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English Avenue and Vine City fall in the shadow of the stadium, site of Atlanta’s first Super Bowl in 19 years.

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Five years after Mercedes-Benz Stadium broke ground, is Atlanta’s Westside revival working?

As Super Bowl LIII approaches, a tour of two neighborhoods where investment—and hardship—abounds

Two preteen boys pushed bicycles through the streets of English Avenue one recent rainy, chilly afternoon. They paid little attention to the boarded-up yellow house beside them. It wasn’t much different than the hundreds of vacant houses that line nearby streets, with the exception of what was spray-painted across its faded plywood: “Devil Satan Rules the World.”

The ominous message is made more poignant in this landscape of fallow lots, abandoned street-side couches, and bungalows with caving roofs and collapsing porches. Amidst so much systemic poverty, you can’t help but notice the construction cranes and new high-rises in Atlanta’s core, a seemingly distant beacon of investment and affluence, just a few blocks away.

The city’s most expensive new building of all, the $1.5-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, casts a striking presence from English Avenue and Vine City next door. Turn a corner, summit a ridge, peek through the barren branches of oaks—and suddenly the stadium is there, standing like a 30-story origami from outer space, emblazoned with the iconic badge of luxury German automobiles. After breaking ground in early 2014 and opening three years later, the Benz (alternately: MBS or “the new Dome” to locals in its shadow) is the architecturally amazing magnet that has brought Super Bowl LIII to Atlanta, its first in 19 years.

America’s preeminent major sports event is expected to generate up to $190 million for Atlanta, but most Atlantans with even a passing interest in development, pigskin, MLS soccer, or tax incentives for sports tycoons are familiar with another colossal figure: $200 million. That’s the amount of public funding the stadium project received, via bonds backed by a hotel-motel tax, in replacing the 25-year-old Georgia Dome next door.

As part of the giveback, Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank has made highly publicized promises to ramp up revitalization efforts in the historic but underserved neighborhoods, most with similar socio-economic profiles, immediately to the stadium’s west and south, collectively known as the “Westside.” Doing so would buck a precedent set by many American sports coliseums—including the old Dome and the Atlanta Braves’s former homes—that tend to bleed neighborhoods of economic life, and not uplift.

Years later, with the Super Bowl at Atlanta’s doorstep, the questions remain: Is the Westside’s multifaceted revival working? Can the neighborhoods be “brought back,” as government, business, and philanthropic collaborators like to say? And if so, what’s the real cost?

Parcels in Vine City, with downtown sky-rises beyond, brandishing Super Bowl advertisements.

The context

The Westside was once both a showcase for black middle-class prosperity and a cradle of civil rights—it was home to both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson—and in its heyday in the 1960s, the population crested at 50,000 and vacancy rates dropped to a mere 4 percent.

Today, that population has wilted by more than two-thirds, as crime festered and the circa-1992 Georgia Dome (and its massive neighboring conference center) were decried as barriers to intown opportunities. Investments totaling about $100 million in the 1990s failed to spark a lasting turnaround, and the housing crisis of a decade ago was crippling. Hardly a single new house was built in Vine City and English Avenue between 2008 and 2013, and those neighborhoods emerged as the city’s epicenter of nefarious activity and blight. “It was our most high-crime area in the city—more calls for assistance, more violent crime,” said Dave Wilkinson, Atlanta Police Foundation president and CEO.

When a rash of 12 homicides swept Atlanta in the first two months of 2016, all but one of them occurred in Vine City and English Avenue. The following year, the New York Times described the area as “two of the poorest neighborhoods in the Southeastern United States,” where about four of every 10 people live in poverty. According to one local pastor, groups of homeless women were seeking refuge by sleeping in their cars at Vine City’s Walmart as recently as last year. And as the Bitter Southerner has chronicled, just up the street from the Sunset Avenue house where King lived when he was assassinated, as many as 10 people, half of them children, reside in a two-bedroom house without running water—an arrangement that continues to this day.

It’s hardly the sunny portrait of Atlanta that Super Bowl boosters want hundreds of thousands of visitors to see, although they could literally see it from the game.

As of 2017, vacant houses and buildings (529) and empty lots (845) outnumbered occupied residences (976) in Vine City and English Avenue, according to APD Urban Planning & Management.

Still, reasons abound for Westside residents to be optimistic, if cautiously so.

Since Blank signed the stadium deal in 2013, his Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, a 20-person operation headquartered in Buckhead, has contributed about $40 million toward physical projects such as parks, a jobs center, and new homes for police officers, alongside “human capital” initiatives. Donations have been matched by Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, and others; founding partners in the stadium such as NCR Corp and SunTrust have kicked in some $25 million more. The result so far? From certain angles, Vine City and English Avenue resemble booming eastside neighborhoods, where fresh-faced cottages and vibrant public artwork mingles with heavy equipment molding empty lots into parks. In other words, quintessential American gentrification.

Does Westside optimism outweigh worries about gentrification’s chief ill, displacement? It depends on whom you ask.

“The sense is, [residents are] being pushed out. That they won’t be there,” said Bishop Dexter Johnson, pastor of Vine City’s Higher Ground Church for 25 years. “They feel there’s a bunch of false promises again, or that they’re going to build a wall, and we’ll all be shut out. You know, we love the stadium, we’re excited about that. But it’s as if they put their butt in the community’s face.”

Leonard Adams, president and CEO of Quest, a Vine City community development corporation, has a different take.

“I do believe the community senses a difference this time around,” said Adams, a longtime resident. “I think they feel like, ‘Let’s give it a chance,’ you know. [The Blank Foundation] is locally in the community; you can put hands and eyes on them.”

That daily presence is a handful of Blank Foundation staffers who report to 3,000 square feet of English Avenue offices in a low-slung, industrial complex. And that’s where Frank Fernandez, the foundation’s vice president of community development, began a tour one gloomy day of what he calls “nodes of stability.” That is, the physical fruits of the revival’s legwork and cash, both obscurely small and seismic. Inherent in those changes are initiatives meant to bolster Westside denizens from toddlers to great-grandparents.

Harvard-educated and sharp in speech and dress, Fernandez issued a warning before loading into his Toyota SUV: “This is not something you solve in the five years from when you’re building the stadium to the Super Bowl. This is a 10 to 20-year process. This is a generational project.”

The tour

English Avenue and Vine City might loom large as the poster-children of Atlanta’s inner-city decay, but they aren’t exactly big neighborhoods. Fernandez’s driving tour snaked around the length of about 20 city blocks, covering both communities from end-to-end.

Five years ago, Fernandez had moved to Atlanta from Austin, where he ran a housing and social services nonprofit, lured by the promise of affecting major urban change. As he drove, his philosophies spouted: “You can’t just re-concentrate poverty. It’s complicated. People are complicated. I feel like we’ve made a lot of inroads in terms of residents we work with, but a lot of people are still skeptical of us. I get it. I understand it. It’s reasonable and rational to be skeptical, because the decades prior, there were a series of broken promises.”

Fernandez discusses a row of new houses built for police.

One fulfilled promise, albeit it relatively small, stands around the corner from the Blank Foundation offices at the Bellwood Boys & Girls Club, a former juvenile justice division. The foundation teamed with the Falcons two years ago to build an artificial turf flag football field. The first year, 40 Westside kids participated in the league. Now, that number has swelled to 460. A partnership with local arts nonprofit WonderRoot has produced murals across the Westside, including one at the club. Project leaders had asked children what they wanted to see on this particular mural. Their answer: We want to see ourselves.

The Salvation Army Bellwood Boys & Girls Club.

Fernandez crossed Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, and the mood changed as English Avenue Elementary School came into focus on the right. Gladys Knight and Herman Cane attended classes at the 1910 building, which Fernandez called “basically the biggest physical asset in the community,” owned by a nonprofit controlled by Georgia state Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas. As a partial aesthetic fix, the foundation and veterans group The Mission Continues turned a weedy field in front into an exercise and performance area with a stage. “It hasn’t been able to move off point, in terms of converting it into an asset for the community,” Fernandez said, “but it has a lot of potential.”

English Avenue Elementary School.

Nearby stood a new modular-built brick apartment complex reserved for affordable housing and a green bungalow erected in 2017 by Habitat for Humanity, which has contributed projects across the neighborhoods and owns many lots. The owner, a mother of two who works for MARTA, is typical of Habitat beneficiaries in that she takes pride in the property, Fernandez said.

Despite a retention strategy—including an Anti-Displacement Tax Relief Fund for homeowners that launched in 2017—English Avenue’s population continues to dip. Roughly 7,000 residents live here and in Vine City (that’s decreased slightly since 2000, per Census data, as metro Atlanta packed on nearly 2 million). And while both neighborhoods are diversifying with Hispanic, Asian, and white residents, the majority are black.

Westside Future Fund
A Habitat home.

Around the corner is Mattie Freeland Park, a small green space created by residents from underused lots, and an artsy purple cottage that also bear Freeland’s name. A resident for half a century, Freeland was considered the grandmother of English Avenue until her death about a decade ago. The house was falling apart, Fernandez said, until the stadium’s general contractor agreed to redo it as part of pledged givebacks. “The people around here, and the church right down the street, they’re the ones who control this,” said Fernandez. “It’s about striking that balance of lifting up community-led projects and bringing in outside sources.”

Mattie Freeland Community House.

The juxtaposition of blight and promise was displayed on a nearby corner, where vacant brick apartments neighbor a row of under-construction Pulte Homes, which will be subsidized by grants and sold at cost to Atlanta police officers and six “legacy residents.” Twenty-six total houses are planned, and 16 are under construction.

Not a single APD officer lived in English Avenue or Vine City before.

Securing lots to build is becoming more challenging as the economy surges and redevelopment ramps up. “You’re starting to see people selling these things,” Fernandez said during the tour, pointing to a decrepit residence. “Those homes used to sell for $20,000, and now they’re selling for $80,000—and that’s a teardown.” Added Adams, the Quest leader: “The market thrives to just shoot to the top, and unharnessed, it will do that. And then it makes it lopsided in the community; that’s when we have these gaps of poor people and people with means—and the gap in between is so great, those populations almost can’t exist.”

The goal is to intersperse longtime “legacy” residents’ homes amidst officers’ in the latest pocket of new construction.

Across the street, a burned-out former Atlanta Public Schools building was reopened in August 2017 as the city’s first At-Promise Youth and Community Center, a sort of safety net for young arrestees and APS expellees.

Instead of jail or juvenile detention, police have brought about 350 youths age 24 and younger here, where they’re presented with “a prescription of services” by 30 providers, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Covenant House. Of them, said Wilkinson, 92 percent have earned a GED or high school diploma and just 2 percent have reoffended. Typically, he said, “the recidivism rate at that age is at minimum 80 percent.”

At-Promise Youth and Community Center in English Avenue.

Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, the commercial spine that divides English Avenue and Vine City, is undergoing about $50 million in infrastructure improvements, including two parks engineered to solve chronic flooding issues (more on that shortly) and a city-funded, Complete Streets redo.

The $1.1 million project on Boone, between Northside Drive and Temple Street, is expected to wrap this winter as part of the Department of Watershed’s Green Infrastructure initiatives.

Crossing into Vine City, where the Benz truly looms large, the scale of change is amplified.

As part of the Super Bowl’s Legacy 53 initiative, the city’s John F. Kennedy Park has undergone a $2.4 million overhaul. “This is very intentionally a sports, fitness park,” Fernandez said, “with a walk track, football and soccer field, basketball courts, exercise equipment.” On a hill overlooking the green space is the Hollis Innovation Academy, repurposed in recent years as a K-5 STEM school. There, elementary students have logged a 300 percent increase in math, reading, and science metrics.

That sounds wonderful. But it actually means that first-graders, for instance, reading at proficient levels or higher have climbed from 6 to 18 percent.

The academy and park, where Blank joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for a ribbon-cutting this week.
A park overview.

On crime, jobs, and gentrification

Since that bloody homicide surge in 2016, according to APD statistics, Westside crime across all categories has plunged by 43 percent, which Wilkinson calls “astounding.”

So what’s working?

A $1.2-million system of 100 Operation Shield cameras on utility poles around English Avenue and Vine City has sent the message that criminals are being watched. Westside Blue, a security patrol of off-duty APD officers who don’t responded out of the two neighborhoods, has launched. And perhaps most visibly, five APD officers were selected (among 51 applicants) to purchase a row of Vine City homes offered at cost (around $145,000) by Pulte, provided they live there at least five years. Those officers also earn a $500 monthly stipend, but they must abide by rules: attended community meetings, organize liter pick-ups, mentor kids, report back. “They can’t mail it in,” said Wilkinson. “It’s working tremendously well, and these officers have really embraced this. You can only imagine what it’s going to look like when we get another 20 officers living there.”

Between 2015 and 2017, property crimes in Vine City dipped about 50 percent—five times the decline in Atlanta overall. Meanwhile, however, violent crimes per capita remain more than twice as prevalent in English Avenue and Vine City. Still, said Wilkinson, “The crime picture on the Westside is a 180 from where it was just three years ago. It’s extremely well-positioned for full revitalization.”

Officer homes and the cruisers they’re required to park in front, an effort toward police visibility and crime deterrence.

Rounding a corner, the tour encountered the most publicized construction project in the area: 16-acre Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a $45-million effort spearheaded by the city’s parks and watershed departments and the Trust for Public Land.

In the early 2000s, what Fernandez described as “a mini-Katrina flooding event” that required FEMA evacuations wiped out more than 60 households, and the land moldered for years. Beyond a futuristic playground and sweeping 800-foot bridge, the park is designed to capture 10 million gallons of water. “Its aspiration is to be the best neighborhood park in the city,” said Fernandez, who like other community leaders, hopes to leverage its cachet for mixed-income redevelopment.

Setbacks involving weather and unforeseen contamination have delayed construction, but the park is expected to open this summer, featuring a 2-acre pond, two sports courts, a climbing boulder, and a splash pad, said Jay Wozniak, TPL’s Georgia Urban Parks Director.

The park vision, connected via the Complete Streets bike lanes to downtown and Midtown.
HDR renderings via Trust For Public Land
Raised park seating designed to capitalize on Midtown views.

The downside of the upswing, so to speak, is that median rents have ballooned by hundreds of dollars monthly, impacting droves of longtime residents in neighborhoods where homeownership is a scant 17 percent.

“People don’t want to talk about it, but gentrification is happening in our community,” said Johnson, the Higher Ground Church pastor. “We’re not against gentrification, we just want to manage it, to ensure those residents who’ve been holding it down all these years are not displaced.”

Hoping to offer Westside residents a viable living alternative (and subsidized rents around $250), Johnson’s church’s outreach arm, Oasis of Vine City, is building 105 apartments for seniors called The Legacy. For four years, Johnson said he’s been nudging Invest Atlanta for its $10 million contribution, the bulk of the project’s $18.5 million cost. “We don’t want the seniors to be pushed out—many of them have been here for most of their lives,” said Johnson. “But it’s going to take a lot of money.”

The Legacy at Vine City.

Practically in the stadium’s shadow, on the section of MLK Drive that’s being recast as a grander boulevard, was a mix of churned red clay, modern-style architecture, and the remnants of a historic school that could speak to Vine City’s prospects. The YMCA of Metro Atlanta—a constellation of 30 sites across 13 counties—is moving its headquarters from a downtown high-rise to a philanthropy-funded, $25-million building expected to fully open here in April. Plans call for a versatile early learning center offered at no cost to families, communal exercise spaces (think: Zumba), and a local coffee shop at the corner with healthy foods.

Johnson, the pastor, questioned what impact an academy for a max of 90 students can really have. Lauren Koontz, the local YMCA’s executive vice president and Chief Development Officer, said the goal is to partner with and help train workers at 52 existing early learning facilities on the Westside. “It’s not like we can serve every child [in the new facility],” said Koontz. “But what we want to do is really open our arms, put them around the community, and say, ‘How can we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other local providers, to provide them the sort of resources and training they need?’”

Plans for the market and the incorporation of the historic school component, a gym to be used for students and community events. The remainder of one of Atlanta’s first black schools, the circa-1920 Edmund Asa Ware Elementary School, was torn down, to the displeasure of some preservationists.
Renderings by Collins Cooper Carusi Architects

Rare is the day in Atlanta when a Chick-fil-A opening garners headlines, unless people are camping out for freebies. That changed a year ago on MLK Drive in Vine City, when the franchise opened its first outpost in the area, employing 80 neighbors, including many who’d completed the Blank Foundation’s six-week Westside Ambassadors Program. That program has also placed 700 Westside residents in jobs at the stadium—from security and concessions to hospitality duties in Blank’s family suite. The latter is where London Smith, an 18-year-old Booker T. Washington High School senior, works when she’s not logging long hours at Chick-fil-A, helping her mother pay bills and stashing funds for college.

“Growing up, I seen like the vacant houses, drug busts when you’re walking to school, stores being shut down,” said Smith, a Vine City resident since birth. “People never thought a Chick-fil-A would be right there.”

She plans to study biology next year, possibly at Spelman College, on a track toward becoming a pediatric dentist.

The restaurant Smith rarely leaves, according to her mom.

Rounding Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, en route back to English Avenue, stood the foundation’s first major investment: Quest’s Complex I, part of a $30-million Quest West 2020 plan to transform a tired shopping center with a “live-work-play-serve” model.

The next piece, Quest’s Nonprofit Center For Change, will break ground soon, opening as early as December as a hub of 80 full-time jobs with retail and 53 affordable housing units. “Think of it like a community WeWork,” said Fernandez of the office piece.

The Quest complex today.
Soon to be razed, this shopping center used to see about one fatal shooting per year, by Adams’s estimation.
The commercial complex, at left, and the residential component set to rise behind it.
Rendering courtesy of Quest Communities

Crossing back over Boone, the final tour destination is another flood-solving park that commemorates one of English Avenue’s most notorious, tragic incidents in recent memory.

Having broken ground in August, Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park is named for the 92-year-old nearby resident fatally shot by Atlanta police during a botched, illegal raid in 2006. Amenities will include a playground, fitness stations, and seating terrace, plus infrastructure to handle another 3.5 million gallons of stormwater annually.

Park construction this month.
The park, as envisioned, a few blocks west of the larger Rodney Cook Sr. Park project.

Is the Westside revival working? It depends, again, on whom you ask. It’s complicated. It’s tough. And at times, it’s slow.

The Westside, in short, remains a work-in-progress.

“Over the last year and a half, the things we’ve been working on with a lot of others are really starting to move,” said Fernandez, en route back to his office and another meeting. “All we can do is continue to be here. Once the stadium opened, we didn’t go away. Once the Super Bowl is done, we’re not going to go away either. It’s just about sticking with it.”

The reimagined Vine City Park, which opened in 2016, and the Super Bowl’s confines beyond.
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