Saturday, October 27, 2012

Urban Renewal Atlanta Style: The Civil Rights Dis-Connector

Posted by Chandra Ward, ATLANTA, GA -- As a Metro Atlanta native, I’ve always known that the north side of Atlanta was affluent White and the south side a mixture of affluent, middle, working, and poor Blacks. This is Part Two of my series on Atlanta's racialized infrastrucutre. Generations of my family have lived on the south side and continue to do so, although some of us moved to Cobb County, a northern suburb of Atlanta. But don't be fooled, even us suburban Wards live in segregated neighborhoods.  What's most interesting, however, is the role Interstate-20 (I-20) has played in slicing the region like moon cookie all in the name of relieving traffic congestion.

Urban renewal initiatives beginning in the early 1950s were supposed to save the declining inner city by better connecting it to the thriving and growing suburbs, which at that point were mostly White. In Atlanta this took the form of the Downtown Connector (I-75 and I-20). While this 'Connector' certainly did address traffic congestion, it also served as a politically expedient way to reinforce racial segregation, racial disenfranchisement, and oppression.  In fact, through the imposition of the Connector, thriving downtown Black business districts and communities were essentially destroyed. I-75 ran to the north and south and allowed the White northern suburbs to become annexed by the city in order to maintain a White majority.  I-20, dissected the city from east to west, allowing for the expansion of downtown, an expansion that literally cut off the Black business districts from enterprise.

It's important to note that the Connector also led to widespread destruction of low-income neighborhoods downtown and the relocation of thousands of low-income, mostly Black residents, because it cut right through Auburn Avenue. This area was known as “Sweet Auburn” -- a smaller-scale equivalent to Chicago's 47th Street and Harlem's 25th. It was once home to many of the city’s most successful black businesses, including the Atlanta Family Life Insurance Company, owned by Atlanta’s first Black millionaire, Alonzo Herndon.  Auburn Avenue was the heart of Black business, art, political, and intellectual life.  For this reason, John Wesley Dobbs, the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue, coined the street’s nickname Sweet Auburn, “the richest Negro street in the world.” It's also the home to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was once Pastor. The avenue represents the accomplishments of a determined people, who, despite living in the midst of Jim Crow South, created their own American Dream independent from Whites.

Auburn Avenue is now designated as a historical district. Gentrification has taken hold in some locations but you're more likely to see evidence of poverty. So what happened to the Black American Dream? Well, it got destroyed by the federal bulldozer on Auburn despite the fact that there is now a national park dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. right on the Avenue. This is a place where tourists flock. But the community gets none of the benefits, although there are murals celebrating Civil Right icon and Senator, John Lewis. Still, in my mind, the Connector rather ironically disconnected civil rights and fair integration for those who made the area what it once was, as well as for future generations.

Chandra Ward is a doctoral student in Sociology at Georgia State University and the Assistant Editor of Social Shutter. She can be reached at

Sunday, October 21, 2012

When Street Names Change on the Other Side of the Street

Editor's Note: Atlanta is a very frustrating place to get around in a car, a bus. a train, or, in some places even walking. As for Bicycles, well unless you're on a path, or in a park I personally think people are taking their lives into the their own hands riding on city streets.  Most people attribute this mess of a maze clogged with traffic and crazy drivers to Atlanta's infamous urban sprawl. But Chandra Ward has found out that there is an organization to the madness. In Part I of her two part series she investigates some disturbing evidence of a historically-embedded racialized street infrastructure giving the region's African Americans unequal access -- even today.

Posted by Chandra Ward, ATLANTA, GA -- If you've ever spent any time driving in Atlanta then you know just how confusing it is to get around.  Besides having some of the worst traffic in the country, Atlanta  has many streets with “Peachtree” as a part of their name, the city is not laid out like anything remotely resembling a grid, and the same street will change names at different locations, rendering fancy GPS devices -- or even Mapquest --  at times useless.

I had always thought this 'mess' of a maze was due to poor planning and jurisdictional politics amid the massive outward growth.  However while doing some research for one of my classes recently I discovered that the mess was the consequent of deliberate design. In fact, the layout of the city, from the name of street and roads, to the design of our really lame public transit system, and to the construction of they highways spiraling outwards was designed to reinforce segregation. This insidious design was at least in part aimed at containing the African-American population, and making sure their movement and migratory patterns could be monitored.  

From the post civil war redevelopment to the 20th century expansion of the city, local officials made many attempts to spatially segregate Blacks from Whites.  The first residential segregation ordinance passed was in 1913.  After this ordinance was ruled unconstitutional the city began enacting zoning measures to maintain racial segregation. Some neighborhoods even had walls (via Jim Crow) separating Blacks from Whites.  So if you're driving around Atlanta, already frustrated by the traffic and the many Peachtree street names, and then end up on a street that seems to cease to exist, well it will pick up later. It's just than the street was cut off because there once was on of those walls there.

Now let's look at the tactic of Atlanta's streets for which their name changes at different points in the city.  The street of Ponce de Leon (pronounced Pahns da Leon) separates the streets Briarcliff Road and Moreland Avenue.  The area is a busy one with the white, hip, upscale neighborhood of Virginia Highlands on Briarcliff at one end of Ponce and the white, more hippie, yet upscale neighborhood of Inman Park. Briarcliff and Moreland Avenue are the same street, but at Ponce, their names change.  Moreland hits the southern end of Inman Park and just strings together a series of neighborhoods from east to west along I-20.  Gentrification has changed the part of Moreland Avenue that butts against Ponce.  So today spatial segregation between the two streets is not quite as evident.  However, once you cross Ponce and drive a mile or two down Moreland, you will soon find that the populations becomes increasingly Black and the neighborhoods much lower in income. This is even more apparent on Moreland when you cross interstate I-20, another important racially motivated piece of Atlanta's infrastructure.

Ponce de Leon also serves as a divider separating the streets Boulevard and Monroe Drive.  Boulevard is a street that stretches from north to south, but turns into Monroe Drive north of Ponce de Leon.  Monroe Drive is Atlanta's official “gayborhood.”  The neighborhood is home to white gay men and those who love them, along with Trader Joe's, Piedmont Park and a multitude of bars and eateries.  However, just across the other side of Ponce de Leon, the same street, now referred to as Boulevard has a much different landscape.  The neighborhood becomes Old Fourth Ward. Standing across the street from Boulevard on Monroe and Ponce, you see a Popeye's Chicken on one side of Boulevard and a check cashing place on the other side.  A stark juxtaposition of the nice grocery stores (or any grocery stores) and restaurants across Ponce on Monroe Drive, the Old Fourth Ward section of Boulevard consists of a completely different racial and socio-economic demographic, with relatively little retail at all.  You may see a few high-prices developments due to attempts to gentrify the neighborhood, but mostly it remains a low income Black neighborhood littered with abandoned structures. 

What surprises me the most is that the legacy of these physical and perhaps, in some cases, symbolic barriers continue to exist. The street designations are visible, palatable legacies from the city's past that affect the present.  Everyone in metro Atlanta knows that the Northside, even today, is where whites live and the Southside is where Blacks have called their homes for generations.  Atlanta has been dubbed “Black Hollywood”, "The Black Mecca", and is considered the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr. at its helm. Yet if we pay attention through our always frustrating travels around the city and the region,  it's readily apparently that the organization of this metropolis's infrastructure remains racialized.

Chandra Ward is a Doctoral student in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University and the Assistant Editor of Social Shutter. She can be reached at

Saturday, October 13, 2012

"Stay the Nite, or Stay Forever...Free Wi-Fi"

Posted by Debby Yoder, DOUGLASVILLE, GA -- For years I have driven by the extended stay hotels in my community and pondered about the people who occupy the rooms. There is little industry or tourist appeal here, so the large number of hotels has always puzzled me. I assumed the rooms were typically vacant, and the occasional guests were people visiting family, friends, or those whose employment required they work away from home for a lengthy period. But then I found out that the individuals and families who live in these hotels call them home -- a trend on the rise since the housing bust. I always wondered why there were storage facilities in such close proximity. I also wondered whether one could receive mail there, or use the location’s address to register children in school, little things like that which most of us take for granted.

The answers turned out to be yes, and the hotel industry -- at least in the greater Atlanta Metro Region --  loves the extended stay concept. These hotels have unusually high occupancy and tend to raise rates more often than traditional hotels. But this doesn't mean it's like staying at the Ritz Carlton (watch out for the bedbugs for one thing). You can get a weekly rate of $154, no deposit required, no questions asked...well, as long as you hand over the cash. This attracts all sorts of people -- families who can only find part-time employment; day laborers, immigrants, parolees, and anybody else who just can't afford to pay a security deposit on a rental apartment.

Hotel managers look the other way when it comes to how many people are staying in a room, as well as a number of other things a landlord might want to know. You could say, "well, at least these residents are not out on the street." True, at least for a week. But the irony is that the weekly rate, on average, translates to just over $600 (plus taxes) per month. However, there are many apartment complexes around the region where you can rent something for less. The problem is the background and credit checks, the number of people, and the ability to come up with two month's rent for the deposit. While there might be some rather unsavory characters putting down temporary roots at these hotels, there are also many law-abiding citizens who simply have no other choice. So the other irony is because they are paying a weekly rate that may increase at anytime, it can be very difficult to save up for that elusive security deposit.

Now when I pass these extended stay hotels, I know that the occupants are not simply visiting family for a few days or are out-of-state people with temporary employment here.  It also makes me wonder why the Atlanta region is thought to have a 'soft' rental market when so many people cannot afford housing, and it makes me wonder why we don't have more affordable housing programs for individuals and families in these situations.

Debby Yoder is a contributor to Social Shutter as well as a student at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

Saturday, October 6, 2012

House Proud in a Foreclosed Frontier

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, SOUTHWEST ATLANTA -- In June Atlanta posted the highest foreclosure rate in the Nation and some of the worst causalities have been the city's Southwest neighborhoods. These predominantly middle and working class Black neighborhoods have experienced the aftershock of widespread and discriminatory predator lending and mortgage fraud leaving entire blocks with patchworks of abandoned property scavenger and bank owned homes scattered among owner occupied ones. If the property scavengers and banks would keep up their properties perhaps the impact on the homeowners remaining in the neighborhood wouldn't be so bad. But these greedy entities are not house proud so lawns become overgrown and buildings rot. Ironically this all happens at the same time as house proud next door neighbors work tirelessly to keep up their properties. They do this even as their property values plunge because of the insidious disinvestment nearby. Sometimes the property scavengers will rent, sell, or evict, but mostly they, like the banks, remain absent. They will be back when the housing market has a significant upturn. Until then the house proud, hard working homeowners are stuck in a foreclosed frontier.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University. She can be reached at