It’s a Tuesday morning, and the 5-5-5ers are at the Rick McDevitt Center in Peoplestown for their twice-a-week gathering.
The center, named for a Buckhead businessman who is a major supporter, is the heartbeat of the neighborhood, hosting community meetings, providing youth recreation, and housing the office of the Neighborhood Planning Unit. Several years ago, employees and volunteers from Emmaus House saved the building by standing in front of the bulldozer when the city tried to tear it down. With donated supplies from Home Depot, volunteers fixed the center up and painted it in bright colors with inspirational slogans: “Make your own sun”; “In the theater of life you will have your moment”; “One person does make a difference.”
A few years ago, five older women launched what became 5-5-5, taking its name from the five women who started it and the 55-and-older targeted participants. They planned to meet five times to see whether it would work out. It did.
On this morning, about a dozen African-American women are voicing concerns and seeking information about a regular attendee whose daughter has been killed. Much discussion ensues about funding for the funeral and food for the family. Also on the agenda is a proposal for a joint trip with some youth from the neighborhood to The Legacy Museum’s From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration exhibition, which opened April 26 in Montgomery, AL. The women express hope that the teenagers will listen to their recollections and be amenable to learning their history. When talk turns to the mix of people in the neighborhood, one woman complains about “people coming in and pushing older people in this area out.” Another says: “You invite them to come into your circle, and they want to change your circle. They don’t want you to come into their circle.” She goes on: “Developers are just waiting for you to default on your taxes. That’s how they steal a community.” In the midst of the negativity, Rachel Harris, 70, speaks up: “When I moved into the community, it was different than it is now. It’s pretty good now.”
She moved into her brother’s house in Peoplestown more than a decade ago, she said later. Back then, she saw abandoned and run-down houses, and more crime, she said. Now, houses are being fixed up, and the neighborhood is safer. Crew Street, where she lives, “is nice and quiet now,” she said. “It’s mostly senior citizens, and we all get along.” She said she doesn’t resent new, younger, wealthier neighbors. “You come into a neighborhood and build a house or buy a house and refurbish it; I don’t have a problem with that,” she said. Her Crew Street neighbor, Marilyn Finney, 65, watched Peoplestown deteriorate into crime and drugs, then start to come back with new people, new paint, and new police presence. Peoplestown today “is a lot better than it was,” she said, “but it’s not that friendly atmosphere anymore. The new people are moving in, and they don’t make themselves available. You see them and wave. Some of them wave back and some don’t.” At least once a week, she gets an offer in the mail to buy her house, she said. But if she sells, where would she go? “You’re not gonna find a place for what you get,” she said. “Everywhere you go, you’re going to be paying more than you do here. ”She is committed to staying, not only because it is her home but also because she feels she can’t go anywhere else.
Daniel, 40, and Alicia DeCriscio, 38, had lived in a Midtown Atlanta condominium for about seven years when they fell in love with New Orleans. They planned to move there. But Daniel who works for Kimberly Clark Corp. and attends seminary, said, “the doors were closing there and opening in Atlanta.” In late 2015, the door that opened was to an eight-year-old, two-story, yellow house with double white-trimmed porches in Peoplestown — the perfect house, they thought. It even looked a bit like New Orleans. Part of its appeal was its location, directly across the street from the local elementary school, then D.H. Stanton. The couple has four children, and Alicia works for Wilderness Works, a nonprofit organization that links low-income children with outdoor activities.
“In Midtown, we didn’t feel we had a lot of community,” Daniel said. “There were people in our building we never met in seven years. We wanted a community where we could live, where we could serve, where we could see people. We knew we wanted to be in a neighborhood that was diverse racially and economically. We saw Peoplestown as a place where that would be natural and organic.” They didn’t wear blinders to make the move. They realized from the get-go that because they were white moving into a big infill house in a predominantly black neighborhood, they might be looked upon as invaders. And they could see why. Some recent residents wanted to remake the neighborhood in their own image, while developers and flippers saw Peoplestown property only as an investment.
“Some people who move in aren’t interested in relationships with people who’ve lived here for a long time,” Daniel said. “Some think this neighborhood would be better if we got rid of the black people. There may not be many who feel that way, but unfortunately that element exists.”
“Because that element exists, it may be assumed that if you look like we do, we have that attitude too,” Alicia said.
They jumped into work. Alicia volunteered at the school even though they didn’t yet have any children enrolled there. Daniel became treasurer of the neighborhood association, was a founder of a devotional group for men, and helped organize Peoplestown Potluck and Prayer, a neighborhoodwide event that brought people of different backgrounds together.
“We’ve had experiences where we weren’t taken kindly to, and we’ve had transformative experiences, too,” he said. One experience that was both unsettling and rewarding involved Alicia’s efforts at the school, where she quickly became a leader.
D.H. Stanton was among the Atlanta public schools most affected by the system’s long-running cheating scandal, called by Education Week “the largest K-12 school cheating scandal in U.S. history.” Systemwide, 11 teachers and administrators were convicted on racketeering charges after a lengthy trial; another 21 pleaded guilty. Cheating aside, Stanton was notorious as “the worst school in Georgia,” Alicia said.
Its new, enthusiastic principal and a committee of neighborhood supporters, including Alicia, felt that a turnaround required a rebranding effort. They proposed changing the name of the school to Barack and Michelle Obama Academy. Many longer-term residents were attached to the old name, which honored a community leader who had helped bring the school to the neighborhood so that children wouldn’t have to cross railroad tracks to get an education. Of those, some understood the cheating stigma and went along with the change.
“Others fought it tooth and nail,” Alicia said. Opponents of the change were vocal at a public hearing. “It was hard to hear people accusing me of just fitting into the narrative of gentrification,” Alicia said. In the end, the Atlanta school board approved the new name, and most opponents eventually came to accept it.
Alicia is currently PTA president and outgoing chair of the school’s governance team. As a white woman, she hesitated to take such high-profile roles in a predominantly black school but was encouraged by several black parents.
“Since the change, it’s been really positive,” she said. “The old-timers come out to support the school. When everybody comes together, that’s when the magic happens.”
Daniel estimates that their house has gone up $150,000 in value in the last year. The tax assessment is $80,000 higher than in 2017. When friends congratulate him on the increase, he tells them it makes him unhappy. He and Alicia plan to stay and become old-timers themselves; they realize that rising taxes and rents may force other families out, including some with children in the school.
“I would hate to see a day when the old-time residents of Peoplestown wouldn’t be here anymore,” he said.
Alison Johnson has lived in Peoplestown for all her 41 years. She’s a team member of the Housing Justice League, an activist nonprofit organization crusading for affordable housing in Atlanta. “I always remember Peoplestown as a place of safety,” she said. “I also remember Peoplestown as a place of opportunity and hope.” When she was growing up, she said, it was “a place where people could realize the American dream of homeownership.” Those moving into the neighborhood from outside may still realize that dream, she said, but it is becoming increasingly out of reach for the young people raised there. She has seen neighbors move away because of increasing taxes — four homeowners on the same street in 2017. Two elderly women went to live with adult children. Two others just seemed to disappear. Newer residents, she said, “don’t have the same values as long-standing residents.” She seems to be referring both to intrinsic intangibles such as connections with neighbors, and material concerns. While some longtime residents are “scraping by, keeping a roof over their heads,” new residents seem concerned about upscale amenities and conveniences. “You don’t need a Starbucks,” she said, “if you don’t have a grocery store.”
Some tension, she said, comes from Peoplestown natives’ history of community involvement. “Peoplestown has always been very active in understanding how voices make a difference. It’s not a place where new people can come in and take over. Most people coming into the community aren’t used to poor black folks pushing back.”
The people like her, “who have been working for people to invest in this community for years,” shouldn’t be left out or pushed out now that money is coming in, she said. “My mama has been here forever. I want her to have a place to live.” But, she said, all is not lost. “What’s working is that neighbors are continuously engaged in the community. People who normally wouldn’t have had a place at the table are claiming their voice, helping to make decisions that impact them. We’re finding different tools to use to bring different groups together.” And, she said, some of those residents who have moved away by choice or necessity come back to visit. They are still Peoplestown people at heart.
Chris Lemons, 32, is a man in between. He was raised in the suburbs but has had family in Peoplestown since the 1930s, when his great-great-grandparents Joseph and Easter Hurley raised their five children there. Chris, who works in the corporate office of Home Depot, remembers visiting the house as a little boy, when his great-aunt, Babe, lived there and he was relegated to the kids’ table for family dinners. So six years ago, he decided to move into the family homeplace, a traditional brick ranch. “I definitely wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to be part of the family history, to connect, and to give back to the community,” he said. But he feels the tension in the neighborhood. In the time he has been there, he has seen $400,000 houses where once someone could buy a home for less than $100,000.
“In some instances, we have conflicting interests,” he said. “We have new neighbors who want development, want to have housing prices going up, but you have another group of people who see that all these improvements and developments are going to end up displacing them because they can’t afford to live there. They’ve lived in their homes for 40 or 50 years and are at risk of losing them because of market forces.” He goes on: “Not to disparage anyone, but you have people who’ve brought a suburban mentality to an urban neighborhood. If you think you’re going to move to the center of Atlanta and not see any poor black people, you’ve probably moved to the wrong neighborhood.”
Falguni Vyas, 34, is one of the young newcomers to Peoplestown. In 2015, she decided she was ready to buy a house and wanted to stay in the area near Grant Park, where she had been renting. “Peoplestown was the last affordable neighborhood,” she said. She was happy in her single-story, gray, brick house with its long front porch and blue door, but she hadn’t really connected with her fellow Peoplestowners until Reggie ran away. Reggie is a 70-pound, black-and-tan mutt, a hybrid of Labrador retriever, husky, boxer, pit bull, and other things too numerous to mention. Last summer, on one of their daily walks, she and Reggie were hit by a car making an illegal left turn. Falguni dropped the leash, and Reggie ran away. As word went out about the accident, the people of Peoplestown turned out in force to look for Reggie. Falguni learned about her neighborhood and some of the people and organizations working to make it better. The W-Underdogs, an innovative grassroots nonprofit that pairs underserved Peoplestown youth with animals in need, jumped in to help. A neighbor made a map of all the places he had searched. Older women rocking on their porches promised to keep their eyes out. “It’s amazing how many people were involved,” Falguni said. Four days after he left, Reggie came home on his own. A neighbor who went out to look for Reggie before work saw him on Falguni’s porch and rang her doorbell.
Now Falguni and some of the searchers stop to chat. The neighbors smile and wave. One man always asks about Reggie. To thank the W-Underdogs for their effort, Falguni hosted a popsicle party in the neighborhood park. She and Grace Hamlin, founder of the group, have become friends. An accident and a lost dog brought old-timers and newcomers together. “It’s the first time I felt like Peoplestown was a community,” Falguni said.