Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As Atlanta prepares for Super Bowl LIII, a new urban park in the stadium’s shadow is trying to revitalize the struggling neighborhood English Avenue.
What’s unavoidable when you enter this Westside Atlanta neighborhood are all the kids in the street.
Called English Avenue, it’s an area just over the shoulder of the city’s prized new Mercedes-Benz stadium. Kids are running, skipping, biking, motor-biking, scootering up and down Dalvigney Street, a perch from which you can view Atlanta’s downtown skyline, and where cars occasionally zip through from that direction, despite the youth street activity. A range of ages are represented in these streets, from toddlers to teens, and you see them in almost every turn of the English Avenue community. It’s not what you expect to see in a neighborhood that has been labeled as unsafe.
A big reason why the kids feel safe in these streets, despite the traffic, is the Mattie Freeland Greenspace and community center, the latter of which sits right on the corner of Dalvigney and Echo Street, where the center’s namesake lived for over 50 years. Ms. Mattie, as she was affectionately known throughout the community, is considered a mother and patron saint of the English Avenue domain for her penchant for feeding and accommodating the people of the neighborhood, the young ones in particular. She passed away in 2008, but her small cinderblock home was recently converted into a community center and the greenspace—a community garden and playground—was erected across the street from it to keep her memory alive.
These new landmarks stand out as things of beauty in the otherwise hardscrabble English Avenue vicinage that has seen better days. Freeland was around for those better days, but she was also there when Atlanta turned its back on the westside community, leaving it to fend for life amidst rampant drug trafficking and violent crime. According to the non-profit Friends of English Avenue, two-thirds of its residents live below the federal poverty line, and 44 percent of the homes are vacant. One of Freeland’s final wishes before she passed away was that her community would become a safe place for kids again, and that her neighbors could remain in the hood.
Community custodians have been pulling this greenspace and community center together piece by piece over the last few years in hopes of making Freeland’s wishes come true. The academic literature on such urban greening projects shows that this can lower crime rates, and that has happened in English Avenue, which would’ve delighted Ms. Mattie. But it can also inadvertently drive people out of the neighborhood, by increasing property values, rents, and living costs, which would’ve frustrated her. And so this project has in some ways become an experiment in how to use an urban park as a catalyst for neighborhood transformation without transitioning out the neighborhood’s most loyal residents.
Freeland herself could have left the neighborhood back when the crime started, as her family urged her to, but she refused.
“As the neighborhood became more challenged economically, and with drugs and crime, my grandmother held firm,” says Mironda Williams, Freeland’s granddaughter, an obstetrician in Atlanta. “She would not leave that corner because she wanted it to be the neighborhood she knew when she moved in. She wanted to be a consistent welcoming and reminder that this is a neighborhood, and they deserved to have greenspaces and pretty things like any other neighborhood.”
Williams was one of the toddlers who used to run through the English Avenue streets when she stayed with her grandmother as a child, helping her around the house and outside in Freeland’s garden. She watched her grandmother make hot plates for her neighbors, pass out water and juice to strangers walking past in the summer, and even offering up her sofa to people who became homeless. Today, Williams is a guiding force of the Mattie Freeland Greenspace Steering Committee, and she assisted the conversion of Freeland’s house into a community center.
The community garden and playground across from her house that was once an unkept gravelly lot strewn with shards of glass, blunt guts, and other drug-using instruments now holds garden beds, an outdoor seating area, park benches, a playground sliding board unit, and a makeshift stage. This is a process that began around 2007, with a lifelong English-Avenue resident named Reggie Jones, Freeland’s friend and a member of her New Life Covenant Church. Jones picked up trash and pulled up weeds on the lot until he passed away last year. A mural painted on a stone block sits in the community garden memorializing him as a “Visionary & Park Leader.”
Jones was joined by fellow church member Stephen Causby, who moved into the neighborhood in 2006, and who developed a friendship with Freeland. Today, he helps lead the greenspace steering committee with Williams and other community custodians such as Billie Walker and D’Ontario Wilson. In 2015, they enlisted the nonprofit Park Pride Atlanta, which helped them conduct surveys throughout the neighborhood to develop a visioning plan.
The plan is to expand the greenspace into a full-fledged park with new amenities such as bird habitats (Freeland fed the birds around her house), basketball courts, soccer fields, park lights, fountains, and a fully equipped playground. These are all just suggestions they collected from community residents as the plan is still in pre-design phase. But deep-pocket money sources have already started to kick in for the field of dreams.
Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL Atlanta Falcons franchise, pledged to invest $30 million in English Avenue and neighboring Vine City, the two economically distressed westside communities that sit just beyond the Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz stadium. As part of that commitment, the Arthur Blank Foundation donated funds to help pay for the restoration of Freeland’s house (by some of the same architecture firms who built the stadium) and for renovations to the greenspace, such as a huge mural that covers the span of an abandoned apartment complex facing the playground.
The top left quadrant of the mural captures the faces of Ms. Mattie, Ms. Alma, and Ms. Jessie Mae, the “mayors” of English Avenue, overlooking a string of silhouettes of neighborhood children—the actual children were outlined on the wall by the mural artists. The apartment building will soon be demolished to make room for the park’s expansion. Besides the Blank contribution, the city itself recently announced that it would invest in the greenspace to make it an official city park.
These have been exciting changes in the community, yet some residents are suspicious of these endeavors, and with reason. English Avenue and Vine City, known collectively and infamously as “The Bluff,” have been abandoned and bamboozled by city officials and developers before. In Atlanta— the “City Too Busy To Hate” and also known as the “Black Mecca”— these areas, with some of the highest concentrations of black residents, are the neighborhoods that urban innovation and inclusion forgot. The residents here remember how they were promised sparkling new community development projects in 2000 during the construction of the Georgia Dome, the Falcons’s home before the Mercedes Benz stadium. It never happened. They also remember that an entire black neighborhood called Lightning was erased to make room for that Dome.
This weekend thousands will flood the Mercedes Benz stadium for Super Bowl LIII, but none of them will find English Avenue or Vine City listed as a recommended destination in tour guides passed out to visitors. In fact, it was announced this week that a $23 million pedestrian bridge that was supposed to connect the neighborhoods to the stadium will not be open for the big game. They might only even hear about these communities in the context of the poor, struggling areas that Blank is looking to save—a notion that rankles her family.
“My grandmother would be OK with things here if the cultural relevance is respected and acknowledged and celebrated,” says Williams. “But don't paint this as ‘poor, pitiful ol’ me’ -community that you gonna come over here and help y'all do better. No, we've been doing all right. My grandma would say, ‘I'm fine over here,’ you know, because we took care of each other, and we made the best of what we had.”
But once the Mattie Freeland Greenspace is developed into an official city park, the neighborhood will become a destination. The vacant houses will get filled. The $23 million bridge will connect. And property values and taxes will go up. In fact, it’s already started. Causby said the taxes on his house have already risen five times. The taxes on Causby’s fellow park custodian Billie Walker’s house are frozen, because she is a “legacy” homeowner who qualifies for the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund, which is offered through an organization called the Westside Future Fund. But Causby and Walker are exceptions here—95 percent of the neighborhood are renters.
The Mattie Freeland Greenspace crew is hoping they can find ways to avoid people getting greened and priced out of their homes, but the bleeding off has already begun. The neighborhood has lost 19 percent of its population since 1990. A documentary that premiered this week captures the stories of several residents who have lived most or all of their lives in English Avenue and Vine City while struggling to stay financially afloat. Camille Pendley, an independent journalist, spent two and a half years creating the documentary, and in that time a few of the English Avenue residents featured in it have already had to leave the neighborhood.
“To me, it's an insane symbol of the city's priorities to put a $1.5 billion stadium next to neighborhoods where people are living in abandoned houses and warming themselves with fires in the middle of the floor,” says Pendley.
When Billie Walker came to English Avenue in 2006 with her 5 year-old son, she was homeless, a domestic violence survivor. She was able to move into a house, right around the corner from Ms. Mattie’s, with the help of Habitat for Humanity. Today, she has a full-time job with the Atlanta Children’s Shelter and attends Clayton State Universituy, on top of her community greenspace duties. Her son is now about to graduate from high school, as is fellow greenspace custodian D’Ontario Wilson, who calls himself the “unofficial neighborhood watchdog.” Wilson has lived in English Avenue his whole life as have three generations of family members before him. He plans to attend college at Georgia State Perimeter in Atlanta and doesn’t want to lose connection to his home community.
“That’s a big deal for children in this neighborhood to go to college and get a decent salary, and not just an hourly wage,” says Walker. “That's what I wish for my children and for all the children that we're able to take care of out here. What I'm trying to do for myself is to erase generational poverty and try to ensure that my son don't become my history, my past—that he becomes a part of what I'm building for my future.”
Because of their frequent interaction with neighbors and community members they are privy to a litany of fears and anxieties among renters that they might get priced out the neighborhood. Rumors abound that the Falcons are planning to expand their footprint and raze homes to build new condos and parking garages. They remember Lightning. The renters here are used to paying between $350 to $650 a month to rent a single family house—Ms. Mattie paid $25 a month to rent her house up until her death, says her granddaughter who paid it for her in her last years. Meanwhile, the average rent across Atlanta right now for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,450 .
Walker says this is why they have been intentional about holding events at the greenspace that center the existing residents and involve them in the planning: block parties, holiday dinners, concerts, karaoke nights in the park. They’ve all been staged with the express goal of strengthening the bonds of English Avenue neighbors and enlisting them as stakeholders not only in Ms. Mattie Freeland’s vision, but in the community itself. Freeland would have it no other way
“My grandmother would want to see this development—and to see things improve like this is wonderful,” says Williams. “But if we do it at the expense of or the harm of any of her neighbors, she would not be happy. She would not want us to forget the history of this place.”