep the family fed all winter, and the remaining bounty would be given to less fortunate folks, including several parents over the years whose spouses had died. (“My dad made sure that if we ate, they ate,” Anita recalls.) Anna and Tommie never made a dime from their harvests. Neighborhood kids who were hungry needed to demonstrate only that they could ask politely for food, instead of jumping the white-picket fence and taking it.

“My mom and dad always had an open heart,” Al says.

Kirkwood in the 1980s embodied civic neglect.

Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution, courtesy of Georgia State University

Anna’s philanthropy extended beyond produce. By the mid-1970s, Kirkwood had become synonymous with drugs and crime. During a series of raids in 1975, DeKalb County police confiscated 20 weapons, broke up several “shot houses” (where moonshine was sold by the drink), and arrested 21 people on charges ranging from gambling to heroin and cocaine possession. But the true nadir, as Anita saw it, came in the 1980s with the arrival of crack cocaine. (Kitchen sinks, wallpaper, even “a champion-sired chow” were targets for thieves, the Atlanta Constitution reported.) LaMichael Langford, the barber, recalls a time when a stroll up the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Boulevard Drive (later renamed for Hosea Williams), could net any drug imaginable, even in broad daylight. Prostitution was so rampant that a walk to the post office meant sidestepping used condoms. Scared by her classmates at Kirkwood’s Murphy High School, Anita had chosen to attend a mostly white Christian high school in Doraville before moving away from Warren Street. Now, she fretted for her parents’ well-being, even though they were hell-bent on staying.

Anna didn’t believe in burglar bars, but she did keep surveillance on suspected drug dens, via binoculars and holes she’d carved in her bushes. Drug-addled neighborhood characters whom Anna had once babysat would come to her for money, and her willingness to fork over cash and invite the beggars inside bothered Anita. (“I helped raise them,” Anna would explain, as Anita fired back, “Mama, they’re not the same.”) But it was the visitors with AIDS who most worried Anita. Word got out that Anna was a registered nurse, and the afflicted came to her doorstep for counseling and warm meals. To assuage her daughter’s fears, Anna used only disposable utensils, cups, and plates.

By the time of Kirkwood’s centennial celebration in 1999, local media was noticing a new pattern—reverse white flight. Tired of long commutes from the suburbs and shut out by home prices in more rejuvenated districts like Candler Park, metro Atlanta residents began returning to the eastside neighborhoods their grandparents had evacuated, embracing the variety of housing stock and people. “I just liked the feel of the neighborhood,” first-time homeowner Pete Anziano said then of Kirkwood, where his mortgage was less than the rent on one-bedroom attic apartments in his former neighborhood, Lake Claire. Of course, one man’s renaissance is another’s bourgeois takeover, and this more subtle transition wasn’t without turbulence. In an Atlanta Constitution op-ed headlined “Gentrification Destroys Lives,” an accountant named Thomas Anthony Jones argued that working class and poor blacks in places like Kirkwood were being forced out. “When whites move into a black area,” Jones wrote in 1999, “property taxes shoot up to a very high and confiscatory level.” Indeed, researchers from Georgia State University found that Kirkwood property taxes had, in some cases, tripled in just a few years. In 1997, two gay men bought and renovated a Kirkwood home—and then successfully sued the crack house next door for dragging down their property value. Again, a local clergyman circulated fliers that encouraged residents to “save” Kirkwood, but this time from a “white takeover” spearheaded by homosexuals. Local pastor Reverend Amos Moore galvanized a small group of supporters but was vastly outnumbered by crowds at community meetings, who called him misguided and racist.

Tommie Thortnon
Tommie in the 1990s in front of the house

Photograph courtesy of Anita Banks

Throughout this ugliness, Anna and Tommie were happily surprised, confident their neighborhood was finally on the upswing. Anna would approach new, now mostly white, families at Bessie Branham Park and invite them home for coffee and pie, where she’d brief them on where the dope pushers dwelled. At the same time, she was cautioning her older friends to stay put—“Y’all don’t want to sell your homes. Kirkwood is the place you need to be”—but many were tired of the crime and eager to escape with profits in hand.

Another boon for Kirkwood’s rebound came in 2000 with the opening of Atlanta’s first charter school in neighboring East Lake. Backed by prominent Atlanta developer Tom Cousins, Charles R. Drew Charter School was one linchpin in a massive redevelopment effort that rid East Lake of housing projects so notorious that one was nicknamed “Little Vietnam.” The charter school became an option for Kirkwood homebuyers wary of sending children to traditional public schools, though many have opted for the latter. (My wife’s teacher friends had spoken of Drew Charter’s excellence for years, but we still planned to enroll our girls in Kirkwood’s Toomer Elementary; I liked the idea of supporting traditional public schools, and uniforms seemed a little elitist to me, though I’d read troubling things about the cluster’s middle school. When slots opened at a feeder daycare for Drew, however, we jumped at the chance. I simply didn’t want to live with the uncertainty of middle school hanging over us, though logic said it would probably improve with an influx of so many involved parents.)

For newcomers, scooping up cheap houses and resettling in Kirkwood hasn’t been without challenges. Charlie Chasen and his partner toured homes in Grant Park and East Atlanta in 1999, but the best deal they found, a two-bedroom bungalow for about $100,000, was in Kirkwood. One night, a wild police chase ended with a crash in their front yard. Another evening, Chasen was returning home when a guy standing a few feet away unloaded a 9mm pistol and tried, unsuccessfully, “to kill someone in the middle of the street.” Lucasse, the real estate agent, recalls a shooting in front of a neighbor’s house and another five doors down in her first two years living in Kirkwood. My friend and neighbor Will Juras is fond of recalling the brothel that used to operate next door to him and the woman he once saw on the hood of a moving Ford Explorer, stabbing it with a kitchen knife. Like many, he’d grown frustrated with police who were reluctant to show up and help. Juras recalls seeing six guys next door pummeling a man on the ground. A dispatcher asked if he could see a weapon. No, he said, it’s dark. No cop came.

In those years, Anna’s section of Warren Street also began changing. Tommie died of congestive heart failure in 2007, and the last remnants of his urban farm died about then, too, except for the cabbages and collards Anna would plant.

Anita sold her house in rural Hampton in 2009, left her job as a DeKalb County government clerk, and moved back to 51 Warren to help her aging mother, who’d suffered a stroke. The $1,200 in annual taxes on the weeded lot next door had become a strain on Anna’s fixed income, and when she offered it for sale in 2013, a local builder bought it three days later for $70,000. Once construction started, Anita would occasionally catch her mom standing at the window, watching and weeping.

In late 2013, with my wife pregnant with our second child, I began scouting Kirkwood, noting traffic patterns and recent home sales, and creating a timeline of expected retail openings in the commercial center. I’d studied neighborhoods adjacent to the Atlanta BeltLine, which was basically our backyard in Inman Park for several years, but on streets we could afford, the prices seemed overheated and the schools, in most cases, disconcerting. Plus, there was something in the feel of Kirkwood’s wide streets and elegant homes that hinted at its proud history, and kids were so ubiquitous that friends in the neighborhood joked of a “stroller mafia.” Our house was barely framed, but I had faith in the location. I remember circling the block on several occasions, trying to glimpse the occupants next door; their house had crumbling fascia, a tired roof that seemed to undulate, and such a dour appearance that Anita actually feared (as she’d eventually tell me) it was violating codes. One night, before we made our offer on the home, I drove by as Anita and her family spilled outside laughing. I cut the headlights, trying to get a read on these potential neighbors, only to have my wife slap my arm. “Oh come on,” she said. “They’re harmless!” We closed on Valentine’s Day, and the baby born 10 days later came home to her own bedroom.

Gentrification in Kirkwood
Anita with her niece in 1980

I met Anita and Al not long after we moved in, when they pooled resources with other siblings and began sprucing up Anna’s house, fixing the fascia and painting much of it but the brick. It was certainly a favor to us, but Anita said it was just time to override her mother’s wishes to keep the home exactly as it was. I remember feeling foolish for having tried to spy on people who were so clearly, genuinely kind. I lent them tools for something or other, and they tried to help us jimmy our doors one time when we’d locked ourselves out. My oldest daughter would occasionally dart into Anna’s house to play with some grandkids and return with accounts of wondrous toys. We did what neighbors do.

Anna was fierce until the end. One day late that summer, she cleaned her whole house and cooked a full meal, but by the next week, the aneurysms in her heart and stomach would render her speechless. She died hours later, her family beside her.

I was rounding the corner of Warren Street after a long run and saw a crowd of mourners in front of Anna’s. In the middle was Anita. I told her I was sorry, and she reached out for a hug.

“Anita,” I said, “I’m drenched in sweat.”

“I don’t care.”

And she clutched me like a woman whose world had come unhinged.

On a blustery November night, in a white-walled art gallery next to the BeltLine, a lively crowd of Cabbagetown hipsters, black politicians, Peoplestown residents, artists, activists, and at least one state senator gathered for what was billed as a “Provocative Quarterly Discussion About Gentrification in Once Blighted Atlanta Neighborhoods,” organized by the nonprofit arts organization WonderRoot. The consensus was that gentrification is nebulous and subjective and so not entirely good or evil, though several people in attendance seemed to lean toward the latter description. Two observations in particular resonated with me: “We’re living in an extraordinary moment,” said panelist Randy Gue, curator of Modern Political and Historical Collections at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript Archives. “We’re seeing a complete redoing of the housing stock in the city of Atlanta.” Young Hughley Jr., founder of the Resources for Residents and Communities, said, “You don’t come in [as a homeowner] as if it’s beginning with you; it’s not beginning with you. There’s a history in that community. People who were leaders in that neighborhood believed in that neighborhood, and they stuck with it through thick and thin.”

In the back row, I nodded my head because I’d come to know exactly what he meant. I’d never taken the time to ask Anna about her life while she was alive, about her missionary trips to Africa, London, and Paris, or how she’d tried to shepherd the prostitutes who plied our street to better lives. If it weren’t for Anita mentioning the urban farm, I might never have known what this unsung activist and her husband once meant to their community. I can’t say that excavating the past has alleviated the sense that I somehow confiscated a family’s valued possession, but I suppose it wasn’t atonement I sought; rather, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and relay a family’s history that my very presence had threatened to wipe away. In this particular instance of gentrification, if that’s the correct term, it’s tempting to say that no one lost on either side of the fence. After learning so much about them from their children, I doubt Anna and Tommie would resent me for doing what’s best for my family. And it must be a sign of progress that this transition was infinitely more gentle than those of the past.

As for Al, his inheritance was his father’s tools, which he used when he launched a landscaping business. His work occasionally brings him back to a yard on Warren Street. Last autumn I saw Anita helping her brother and went across the street. She could barely look at the massive two-story Craftsman, purchased by a young surgeon and her husband, that had replaced her childhood home, though Al had tried to console her: It’s just like the grave site, he said. Something died; we buried it. And something new is coming up. Complicating matters, a couple of Anita’s older siblings were so incensed that she didn’t renovate the property and keep it in the family, she told me, they hadn’t spoken to her since Anna’s funeral. But renovations would have been too expensive, and Anna had given her blessing to have the home sold, encouraging Anita to take the proceeds and move back to some quieter place, if that’s what she wanted.

Anna Thornton
Anna (back left) was the leader of Anita’s Girl Scout troop (Anita is pictured front right) in the early 1970s

Photograph courtesy of Anita Banks

So now Anita lives off Interstate 675 in Rex, just over the Henry County line, in a subdivision of rolling streets girded by woods, where deer traipse through her yard and groaning bullfrogs peek in the front windows. She shares a stately four-bedroom house with her sister, grandson, and great-great-niece, an inquisitive tot whose mannerisms and even fingernails remind Anita of her mother. With profits from the $179,900 sale of 51 Warren, Anita bought her new house outright, and she’s decorated the backyard and porch with bricks salvaged from the old one. A few days before Halloween, we sifted through vintage photos and Google Maps images in her dining room, where “LOVE” is stenciled on the wall and a large framed poster of Anna, Tommie, and other family members hangs around the corner. We spoke about her father’s crops, and I told Anita her story explained something that had puzzled us since we moved in: Little bulbed plants kept sprouting all over the yard, but where had they come from?

Hearing this, Anita slapped her hands on the table. “The onion and the garlic are probably still growing,” she said. “You can chop it up. You can use that!”

Back to Real Estate 2016

This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue under the headline “The Gentrifier.”