Extended ‘YOBoulevard’ seeks to end years of blight

The Southerner

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In her 1895 Official Guide to Atlanta, Margaret Severance extolled the merits of Boulevard. “Its height, width and number of magnificent homes, with their spacious lawns, assure every observer a boulevard that any city may point to with pride,” Severance wrote.

Today, the Boulevard Corridor, the stretch of intown Atlanta running from Ponce De Leon Avenue to DeKalb Avenue, is notorious for its abundance of drug dealing, street crimes and the largest concentration of Section 8 housing in the Southeast.

Atlanta City Council member Kwanza Hall wants to change that image. In January, Hall announced he would extend the Year of Boulevard initiative into 2013. YOB began a year ago as a revitalization and cleanup project for Boulevard, focusing especially on the Village of Bedford Pine apartments, the Section 8 apartments located by the Atlanta Medical Center.

“Everything around the Boulevard Corridor is under development,” Hall said. “It’s the lowest point in the community.”

Hall’s agenda calls for economic development, education reform, crime prevention, job training and summer youth programs.  Beginning with a community cleanup, the program gathered momentum with the opening of an Atlanta Police District mini-precinct and processing unit, a $50,000 grant from the Atlanta Hawks to renovate basketball courts in Central Park and a $1 million grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission to improve the streetscape. A partnership with TEDxAtlanta committed $100,000 to summer programs and to a branding campaign, “YoBoulevard!”

“[Year of Boulevard] is about cleaning up the [Old] Fourth Ward, keeping drugs out of the community, keeping kids in school and giving them something to do in the summer,” said freshman Raekwon Moffet, who has lived in Bedford Pine since kindergarten. His face is one of several residents’ images hanging on banners along Boulevard as part of the campaign. Moffet took part in the first Operation P.E.A.C.E. (Positive Education Always Creates Elevation) summer camp for teen entrepreneurs last summer.

The 2013 extension of the Year of Boulevard—nicknamed “Mo’Boulevard” by Hall’s office—expands on last year’s goals by adding public safety initiatives and summer camps for the approximately 700 youths living in the community. Hall hopes to launch new partnerships for seniors, new preservation efforts and new job-training programs.

Year of Boulevard’s ultimate goal is to increase resident income, which currently averages $3,000 annually, according to Hall. Over time, Hall hopes the area will have a diversity of housing and a combination of mixed and high-income units. Continental Wingate Properties Management, which manages the Village of Bedford Pines, plans on building new apartments, which will include both Section 8 and other units.

Revitalization will not be easy for an area that has been in disrepair for 30 years. In the 1960s, much of the land surrounding Boulevard was razed for massive urban renewal projects carried out by the city but remained underdeveloped until the 1980s. Wingate arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s, renovating “boarded-up and shut-down” buildings and converting them into Section 8 housing, said regional Wingate manager Gene Lockard.  Wingate has spent up to $300,000 annually over the past five years to control the crack epidemic which has debilitated the community.

“Atlanta has been good at building housing,” Hall said, “but not good at building people.”

Boulevard is literally the spine of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, a North-South connector from Grant Park and Cabbagetown to Virginia-Highland and Morningside. In recent years, the Old Fourth Ward has experienced a wave of revitalization and gentrification.

“[The Old Fourth Ward] went from a community kind of teetering on the edge of exploding into something great, into a neighborhood exploding,” said Matthew Garbett, president of Fourth Ward Neighbors, Inc. “The BeltLine has been a tremendous catalyst, putting millions [of dollars] along our stretch.”

The developments have shifted demographics. According to the Atlanta Bureau of Planning, the Old Fourth Ward used to be one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Atlanta, with a population exceeding 22,000 in 1960. Between 1960 and 1970, the population plummeted to just over 6,000. By 2025, and possibly before, the population is expected to surpass its 1960 levels.

“[The Old Fourth Ward] has attracted a lot of young people—graduates from Spelman, Morehouse, Georgia Tech and Emory—who wouldn’t have relocated five years ago,” said Kit Sutherland, president of the Fourth Ward Alliance. Sutherland herself moved into the neighborhood 11 years ago, because she “knew things were changing.”

Before there was the Ponce City Market or the BeltLine, however, small nonprofits struggled to keep the community afloat. Raekwan’s grandmother, Edna Moffet, has worked to avert Bedford Pine’s decline. As the community was inundated with drugs, Moffet asked the management to market some apartments to local college students.

“Moving college students into the low-income community showed residents ways that they could improve their lives,” Moffet said. “[The college students] provided a positiveness that had not been seen before.”

Moffet, along with 33 college students, founded a homework club in the community. The program blossomed into the afterschool and summer program Operation P.E.A.C.E. In 2001, Mike Johnson paid a visit, donating computers so that parents could earn their general education diplomas, or could take computer and workforce development classes. But in 2005, a fire devastated the program, destroying everything except one bus.

Operation P.E.A.C.E found a temporary shelter in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church until 2012, when Wingate helped move the nonprofit back onto Boulevard. Last summer, 40 boys and girls participated in the teen entrepreneurial program.

Operation P.E.A.C.E plans to increase enrollment in this year’s summer program. Moffet is hoping for a field trip to Virginia this year. Much of the trip will be a heritage tour, where participants will walk the trail slaves walked when first entering the country, tour a local college, and, finally, go to the ocean.

“Many of the kids have never seen the ocean [in person],” Moffet said. “For them to see the ocean, and where their forefathers were brought in—it adds dimension to the story we’re trying to tell them.”

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