Adrian Light stands pensive and alert. She is the president of Tinseltown Homes and has just finished speaking at another neighborhood meeting. The subject matter was on the same thing as it was the week prior. She yearns for the day that she gets to speak about something else for a change. How many times can she talk about evictions and demolitions? But her fellow public housing mates are worried, and rightfully so: it’s only a matter of time when Tinseltown Homes become obsolete. Times are changing in Atlanta, and public housing as a solo entity is becoming more and more of an anachronism.

Adrian may be a fictional name, but she is a real person in a real situation. Since Techwood Homes was demolished to make way for the economic boon that was the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta has been undergoing a transformation in its residential structure. Viewing itself as a city of progression, Atlanta has sought the attention of this lady of a transformation; the model for mixed-income developments, a place where the public sector meets the private sector in an effort to raise the tax base of the city. A higher tax base equals more money for the local government. More money for the local government means more money for policemen, firefighters, libraries, education and the like. She happens to be everywhere and yet infrequently makes her way to the mainstream discussions. Yet she affects so many of our lives. Yes, yours too.

Gentrification is her name, and she has a fierce subtlety about her that comes with mixed reviews. Some love her buoyancy, her ability to transform any bleak environment into an economic and aesthetic marvel. Others love her reformation skills, creating an environment of safety and warmth and vibrancy. But then she is loathed by those who see her as ruthless, one who cares less about people than about the institutions that she serves. She shuns any remains of tradition. And at her worst, she comes…and goes. She never stays around too long.

The biggest problem with gentrification is that it never cures economic blight as much as it treats it.

When one rides by Boulevard or other parts of the Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta, the change needed is evident. Once change occurs and people of a different look are in place, the neighborhood is cleaned up, and order is restored. This is all well and good, until you see other parts of town that start to decay and realize that a trade-off has occurred. A transferring of ills from one neighborhood to another. Like the harlot in Proverbs, this phenomenon moves around from one economically depraved area to another, never really getting to the crux but always playing on our most basic common denominator: crime, fear, and money. In many cases, she hastens a neighborhood’s decay so she could move in and do her thing.

Atlanta has been a place of economic prosperity for scores of black Americans over the last 20 odd years. For a long time it has been a place where political power resides with African-Americans; the only city in the United States, in fact to boast 35 straight years of black mayoral leadership. From “The City Too Busy To Hate” to “The Black Mecca”, Atlanta has been replete with monikers, irreverent of the practical realities belying such bombastic claims, such as the substantial poverty rate among African-Americans in the city or the fact that as recently as four years ago, Atlanta was number one in the nation in child poverty. The PR machine of this city has been alive and working, ever since the heyday of Henry Grady and his proclamations of Atlanta being the symbol of a “New South” and W.E.B. DuBois’s prescient writings of Atlanta as “South of the north and north of the south”. But Grady ignored the lingering concerns of race, DuBois addressed them. Race was an overt issue then and a covert issue now.

Sure, the people who are affected the most in this changing urban structure are African-Americans. But, it’s not a cut-and-dry case of skin color determining one’s fate. Like it was during the Middle Passage, it is about economic position. He who holds the gold makes the rules; unrestricted capitalism at its finest. This isn’t much different from an employer forcing employees to work under hazardous or strenuous work conditions; in fact, the only difference is that slaves didn’t have a union. Neither did the Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. Neither do the inhabitants of the Atlanta housing projects that will be demolished soon.

Since delving into this movie, I have met and spoken with and interviewed people from both sides of the equation. There are many who need public subsidy, but will have it snatched away from them through not-so-transparent tactics. Many people like to point out that public housing is a haven for crime and dilapidation and a crutch against progression. So get rid of it, they say, and force people to “do better”. But what happens to those who fall between the cracks? Who even cares?

To us, the minds behind The Atlanta Way, this generalization is as senseless as the war on drugs, which has turned into nothing more than the war on the underclass, locking up millions of addicts while letting the real criminals go away, unfettered. A shift in demographics does not spell change for a city, it’s only a stark reminder that institutions holds primacy over individuals. Where Techwood Homes and Bowen Homes and Hollywood Courts left off, Clayton County has picked up the affordable housing slack. Soon, Clayton County will change and cast its residents off as another district’s burden. Let’s just hope that it isn’t your area that picks up their slack. Then you might pay attention, and we wouldn’t be necessary.

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  • NinaG

    Thank you for this piece. I have mixed feelings about gentrification, on one hand you’ve got a problem with concentrated poverty and on the other you’ve got a problem with displaced people…but I recently had the opportunity to do some research on low-income housing from a health perspective and its given me some new insight in to the whole issue of housing, forced migration, and whatnot.
    Its really amazing to see the changes in Atlanta every time I come to visit. Atlanta has a really amazing story when it comes to public housing, being the first city with a federally funded housing project and I think the first to start demolishing all of its public housing units. The problem with Atlanta is that the city started off the demolition project with the intent of de-concentrating poverty in the city but hasn’t really done what they need to do to make sure residents aren’t just moving to other impoverished/underserved neighborhoods.
    I’ve heard some sociology profs at GA State are starting some research to follow up some former public housing residents; hopefully this will provide the city with the tools necessary to implement successful transition programs HOPEFULLY! Anyways, ‘The Atlanta Way’ doc sounds really interesting. I saw ‘The Greening of Southie’ which briefly touched on the issue of gentrification – from a perspective I’d never considered.

  • ZsAficionado

    Great Post