A Call to Community


Gregory Burson, Sr., looks out from the screened in porch of his Peoplestown house at the yard next door, where he played marbles - for keeps - as a boy.

He remembers how he could build up speed on his roller skates on the hill a few blocks away. And he remembers the neighbor who was notorious for keeping any child’s ball that bounced into her yard. His grandmother and an aunt lived on the same street, but neighbors didn’t have to be related to correct a child for an infraction. “If you did something you weren’t supposed to, you got disciplined then, and you got disciplined again when you got home,” he said. Such as when he went into that woman’s yard to get his ball and talked back to her when she yelled at him. He wasn’t surprised when he returned home to a spanking. He mimics the parental scolding: “What do you mean going up there and sassing her?”

Mr. Burson’s wife, Gwendolyn, who came to Peoplestown as a teenage bride, at first found the closeness stifling but grew to appreciate it, especially as their own three children started to grow. “Everybody looked out for them,” she said. “If they did something, we knew it.” Greg and Gwendolyn’s oldest, Lakita Mercadel, recalls a childhood much like her father’s — riding bicycles, playing hide-and-seek, and knowing that wherever she was, somebody would look out for her. Peoplestown in those days mirrored the societies of New Testament times, when people “came together for a common meal, …cared for each other, provided for those in need, and pooled resources to give a decent burial to the members of the community,” according to Dr. William Brosend, professor of New Testament and preaching at Sewanee. Jesus condenses the idea behind those acts into a single word: love. “To love your neighbor,” the Book of James says, is “the royal law according to the scripture.”

Gregory and Gwendolyn Burson sit on the front porch of their Peoplestown home.

Gregory and Gwendolyn Burson sit on the front porch of their Peoplestown home.

That love isn’t necessarily affectionate, wrote C.S. Lewis. It’s “a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good.” That kind of love builds relationships that make “home” mean much more than a house and “neighbor” mean much more than proximity. To Lakita, it’s living in a place where neighbors are “close-knit.” To her father, it’s roots in a place and branches that reach out to others, even to the woman who kept his ball. It means that “people know you, wherever you go.” Lakita’s daughter, Lauren, 10, the fifth generation, is now the child in the neighborhood. But the neighborhood has changed. Many older residents of Peoplestown feel under siege from rising housing prices, changing demographics, and encroaching development. The block of Haygood where the Bursons live is a prime example: the house next door, where Mr. Burson was raised, has been sold, remodeled, and flipped; next to it is an abandoned house with windows and doors boarded; across the street is a newer two-story house built by a developer on the site of a house previously owned by an elderly preacher who still used a wood-burning stove; and at the dead end, a few houses down, massive reconstruction is taking place on both sides of the street. Mr. Burson can point out just two longtime neighbors. One, he said, inherited her house from her mother, “who knew me when I was a little boy running around barefooted.”“It’s still a great neighborhood, but neighbors don’t know one another anymore,” said Gwendolyn.

It’s still a great neighborhood, but neighbors don’t know one another anymore
— Gwendolyn Burson

THE CHALLENGE || Peoplestown’s situation is common among urban neighborhoods across the country. Social scientists and city officials who used to brood about white flight to the suburbs now struggle with the implications of white influx back into the cities, bringing money, demanding conveniences, and raising taxes for everyone. While lower-income residents in inner city neighborhoods fear displacement, people in other types of residences have their own challenges. Upscale apartment buildings are filled with tenants who can’t name a single neighbor. Cookie-cutter suburbs are populated with nuclear families who live far from relatives and may be transferred so often they never really feel settled. Small towns in the mountains or on the coast become havens for retirees, who bring higher incomes and different priorities than locals. College towns face conflicts between city and academy, including tugs of war between the desire for student housing and the need for low-income residences.

OPPOSITE TOP  The sun shines   down on two houses in Peoplestown, one brand-new and one

OPPOSITE TOP The sun shines down on two houses in Peoplestown, one brand-new and one

In all cases, most people seem to long for the same thing: community. In his seminal book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Harvard public policy professor Robert D. Putnam cited a survey in which more than 80 percent of Americans believed there should be more emphasis on community, “even if that puts more demands on individuals.” “When folks enjoy being together, share celebrations, and walk through hard times with grace and love, the beauty of their shared life is deeply compelling,” Christine D. Pohl wrote in Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us. “Human beings were made for living in community, and it is in community that we flourish and become most fully human.” But, she cautions, don’t expect living in community to be a constant mountaintop experience. “Community life certainly has moments of incredible beauty and intense personal connection,” she wrote, “but much of it is daily and ordinary. Our lives are knit together not so much by intense feeling as by shared history, tasks, commitments, stories, and sacrifices.” That requires work, time, and trust-building. Peoplestown residents are in the throes of that effort.

— Christine D. Pohl
OPPOSITE BOTTOM  Greg Cole   is the executive director of Emmaus House, which has been an integral part of the Peoplestown neighborhood since the 1960's.

Some call what’s happening revitalization and welcome the bulging local tax coffers that result from soaring assessments. Through sometimes rose-colored glasses, they see blighted houses disappearing and new high-priced homes or luxury apartment buildings rising up, trendy gathering spots with craft cocktails or fancy caffeine drinks replacing run-down convenience stores, and increased attention to loiterers and drifters making neighborhoods feel safer. Others call it gentrification, a term coined in the 1960s by British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the displacement of working-class Londoners by the “gentry.” They fear tax bills that they cannot pay with their fixed incomes or minimum-wage paychecks. Longtime renters know that as landlords’ taxes rise, so will their monthly bills until owners find it beneficial to sell or flip their rental homes. Those who depend on public transportation count on being able to walk to small neighborhood markets, even those that charge exorbitant prices for inferior products. And they feel threatened by increased policing. “When you think about community change, it really depends on where you sit,” said Greg Cole, executive director of Emmaus House, an Episcopal mission that has worked in Peoplestown since the 1960s. “If you’re well-to-do and have resources, you get to enjoy the benefits of change. But for people who have lived there historically, whose rents have gone up dramatically or whose taxes have gone up dramatically, it’s not so good. If you’re on a fixed income and your taxes go up $2,000 a year, that could be the end of it.”


GROWTH AND CHANGE | | In Peoplestown, the Southeast part developed first, in the late 1890s, when well-to-do families moved into elegant new Victorian houses with servants’ quarters in back. A trolley car transported the residents the few miles to downtown jobs or shopping. The neighborhood took the name of the largest landowners, the Peoples. By the 1920s, the residential area had spread, and a diverse mix of people were calling Peoplestown home: more white families, African-Americans, and Jews from Western Europe. Each group lived mostly in its own section. But over the next two decades, many of the wealthier residents moved away, blacks to the west of the city near the Atlanta University complex and whites to the north side. Some of the larger Victorian “painted ladies” became boarding houses and fell into disrepair. The housing shortage facing veterans after World War II provided a revival, but the vibrancy was short-lived. Forces from freeway and stadium construction to a buildup of federally sponsored rent-subsidized apartments to white flight took their toll on the neighbor-hood’s stability.

Seeing the run-down conditions of the area in 1967, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, under the leadership of the Rev. Austin Ford, a young white priest with a social-activist bent, bought a beat-up flophouse. It became Emmaus House. From there, Ford distributed surplus food, challenged cutbacks to the safety net for low-income neighbors, and held regular worship services that drew congregants from nearby neighborhoods and pulled in people from elsewhere in the city who were commit-ted to diversity and social justice. Despite hard efforts and good intentions, by 1990, Peoplestown’s population was only about 2,500 — less than half its peak. But those who were left were a determined bunch. They formed the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation, which works for affordable housing, sponsors a crime-watch program, and holds monthly meetings to keep up with the latest zoning and development proposals. Then came the start of the turnaround. After decades of working for development, Peoplestown residents are now coping with the consequences of growth, which may not be what they had in mind.


Peter Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City, called gentrification “the most transformative urban phenomenon of the last half century.”

In Atlanta, almost half (46.2 percent) of lower-income census tracts “experienced significant growth in both home values and educational attainment” between 2000 and 2013, according to Governing magazine.
Beltline trail map

Beltline trail map

The trend began in earnest with preparation for the 1996 Olympics as neighborhoods around venues changed. It accelerated in recent years with the development of the BeltLine, a $4.8 billion, 22-mile project to convert old railway rights of way into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly trail supported by transit. When the BeltLine is completed, which it is expected to be in 2030, it will connect 45 neighborhoods.

Those living where the BeltLine is already in place or where development is underway have felt the impact. A 2017 paper by professors from Georgia State and Georgia Tech asserts that neighborhoods such as Adair Park, Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, and West End saw median home sales prices jump by 68 percent between 2011 and 2015.