Atlanta wanted an end to its public housing projects—no more pockets of poverty, crime, and despair. In the 1990s, the city started tearing the projects down, replacing them with mixed-income neighborhoods. The shining success story of this effort? East Lake, which turned “Little Vietnam” into a safe, beautiful community. We’ll meet the people who made it happen. When so much can go wrong, how did East Lake get it right?Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Carol Naughton is president of Purpose Built Communities. You can watch her TED Talk here.
Lillian Giornelli is president of the Cousins Family Foundation. She is daughter of Atlanta developer Tom Cousins, the original investor in East Lake.
Shannon Longino is a vice president at SunTrust Community Capital and former resident of East Lake Meadows.
Rebecca Sheir: When Carol Naughton first went to the public housing project in East Lake in 1995, she felt like she’d entered a different city from the rest of Atlanta. And not a good one.
Carol Naughton: The first thing you noticed is that the community was surrounded by almost a moat of red clay. Because the buildings that had been there before, whether they were businesses or homes, had been abandoned and everybody left. East Lake had become a neighborhood where everyone who had a choice had basically exercised it and left.
Sheir: Carol Naughton had joined the Atlanta Housing Authority as an attorney, just as the whole country was realizing that concentrating low-income people together in public housing projects was a failed social policy. Stories of murders, child abuse, terrible schools, and corruption in East Lake filled the news.
Naughton: You see a crime rate 18 times the national average. You see 90 percent of families are going to be the victim of a felony in any given year. You see that there’s a $35 million a year drug trade emanating out of this 54 acre community.
Sheir: Naughton knows these statistics by heart because she’s spent the past twenty years trying to change them.
I’m Rebecca Sheir. From Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the people who shape them. Today: how one decimated neighborhood in Atlanta found new life thanks to public housing residents, the government, and a developer. It’s a story that has inspired cities all over the country. But is what happened in East Lake a one-off? Or a template that others can use? Placemakers producer Dianna Douglas went back to her native Atlanta to figure it out. I’ll let her take it from here.
Dianna Douglas: Shannon Longino was two-weeks old when she came to the East Lake Meadows public housing project, so her grandmother could raise her. Her grandma, Eva Davis was the head of the tenants association back then. Shannon’s now 45 years old. She remembers her grandma as something like the ward boss of East Lake.
Shannon Longino: “If you need me. I live at apartment 1621. I’ve been over here for so-and-so many years. You got a problem or if you need me for anything, clothes, anything, let me know.” People came to her not just about drugs or about anything. People could be about to be evicted. People could be short of food, clothes. People could have lost a family member and didn’t know how to bury. Their family member had never planned a funeral, didn’t have the money for a funeral. They would come see her and she’d sit right there in that living room and make phone calls.
Douglas: Shannon’s grandma never let her play outside. There was so much gunfire that people in her neighborhood often slept on the floor or in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets at night. They called it “Little Vietnam.”
Longingo: We as kids saw way too much than the average kid. You saw people getting killed. You saw people getting shot. You saw people getting stabbed. You saw people fighting. You saw them doing drugs. You saw them prostituting.
Douglas: The tenants, led by her grandmother, were constantly on the line to the Atlanta Housing Authority, trying to get something done about the crime, about backed-up toilets, about all kinds of issues on the dangerously neglected property. The housing authority was so corrupt that they ended up being investigated by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. East Lake Meadows continued like this for decades. Then, in the early ’90s, three things happened. First, a Spaniard surprised the whole city.
Archival sound: “The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of Atlanta.” [Cheers.]
Douglas: That’s Juan Antonio Samaranch in 1990, telling Atlanta that they’d won their bid and the world would be coming soon. Everyone knew that their public housing projects were a disgrace and something needed to be done.
Then the second thing, in 1995, a real estate tycoon by the name of Tom Cousins bought a dilapidated golf course in the East Lake neighborhood. Bobby Jones learned to play golf there—for those of you who don’t know much about golf, he’s only the greatest golfer in history. Tom Cousin’s daughter, Lillian Giornelli, says her dad had a couple of reasons for this purchase.
Lillian Giornelli: Tom (also) being the real estate developer, saw a pretty unique opportunity to one, restore a great historic asset of the city of Atlanta, which is this home golf course of Bobby Jones, and sort of support that history, but two, to create an economic engine to support the community work that we would be doing in the neighborhood.
Douglas: Cousins wanted that golf course to return to its glory days, when it hosted the Ryder Cup and was a popular hangout for Atlanta’s business elite. It was still in use when he bought it, but the fairways were overgrown and there was a single chain link fence, covered in mesh, that separated it from the East Lake Meadows housing project next door.
The last thing that changed in the early ’90s was a major housecleaning at the Atlanta Housing Authority. The mayor asked corporate finance attorney Renee Glover to leave her job in New York to run the Authority.
Renee Glover: The one thing that I knew that I did not want to do was to be involved with something that was systematically destroying families and children.
Douglas: Renee Glover felt the only way to save public housing was to destroy it—and build neighborhoods where poor and middle classes lived together. The federal government had recently set aside millions of dollars to fix public housing projects across the country. Glover wanted those millions to pay for demolition in Atlanta. She sent a fresh young attorney, Carol Naughton, to East Lake Meadows. Her job was to sell the residents on tearing the whole thing down.
Naughton: My charge, I thought, was to create the legal and financial model to do mixed-income housing. I had an opportunity to do things that were not part of my job description.
Douglas: Naughton had gone to Emory University for her law degree, and worked as a corporate real estate attorney. She had zero experience with the needs and personalities of desperately poor people. They didn’t trust her, and she knew why.
Naughton: It’s really hard. Part of the reason is gosh, there are so many reasons why it’s hard. It’s hard on a person level because when you come out here you’re talking with people who have been abandoned by virtually every institution that in theory is supposed to be helping them. Whether you’re talking about the government or the Housing Authority or the school system. You’re talking to folks who have been promised a lot of things, and very few things have actually been delivered.
Douglas: Naughton went to tenant meetings that lasted hours and hours every week. Eva Davis, the head of the tenants’ union, was a major voice at these meetings. Naughton realized that if she could win Davis over, she had a chance. But she was proposing a major disruption to the only power that Davis had ever had.
Naughton: She called me a crook and a liar and a cheat and a thief and a honky and a cracker and all kinds of horrible things. Then, at the end of the meeting, she’d say, “Love you, baby.” Both of those things were real. Both of those emotions were genuine.
Douglas: Naughton didn’t get home to her two little kids until after 10 o’clock most nights.. Once, a group of men surrounded her car in the projects and told her to stop coming to East Lake. At the meetings, drug dealers would like the back wall to intimidate her. What she was proposing would put a serious dent in the drug trade here, by tearing down the buildings and addressing the neglect that had allowed it to thrive.
Things were rough, although at least Naughton wasn’t sleeping in the bathtub to avoid bullets.
Meanwhile, Tom Cousins was refurbishing his golf course, and trying his best to help the poor kids in the neighborhood. He and a family foundation he set up, had also started building relationships with Eva Davis. He created an afterschool program to teach the neighborhood kids how to play golf and how to caddy. He enlisted his whole family in this effort. Here’s his daughter, Lillian Giornelli.
Giornelli: My memories are just hanging out and showing up, and sitting on Miss Davis’ porch with the kids, walking around the neighborhood, Tom had never met anybody like Eva Davis before in his life, and Eva Davis had never met anybody like Tom. They were both out of their comfort zones, so it was very important that they find that sort of common ground, and that’s sort of what we all helped do in those first two years.
Douglas: Eva Davis would block anyone from coming to the meetings if she felt they weren’t respecting her—including former president Jimmy Carter. Davis’ demands of the housing authority were extreme—she insisted on choosing the linoleum that would go in all the kitchens of the new apartments. She wanted every other apartment to be for her public housing residents—50 percent rather than the 40 percent proposed. And she wanted the housing authority to strictly enforce guidelines about who could stay. No one with a felony. No boyfriends who weren’t on the lease, no kids or dads just getting out of prison. To the tenants, this rule was critical for getting crime down, even though it would have disrupted the support networks of many poor families. Carol Naughton was surprised at how adamant they were on this point.
Naughton: There were some people who voted for standards that were so high it meant that somebody in their family wasn’t going to be able to come back.
Douglas: Soon enough, the neighborhood dealers decided they’d had enough of Eva Davis’ plans to clear them out. They threw Molotov cocktails into her apartment.
Longino: I think it was by the grace of God, that that particular night that they firebombed, she felt like sleeping upstairs. She never sleeps upstairs. Her bedroom was downstairs but they firebombed the downstairs bedroom but she wasn’t in it.
Douglas: Eva Davis’ granddaughter, Shannon Longino, was in her early 20s at this point, raising her sons in a different apartment in East Lake Meadows. She privately wondered if her Grandma should back down a little—go along to get along. But that wasn’t Eva Davis’ way.
Longino: I guess when they saw that they didn’t hurt her and of course she made it known throughout the community. She had a bullhorn and when she was getting ready to hold her next meeting, she made the announcement of the meeting and also let them know that you did not scare her. You may have firebombed her apartment but she’s still here. She’s not going to shut up. As a matter of fact, she’s even more determined. So we got firebombed again. This time they aimed at an upstairs bedroom but guess what? She had moved back downstairs.
Douglas: Finally, in 1998, all the details were hammered out, and bulldozers and builders came to East Lake. Then Eva Davis decided she didn’t want to move after all, and she filed a lawsuit against the housing authority to stop demolition. Enter Tom Cousins, with some shrimp.
Longino: At that point, she was not budging and Mr. Cousins had to come and step in and fix it came to the apartment, and it was just she and him. I’ll never forget it. He brought some shrimp that were big as chicken drumsticks and she said, “I’ve never seen ...” “Good God Almighty.” He said, “Eva, I brought them for you.” He had brought a bottle of wine. She said, “I don’t know what that is. You drink your stuff and I’m going to drink my stuff.” That’s what broke the ice.
Douglas: Her lawsuit got thrown out. The brick and cinderblock of East Lake Meadows came down, and apartment buildings rose up in their place. Eva Davis moved back in. Here she is talking about the new East Lake in a documentary about the redevelopment:
Archival audio of Eva Davis: “They tore down hell, and they built heaven. And now we are living in paradise.”
Douglas: She only got to live in the paradise she helped create for a decade. Eva Davis died in 2012 of ovarian cancer.
Sheir: In the end, only a quarter of the residents of East Lake Meadows came back. Some jumped at the chance to move out of the neighborhood; they took their vouchers and never looked back.
During this same period, the late 1990s, bulldozers were coming for the high rises in Chicago, in the Bronx, and public housing complexes all over the country. But few housing authorities were willing to do the painstaking work of getting total buy-in from the residents. Most of the redeveloped neighborhoods didn’t end up housing the families that were displaced.
East Lake Meadows is one of the few that managed to retain some of its original residents. Thing is, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty takes a lot more than nice, mixed-income housing. How much more? We’ll find out, when we come back.
Sheir: I’m Rebecca Sheir. From Slate magazine, this is Placemakers.
When we left off, residents and advocates in East Lake, Atlanta, had just accomplished something huge: They rebuilt an urban disaster area with mixed-income housing. It was a lot of work, to be sure but the people who helped build it would soon learn just how much work was left to be done. Dianna Douglas picks up our story.
Douglas: When new apartment buildings replaced the East Lake Meadows housing project, the neighborhood had no grocery store, no gym, no banks. They had the lowest performing school in the city of Atlanta. But they did have a golf course.
Douglas: Solomon Dobbs is practicing on the driving range with his 8-iron. The balls sail away, hanging in the sky a little longer than gravity should allow. Dobbs is just 14, and has been playing golf since he was seven, a second grader at Drew Charter School in East Lake.
Solomon Dobbs: Basically all of the kids that started Drew get golf as a PE, so no matter what, if they like it or not they have to take it for all 12 years of their middle, high school, and elementary school career. Basically I’m one of the kids that adopted it.
Douglas: The PGA tour championship is played at East Lake every year now. If you watch it on TV, you just might see Solomon Dobbs as a standard-bearer—holding the sign with the scores on it. Solomon hopes that golf will get him to college.
Dobbs: Me and my mom have been looking at Morehouse, University of Georgia, a lot of schools close to here. I believe I could get a golf scholarship. That’s what I’m aiming for.
Douglas: A dozen 8- and 9-year-olds stand behind Solomon as we chat on the driving range. They ask me if I’m a talent scout, here to pluck their friend out of obscurity into a life of fame and fortune. These kids are in a program called First Tee. It’s one of many opportunities that have come to the residents of East Lake since the public housing projects came down.
It’s largely thanks to Tom Cousins, the developer who fixed up this course. Cousins started spinning his Rolodex after the rebuild, encouraging his friends to invest in East Lake. In a grocery store, in a new school, in a YMCA. His daughter Lillian Giornelli says many of his business associates took a chance on East Lake.
Giornelli: Coca-Cola, Southern Company, Woodruff Foundation, Campbell Foundation, the Courts family, all of the people who were in here early, and there were a lot of people who kicked him out of their office, and said, “You have lost your mind. Seriously, you’re crazy. There’s nothing you can do about this community. You should just roll up your windows and drive past.”
Douglas: Cousins did not drive past. Instead, he created a nonprofit to focus full time on getting businesses, services, and activities to East Lake, to turn it into a real neighborhood. In 2001, Carol Naughton left her job as a lawyer for the housing authority to join them.
Naughton: We knew we wanted to reintegrate families into the broader social, economic, and psychological part of America. We also knew that the Housing Authority did not have the capacity to do that on its own.
Douglas: The nonprofit was already working on another tear-down and rebuild—this time at the neighborhood’s windowless elementary school.
Naughton: When we looked at what was happening to children in schools, we found that only 5 percent of fifth graders could pass the state math test. Only 30 percent of young people were graduating from high school. Very few of them were really prepared for a career or college.
Douglas: Getting a good elementary school was critical to making East Lake attractive to people who were spooked by the idea of living somewhere that had recently been called “Little Vietnam.” And so they raised more money.
Now building permits get issued in East Lake all the time.
Some experimental restaurants and office space are coming next year. The East Lake Foundation does the work that the neighborhood leader, Eva Davis, wanted to do in principle, if she hadn’t been in emergency mode all the time.
In all, well over $200 million have been invested in rebuilding the neighborhood since the mid-’90s. And the money is still coming in, especially since East Lake has become such a Cinderella story.
Other cities started calling Tom Cousins and the people who worked on East Lake, hoping to replicate what happened here. So the Cousins family created another nonprofit, Purpose Built Communities, to help spread the East Lake model to a dozen other cities; Columbus, Indianapolis, Birmingham. Warren Buffett is among the philanthropists bankrolling their work. Carol Naughton is now the president of the foundation.
Naughton: We have lots of people who come to East Lake, mayors from other cities, who come and say, “I want this.” Then when you talk to them about what this is and how it requires all of these partners working together to change how they actually do business.
Douglas: Naughton says a lot of people back away at this point. Not because rebuilding neighborhoods requires too much money—tons of foundations want to give money to urban revitalization projects. It’s more that this takes decades, and is too much work.
Naughton: They say, “That’s too disruptive. That’s going to mean I’m going to have to talk to a city council member who likes that it’s easy to get elected now because it’s a neighborhood that’s not very diverse.” You’re going to have to talk to somebody that you sit next to in church on Sundays and say, “Gosh, you know that program that you’ve been responsible for for 30 years? It’s really not doing a good job when you look at the data.”
Douglas: The most successful project of Purpose Built Communities so far has been in New Orleans, where the St. Bernard public housing projects were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Purpose Built Communities help channel a post-Katrina influx of attention and cash into schools and housing, and a long-term commitment from foundations and civic leaders to actually deliver on their promises to the neighborhood. But mostly, it’s a slow wait to see change in cities around the country.
And let’s be clear—East Lake is still a work in progress. The neighborhood is still full of people struggling with intergenerational poverty. Eva Davis’ youngest daughter, Helen Heath, lives in the new, mixed income housing. She’s 55 years old. Mixed income living to her is not paradise. She feels tension with the newcomers.
Helen Heath: Sometimes I think people still have the stigma of us being here, that we’re less than nothing. Where we came from. Just because you stayed in a community, does not mean that your mentality is that community. I think they blame everything that happened in these communities, on low-income people.
Douglas: Helen Heath grew up in the East Lake Meadows housing project, and had a baby the summer before her junior year, as a 15-year-old, and then another baby the next summer. Now she is raising three of her granddaughters. She says she feels a little stuck, being in the same neighborhood all these years. Her rent is deeply subsidized, and her brothers and sisters come back for family reunions. But she’d still rather put East Lake in the rearview mirror.
Heath: I want to move out. I mean, enough is enough. I mean I want to be out of there. In a house, doing stuff where the kids can go in the yard and stuff like that.
Douglas: It seems like it’s stirring up a lot of feelings for you.
Heath: Yeah. I miss my mom and then, it brings back memories.
Douglas: I searched public records for Eva Davis’ kids as I was researching this story, and really got a picture of the challenges the family has faced. There are long rap sheets and arrest records, liens and bankruptcies, people in and out of prison. The old East Lake didn’t create this family’s troubles, and the new East Lake certainly didn’t solve them.
Douglas: Still. It’s hard not to get excited about the possibility of turning around a whole neighborhood when you visit East Lake. The gorgeous golf course, the new charter schools, the high canopy of trees.
Carol Naughton took me to the leasing office for East Lake’s mixed-income apartment complex—in the lobby is an award from the Urban Land Institute. Inside, people talk with sales agents about getting into an apartment. In the back, French doors open onto a wide balcony.
Naughton: If you stood here and looked out over the community twenty years ago, you would have seen a little bit of hell on earth. You would have seen substandard housing, people milling about with nothing to do. Anybody would look in and say, “This is not a healthy place”. Now you look at it today, and you see this huge, beautiful pool, which will be open in about an hour. You see really lovely housing that anybody could live in. You see a playground and a pavilion and tennis courts. Across the way here, you’ll see an early learning center that serves one hundred and thirty six young people from birth through four years of age. You’ll see the MARTA bus coming through the community, to connect people to jobs and opportunities. It’s beautiful. It’s just lovely here. Anybody would like to live here.
Douglas: A lot of people do. Maybe it’s a reflection of the new East Lake, or maybe of how scarce affordable housing is in other parts of Atlanta. But there’s a waitlist to get into apartments here. A long one.
Sheir: The business leaders in Atlanta would love to see another East Lake, especially as property values in downtown neighborhoods are starting to rise. When Atlanta’s NFL team the Falcons announced they were building a new stadium last year, the owner promised to invest $100 million into poor neighborhoods nearby. His family foundation is working on crime, education, jobs, and housing all at once, just like the East Lake developers did.
But clearing out the abandoned houses has been a huge challenge: too many absentee landowners, holding out for a huge payoff from gentrification.
It could be that East Lake’s initial success came from the simple fact that the owner of all the land was the housing authority, so it only had to negotiate with its own tenants. Perhaps now that the big public housing projects in Atlanta have been torn down, the low-hanging fruit may already have been picked.
Sheir: Our story today was produced and reported by Dianna Douglas.
Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas and Michael Vuolo … and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker.
Coming up next time on Placemakers:
A rich guy from Seattle, biking through rural Washington, gets a flat tire in a decrepit old town.
So, what does he do?
Buys up all the empty storefronts on Main Street.
Man’s Voice: “The economies in small towns have changed so much, they’re never going to revert to the way this place was. My point to them is, it can be better— it can be better than that. It’ll be different.”
Sheir: Different? Definitely.
Better? Depends whom you ask.
Solomon Dobbs: “How does it feel to have these kids watching you? It just feels good knowing that I’m impacting them and I see them out here at a young age. Some of them are younger than me when I started. If they just keep on going with it, there’s no telling where it could take them.”