Several notable landmarks stand near the corner of Mayson Avenue and Hardee Street in the historically African-American community of Edgewood on Atlanta’s eastside, but only one of them, The Teardown House, is unmissable.
You’ll see the bright red SB Family Store, whose friendly disco-influenced sign looks like it could be switched back on at any moment, even though the cardboard and metal bars covering the grocery’s windows indicate it hasn’t been open for a while.
You’ll also see the Edgewood Community Learning Garden and can feel the peaceful vibes coming from its vine-strewn pergolas.
Without question, though, the intersection’s true head-turner is the house at 80 Mayson Avenue. Even in an era of widespread gentrification and police brutality concerns, the rainbow-colored bungalow’s blatant activist slogans make it quite the anomaly.
Search all of Atlanta, and you won’t likely find another exterior aesthetic like this.
The home’s facade is purple, and just below the roof, spray-painted in white, is “Cop Watch.” Next to the front door, below a set of windows, you’ll see “NO COPS” in stenciled characters surrounded by yellow paint. “POWER TO THE PEOPLE” is painted just beneath that, in red. On the other side of a wooden ramp, in a sort of gradient yellow and blue, someone has painted “Aspire,” and “Love + Peace.” And above the door is a rainbow-colored metal awning that reads, in black and white capital letters, “BUILD UP RESISTANCE TEAR DOWN OPPRESSION.” The other awning, covering a front window, is yellow, and smaller. It says “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” And on the side facing the corner, the highlighter-yellow paint is adorned with phrases like “Fight Gentrification” and “Smash The State!”
These messages weren’t all painted by Marlon Kautz, who co-owns and lives in what’s colloquially known as “The Teardown House.” He’s invited visitors to use the house as a canvas for political street art.
Many of those visitors, it turns out, are associated with Kautz’s Teardown Community, an activist organization whose members and affiliates use the house as a base to plan resistance measures against what they see as economic exploitation and abuse of authority by police.
“The Teardown Community is an intentional community,” Kautz says at the property on a recent, dreary weekend. “We build infrastructure for community solidarity and popular struggle. It’s a bunch of fancy words, but basically we help support social and protest movements that are trying to change society for the better. We do work directly in the community, where we’re able to help people who are having a hard time, to promote a sense of people helping each other.”
By and large, Edgewood itself is between hard and easy times, and Mayson Avenue exemplifies how the neighborhood’s newcomers aren’t exactly struggling as much as some residents who may have been there for generations.
A young man named Mario, who is African-American, has gold teeth, and is exceptionally polite, says he’s from the area and speaks kindly of both Kautz and fellow Teardown resident/activist Adele Maclean. Mario notes that they distribute food at the corner of Mayson and Hardee every Sunday at 1 p.m., their weekly Edgewood Free Grocery Day.
“They’re always out there, every week, giving out food and helping the community—onions and all kinds of vegetables,” Mario says. “They’re good people.”
A native of the Washington D.C. area, Kautz, who’s in his thirties, says he’s been a community activist nearly all his adult life. He moved to Atlanta in 2009, which he viewed as a community grappling with a lot of problems—issues he wanted to help solve.
“One of the biggest problems we were seeing was the effects of gentrification of a community that had been a working-class black neighborhood, and that, like a lot of Atlanta, is transitioning as more development is happening,” Kautz says. “Different demographics are moving into the area, and we were seeing a lot of the burden of those changes falling on people who were the most marginalized, and who had been here for a while, had roots in the community.
“We moved in,” he continues, “and wanted to make sure we weren’t making that problem worse, so we did things to ease that transition.”
Kautz realizes his home’s messaging is what most onlookers would say is most notable, but, he says, it’s really a “side-effect” expression from the people who live around The Teardown House and other places where he and other activists work.
“Not that much time or attention has been paid to the artwork on the house. It’s kind of the consquence of the social and political acts that come from this place,” he says. “We have people who come here from all around the city, country, and continent, and we encourage them to contribute messages to the house that are meaningful to them, and to express the ideals that they’re about. So it’s kind of all over the place. It’s not like a coherent thing; it’s the perspectives of people.”
Kautz is fully aware, though, that some messaging, particularly about policing, is controversial, prompting the property to be described as an “anarchist collective.”
“We have a big sign outside that says, ‘No Cops,’” he notes. “I think it makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable; but the reality is that there are many people in this neighborhood that I talk to on a weekly basis who are very uncomfortable with the police here. And I think that needs to be given voice. People need to confront that.”
In addition to food distribution—Kautz and members of the group Food Not Bombs collect food from businesses and restaurants that donate surpluses—Kautz organized the local chapter of Copwatch, a nonprofit organization that monitors police activity in neighborhoods throughout the U.S. and Canada, with the goal of documenting abuse and holding police accountable. They’ve recorded incidents, Kautz says, in which officers have lied about being assaulted, and the accused saw charges dismissed in response to video footage.
“From that stuff we get a lot of positive feedback from the community, but we also get a lot of grief from people who, in my opinion, just blindly celebrate the police no matter what they do,” Kautz says. “This is, to be straight, a lot of higher income white people, who’ve come to the neighborhood recently from areas where they might not be accustomed to crime or living with different demographics. I think they have a different attitude about the police role in the community, and the community’s responsibility to make sure they’re respectful.”
For years, Mayson Avenue and other Edgewood streets have become hotbeds of modern-style residential construction, which Kautz and his cohorts take umbrage with.
“You can see it even on an aesthetic level. When these new houses get built that have this modern style, it’s hard to not have a conspiracy mindset about it,” Kautz says. “It feels like they’re trying to send a message with that kind of construction, because everybody can tell it doesn’t fit in. You’re not trying to conform to the feel of the neighborhood when you build something like that. It stands out. And I feel like that’s on purpose. It’s trying to send a message. ‘That old neighborhood? That’s gone now. This is the new thing, and this is how it’s gonna be.’
“That’s a hard thing to push back against if you’re just somebody that lives here,” Kautz continues. “How can people send messages about the neighborhood that means something to them?”
Some older houses on the same block as The Teardown House were last sold, for less than $150,000, just a couple years after Kautz moved in. Newer constructions built around the same time have since been sold for more than $400,000.
Up and down the street are homes that reflect increasing property values and socioeconomic changes. A two-bedroom, two-bathroom Craftsman-style bungalow with less than 1,400 square feet sold last month for north of $330,000. Just up the road at 112 Mayson Avenue, part of a duplex boasting its own two-car garage, three bedrooms, a two-story foyer and a wine cooler is under contract at $559,000.
It’s a microcosm, then, of many Atlanta neighborhoods.
Kautz laments losing friendly neighbors who lived in a house next door, which sat in the now-vacant lot directly on the corner. He says it was torn down by the new owners two years ago. He also says that he’s seen increased police presence and code enforcement, including the shutting down of the neighborhood’s annual “Edgewood Day,” which serves as a reunion of sorts for longtime residents and those from the area who’ve moved away.
Police were called during the most recent celebration, says Kautz, because too many people showed up, and the organizers hadn’t gone through the city to get official permitting. He also says police have cited him for code violations on the property.
“Those kinds of things send a message that this is not your neighborhood,” says Kautz. “This is somebody else’s place now.”
Still, Kautz says he and Maclean have no plans to leave, adding: “We own the house free and clear.”
Outside, Mario and two other men lean on a car that’s parked on the curb in front of SB Family Store, staring down the block. What they see is unclear, but what’s obvious is that they’re on the side of the street that appreciates what Kautz and his group is doing, and consider him part of the neighborhood. Says Mario: “They’re just really cool, man.”