Raised on Bleveland

In the news recently for its links to gang violence, Cleveland Avenue could represent much more than that. It just needs a little push.

Cleveland Avenue

Photograph by Growl

This story is part of Atlanta magazine’s Streets Issue—a block-by-block exploration of our city and the stories it tells. Find the entire package here.

“If you’re not running the streets with us, you’re not family,” John Lattimore—the rapper YL Stunna—told an interviewer last year when asked about Cleveland Avenue. “It’s not a place you can come to and just kick it. You might be beat up, robbed, shot, you know what I’m saying?

“But it’s not all bad.”

Cleveland Avenue has been in the news lately for the wrong reasons. In April, the almost casual murder of a security guard at a Cleveland fish restaurant captured America’s horrified attention. Then, the racketeering and gang terrorism arrest of Jeffery Williams—the rapper Young Thug—and other alleged members of the Young Slime Life street gang enlarged and focused that attention: In May, a Fulton County grand jury handed up a 56-count indictment, with 28 people charged under Georgia’s organized-crime laws. Many are rappers—Young Thug, Sergio “Gunna” Kitchens, Deamonte “Yak Gotti” Kendrick, and others—accused of drug trafficking, assaults, thefts, and murders. What connects them is their loyalty to each other and to the street that gave birth to their musical careers: Cleveland Avenue.

“Me and the mayor and the police chief have talked about the fact that Cleveland in our community is referred to as ‘Bleveland,’” said Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis at a May press conference discussing YSL, alleged to be a local Bloods gang set. Bloods gang members commonly substitute Cs in words with Bs, symbolizing the erasure of rival Crips. “It is somewhere where violence occurs, where they are marking up Blood territory. It’s horrible. That community deserves to be safe.”

Prosecutors accuse Williams of forming the Young Slime Life gang in 2012—the successor to a previous Southeast Atlanta gang called Raised on Cleveland—and then merging its operations with a music label of the same name, creating a deliberately blurry mix between the music business and street life. This concoction became poisonous after the 2015 murder of Donovan “Big Nut” Thomas, a senior ranking Inglewood Blood gang member. According to the Fulton County indictment, Thomas was assassinated on orders given to Williams by a New York/New Jersey–based gang called Sex Money Murda. (Williams’s lawyer, Brian Steel, has denied all accusations against his client.)

Thomas’s murder split the city’s Blood gangs into warring camps, with the Cleveland Avenue–based YSL and its aligned cliques facing the wrath of other Bloods sets from the city, primarily the YFN group tied to Summerhill. YFN is also associated with Atlanta’s music industry: Before the Thomas murder, Young Thug and YFN musicians made appearances in each other’s songs, like “Movin’” with Williams and Justin “Bloody Jay” Ushery, in which they name-check both Sex Money Murda and Raised on Cleveland. Prosecutors suggest that as many as seven or eight murders a year might be attributable to the running feud that followed Thomas’s killing.

Cleveland Avenue has long been a crucible forging Atlanta’s trap music scene. Like it or not, the spotlight is highlighting the scene’s connection to Atlanta gang culture and its increasing violence. For a rapper, the Cleveland Avenue cachet provides authenticity. For everyone else, it imposes a stigma hanging over the complicated economic future of the community.

“When you look at Cleveland Avenue, it’s been a hotspot for violence,” said Tracy Gantlin-Monroy, who offers mental health services in a clinic on the street. “But Cleveland Avenue is gentrifying. When you veer off to the side roads, you notice that the neighbors aren’t the people you see before. There’s a lot of poverty here, but also the up-and-coming and people doing very well who have refused to leave.”

The changes are subtle. Even as the rest of Atlanta can be defined by its dynamism, Cleveland Avenue still looks and feels like it has for a generation, said Audra Haywood, a science teacher who has lived nearby for more than 25 years. It’s not Trader Joe’s territory. But there’s a city golf course and once-abandoned ranch houses on one end that quickly give way to a gallery of strip malls with nail salons and tire shops. The gas stations have a crowd. The bus stops might be home for someone with an overfull Kroger shopping cart and too few friends. It’s poor, but the bones of a better life lay bare as you see people renovating homes on the side streets.

It needs a little push, a little direction . . . but just a little, Haywood said.

Indeed. Cleveland Avenue is a puzzle. On the one hand, Atlanta Medical Center South—a major employer on Cleveland Avenue—announced in May over the loud objections of local lawmakers that it would downgrade from a full hospital, including an emergency room, to a primary-care, outpatient, and rehabilitation center. AMC South was the only ER south of I-20 in Fulton County; Wellstar, which owns the hospital, cited low admissions numbers and the expense of running that ER to justify closing. On the other hand, Walmart opened a new store on Cleveland a few years ago, and there’s been some development. While you can still find a house for less than $200,000 in nearby neighborhoods, abandoned properties are rapidly disappearing into the portfolios of house flippers or corporate landlords.

“They don’t know what they want it to be,” Haywood said. “There are a lot of bright kids here without a lot of support. They need more. A lot of kids in these apartments aren’t in gangs because their parents have strict rules. You’ve got to catch these middle school kids. They need something to do. The parents are busy doing what they need to do. Some are fit. Some are not. But there’s a lot of good fruit here, and it’s rotting in front of us because we’re not able to preserve them.”

This article appears in our August 2022 issue.