Gentrification in 1990’s Atlanta: The Demolition of Public Housing

Demolition of Bowen Homes, June 2009.

June 3rd, 2009 marked the demolition of the last public housing project in Atlanta. Bowen Homes, built in 1964 and located on the west side of Atlanta, housed almost 1,000 people and was the last large family housing project left in Atlanta until its demolition. The end of Bowen Homes marked the end of a controversial program. In turn, it started a controversial debate about Atlanta and gentrification. The Atlanta Housing Authority’s executive director hailed the demolition as an event that “marks the end of an era where warehousing families in concentrated poverty will cease.”[1] Former residents of demolished projects had a multitude of reactions: most were of hurt and confusion, with one Bowen Homes resident stating, “This is just wrong. I wish I could join in with their rejoicing. I can’t.”[2] The demolition of public housing in Atlanta created a diaspora for groups of African Americans in Atlanta. What started happening over 20 years ago in the mid-1990’s has had ramifications to this day. To fully grasp why this debate is occurring in Atlanta (and many other American cities), it is worth examining the roots of the system that was put in place; in turn, we can examine ways to avoid previous pitfalls and create safer, more equitable neighborhoods in Atlanta and beyond. What seems to be lost in this debate are human lives affected. Where do the residents go, and how are they being helped in the long term?

Atlanta is a city of transplants. People from all over have moved to “the city too busy to hate” in the last 30 years—in fact, Atlanta gained the fourth most new residents of any American city in 2017.[3] There are few traces of the former projects—if they haven’t been converted into new apartments, they have been wholly demolished. Built in 1936 and once occupying the current location of Atlantic Station, Techwood Homes was the first housing project built in America.[4] Ironically enough, Techwood Homes was built over a part of town known as The Flats, a low-income neighborhood with a sizable African American population. Hailed as an opportunity to erase slums, increase affordable housing, and improving the overall landscape of the city, Techwood Homes and the other Atlanta housing projects came to represent a failed housing policy that left people behind, and the people left behind were African American.

By the 1996, Atlanta was the first city in the United States to commence demolishing its housing projects. By that time, Atlanta had a greater percentage of residents living in public housing than any other city in the United States.[5] The demolition of the housing projects did not mean that public housing ended in Atlanta. Mixed-income communities and government-sponsored Section 8 housing were created; still, the toll on the projects’ former residents was not taken into account. Having to qualify for vouchers, find affordable housing, and often moving to only slightly less impoverished neighborhoods does not fix the problem of housing inequality. In a volatile or down economy, public housing demolitions can lead to homelessness if more low-income housing is not made available.[6] Furthermore, the vouchers provided to former residents are often looked upon with suspicion by their new landlords—the vouchers also restrict people with criminal backgrounds from obtaining them.[7] Following the demolition of the projects, a large majority of displaced residents settled in 10 of Atlanta’s poorest ZIP codes thus re-creating a cycle of poverty.[8] In fact, a 2011 Georgia State University survey found that most residents ended up in new places within, on average, only three miles of their former homes.[9]

East Lake Meadows, 1991.

The winners of this demolition are the contractors and investors. Once a neighborhood has gentrified, real estate values sky-rocket and money is made. At what cost? Culture has been wiped out at the expense of condos and Beltline apartments. Poor African Americans who have lived in a neighborhood their entire lives are told to pack and handed a check that will not cover a move to a safer part of town. Housing projects certainly centralized crime but to demolish them and not provide affordable housing for all merely exacerbates their original problem: legalized segregation. Conversations about gentrification and government-mandated segregated housing are finally being discussed by the mainstream. In fact, the founder of the Atlanta Beltline project recently resigned due to a belief that his project was not providing enough affordable housing and promoting inequitable gentrification.[10] What has been done at East Lake Meadows is another model that combats gentrification by preserving the neighborhood through a construction project. Realization and self-awareness by the Beltline project creator and developer Tom Cousins are what will ultimately will help those affected by gentrification. Until then, real estate will continue to take precedent over a city’s citizens.—Jeff Brown

[1] Mark Niesse, “Census: Metro Atlanta’s population approaches 5.8 million,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 18, 2017. https://www.ajc.com/news/local-govt–politics/census-metro-atlanta-population-approaches-million/1pxSPBRYI6L26zn4jgVBrN/.

[2] Niesse, “Census.”

[3] Niesse, “Census.”

[4] Robbie Brown, “Atlanta Is Making Way For New Public Housing,” The New York Times, June 20, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/us/21atlanta.html.

[5] Brown, “Atlanta.”

[6] Brown, Atlanta.”

[7] Brown, Atlanta.”

[8] Brown, Atlanta.”

[9] Stephanie Garlock, “By 2011, Atlanta Had Demolished All of Its Public Housing Projects. Where Did All Those People Go?” City Lab, May 8, 2014. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2014/05/2011-atlanta-had-demolished-all-its-public-housing-projects-where-did-all-those-people-go/9044/.

[10] Leon Stafford and Willoughby Mariano, “Beltline CEO steps down; New head to focus on affordable housing,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 23, 2017. https://www.myajc.com/news/local-govt–politics/beltline-ceo-steps-down-new-head-focus-affordable-housing/RoWS3022b1qYl8eWAoBa6M/.

 

Freaknik: The Black College Spring Break

“Mention Freaknik to any native Atlantan and you’re in for an earful — while the celebrations ended years ago, the memories are still fresh in many peoples’ minds,” wrote Michael Kahn.[i] Freaknik began in the mid 80s as a small picnic between Morris Brown and Spelman students, yet really gained traction and popularity during the early to mid-90s and became an important staple in the black college spring break experience. An impromptu gathering birthed a street party that attracted HBCU students across the country and by 1993, Atlanta’s streets were packed with students looking to party and as the name suggests, get their freak on. The music was loud, the clothes were tight, the drinks were flowing, and the streets were crowded. When stripped down to these terms Freaknik represented a time for black students to get together and just chill.

Atlanta has a history of breeding and nurturing black American culture and Freaknik was no exception. Freaknik of 1993 took the city by surprise when at least 100,000 college students stormed Atlanta, making it a party zone. What made Freaknik of 1993 incredible was the power of word of mouth. No one tweeted, IGd, Facebooked, or Snapchatted the event, it just happened. Students at HBCUs across the country heard about Freaknik some way or another and had to be in Atlanta, not at a beach, but on the streets of Atlanta.

The location and time: The third week of April, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Peachtree street spanning into the West End of Atlanta (near the AUC Center), Auburn Avenue, and other streets of Atlanta hosted the event. The early days, people spent time in Piedmont Park socializing and having a good time, and as Freaknik evolved and grew in popularity, people spent time bumping music while gridlocked in traffic and eventually at clubs and concerts catered to the event. Clubs such as 559, The Gate, and Club 221 featured artists like Uncle Luke, Killer Mike, Jermaine Dupri, and Snoop Dogg and boasted large parties.

By 1994, Atlanta hosted nearly half a million Freaknik attendees, and the increased popularity brought the city of Atlanta millions of dollars in revenue. However, the growing popularity also brought greater risk of violence. College students were left to their own devices without much interference from the city and over the years more cases of rape and assault were reported. Mayor Kasim Reed said of the event, “I think that Freaknik was a good thing—until it wasn’t, until it lost its essence. It stopped being about black students having a good time and took on an All-Star Game type of feel. It really became a black Daytona Beach.”[ii]

As Atlanta prepared for the 1996 Olympics there was a push to “clean up” and rename Freaknik (i.e. Spring Jam 1997). Yet, the renaming didn’t hold. Eventually, an increased police presence and crackdown on lewd behavior and partying led to Freaknik fizzling out by 1999. Students traveled to beaches such as Daytona instead. It was the end of an era. At the end of the day, Freaknik was a historic event that gave black college students a chance to get together and simply hang out; and although it didn’t last very long, Freaknik introduced Southern rappers to the world and paved the way for music videos that featured scantily clad women that accentuated their assets and public twerking became the norm.[iii] Just think: what would music videos look like today if it weren’t for Freaknik? Would twerking be as popular? Thanks to this “freaky” event, we will never know. B. Stewart

 


[i] Kahn, Michael. “Freaknik Memories.” Curbed Atlanta. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

[ii] “Freaknik: Rise and Fall of Atlanta’s Most Infamous Street Party.” Atlanta Magazine. N.p., 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

[iii] Elliott, Angel. “The Oral History of Freaknik.” Complex. Complex Media, Inc, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.