An Atlanta Neighborhood Tries To Redefine Gentrification : Code Switch In Atlanta's East Lake community, an organization called Purpose Built Communities is trying to make gentrification work for the residents who endured the tough times.
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An Atlanta Neighborhood Tries To Redefine Gentrification

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An Atlanta Neighborhood Tries To Redefine Gentrification

An Atlanta Neighborhood Tries To Redefine Gentrification

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The PGA Tour stops in Atlanta this week. Top golfers like Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson will compete for the FedEx Cup. The course itself - the East Lake Golf Club - is in the middle of a neighborhood that was once known for poverty, crime and a troubled public housing project. The golf club has actually played a big role in redevelopment in the neighborhood, and the area has avoided some of the usual problems with gentrification. For NPR's Code Switch Team, Elly Yu of member station WABE has the story.

AKUA TAYLOR: What's up villages of East Lake?

ELLY YU, BYLINE: It's Friday night, and residents enjoy dinner and music at a festival out on the soccer field here in East Lake. It's part of Atlanta about five miles from downtown. On stage, resident Akua Taylor pumps up the crowd and points out familiar faces. Taylor, a musician, moved here in 2013 but says she knows the area's very different from what it was like 20 years ago. Back then, there was so much violent crime, it was known as Little Vietnam - a warzone.

TAYLOR: It's been turned completely around, still benefiting the people that were here prior to the gentrification.

YU: Up until 1995, it was home to the East Lake Meadows, a 650-unit public housing complex. The crime rate was 18 times higher than the national average.

TOM COUSINS: Had I been born there, I'd maybe be in jail somewhere also.

YU: That's real estate developer Tom Cousins. He's the man behind some of Atlanta's most prominent buildings. And when the city began tearing down public housing in the '90s, he says he wanted to try something different with East Lake.

COUSINS: We was going to focus our money and our time in this one terribly deprived neighborhood and see if we could make a difference.

YU: The model was this. Create mixed income housing but pair it with quality schools and services like job counseling and child care to help existing residents. A nonprofit, the East Lake Foundation, would lead the way. East Lake led Cousins and other investors like Warren Buffett to create a nonprofit consulting group called Purpose Built Communities to take the idea national. But the model in Atlanta needed a sustainable revenue stream. A lot of that came from the East Lake Golf Club which helps funds the foundation's programs.

DANNY SHOY: Hey. Just me - good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's not just you.

SHOY: (Laughter). I set myself up for that one.

YU: Danny Shoy leads the East Lake Foundation. He and I enter the course through a security gate. This used to be a neglected landscape of dry patches where golfers risked the occasional stray bullet. This week, it's a PGA Tour stop. Shoy says East Lake upends the typical storyline of housing prices going up and low-income people being forced out. He says the intent was to keep residents from being displaced.

SHOY: The people who live there have the opportunity to remain there, and they are not pushed out.

YU: A truck sprays sand into a bunker on the course. Corporate membership is $125,000, and there's a suggested donation of $200,000 to the East Lake Foundation, which means not everyone can play here. The club does fun things like a youth mentorship program over at the nine-hole public course, but resident Orlando Geiger, who's sitting at a park just across from the course, says it doesn't feel like it's a place for him.

ORLANDO GEIGER: It's just a country club. That's all it is, a country club.

YU: Shoy says he understands some residents push back at East Lake's transformation. But he argues the aim of the redevelopment was to change the character of the neighborhood.

SHOY: We are very intentional and unabashed about the fact that the East Lake model is disruptive.

YU: When East Lake Meadows public housing was torn down, residents were offered the chance to return to the new community, but they had to meet some requirements - no felony record, and they had to be either employed or in training. The Atlanta Housing Authority says about 13 percent of families weren't allowed back. In the end, only about a quarter of the residents returned.

DEIRDRE OAKLEY: From a sort of critical perspective, they're only taking residents back. They're taking the best of the best.

YU: Deirdre Oakley teaches sociology at Georgia State University. She says the East Lake model has shown success. Violent crime is down 95 percent from two decades ago. But Oakley says the success has benefited only a small group of people. Marilyn Hack was one of them. She moved here 15 years ago when she was a single mother of three and says she needed affordability as she finished going to school.

MARILYN HACK: I didn't have to, like, really worry. What I really wanted was the stability and someplace safe. And that's what I found here.

YU: Hack says she thinks this can work elsewhere, too, even if there isn't a fancy golf course to provide support. So far the group Purpose Built Communities has taken the approach to 11 other neighborhoods across the country from New Orleans to Omaha. For NPR News, I'm Elly Yu in Atlanta.

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