Stadiums Ruin Neighborhoods

Stadiums Ruin Neighborhoods

But for the first time in 60 years, a sports megastructure will not dominate Atlanta’s skyline south of Downtown. Can activists help make the area livable again?


Walking down Georgia Avenue, Ethel Floyd smells donuts. The bakeries responsible for the scent are long gone; but then, so is French’s Ice Cream Parlor, once Floyd’s first stop on Georgia Avenue as she walked east from her South Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville into its adjacent community, Summerhill. Also gone is the fresh meat and fish market where her mother bought dinner, and the Empire Theater, where Floyd and her friends enjoyed movies from the balcony—the ground floor was whites only. But 60 years later, the smell of those donuts lingers.

These blocks now curve around the front of Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves’ ballpark, a towering behemoth that looms immediately to the south. To the north, parking lots smother block after block in a thick glaze of concrete. Just east of the stadium, a few remaining storefronts separate swaths of empty lots. The block bakes silently under the Georgia sun. Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville, the three neighborhoods that surround Turner Field, have been swallowed by the stadium and its vast asphalt shadow of parking lots.

In 2017, however, Turner Field will itself lie vacant. The Braves will head to a new ballpark in north Atlanta, a move that will create a vacuum in the center of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville. The land up for sale around Turner Field is 77 acres, a staggering number for a central urban location, just five minutes from downtown and City Hall. For the first time in 60 years, a sports megastructure will not dominate the area. Parking lots that already go unused 284 days each year will lose their function entirely. The end of Turner Field is a chance to revive Ethel Floyd’s Georgia Avenue and to make these neighborhoods livable again. But it is also an opening for planners and officials to repeat mistakes that sucked the life out of the area 60 years ago. Residents of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville know their history and are fighting for a say in what comes next.

* * *

Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville are among the oldest neighborhoods in Atlanta. Newly freed slaves settled Summerhill in 1865. Many worked as domestics for wealthy whites who lived in ornate Victorian houses that lined the streets of Peoplestown. Until 1949, streetcars on Ormond Street and Capitol Avenue made the two neighborhoods an appealing residential area. Mechanicsville, as its name suggests, was a community of railroad mechanics, mostly white, who worked for Southern Railway near the tangle of train tracks that bordered the neighborhood to the southwest.

But as cars replaced trains, the prospect of a cloistered suburban home drew Summerhill and Peoplestown’s wealthy white residents away. Still, a thriving community remained. Blacks in Summerhill took greater ownership of their neighborhood. Jewish immigrants flooded Peoplestown and Mechanicsville and founded many of the businesses that Ethel Floyd frequented. Through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, what is now Turner Field and its parking lots was a bustling working-class area.

The neighborhoods “were urban in the Southern sense,” explains Marni Davis, a professor of history at Georgia State Univeristy (GSU), referring to the presence of single-family homes with porches rather than tenements. Maps from 1928 and 1949 show row upon row of shotgun houses—single-story, one-family homes—in Peoplestown and Summerhill. Capitol Avenue, the north-south artery of the region, was alive with neighborhood fixtures: a Baptist church, a neighborhood gas station, a Happy Jack grocery store, a barbershop, a record shop, a box factory, and the Cocomo Lounge.

Lee Sullivan grew up in 1950s Mechanicsville. “We had communities when I was a little girl,” she says. “Straight down Georgia Avenue, we had a black community. We had the Empire Theater, we had a library, we had a host of businesses. We had a bakery.” She pauses and smiles as she remembers. “We had everything.”

* * *

Where residents saw a stable community, two iconic Atlanta mayors saw undeveloped potential—that, and a few too many black people near the city’s downtown. In 1957, Mayor William Hartsfield created an urban renewal program for the Washington-Rawson area, so named after an intersection of two main streets: Washington-Rawson fell smack in the middle of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville.

Renewal projects were a brute force process. The city bought up land and bulldozed buildings and infrastructure, promising to relocate displaced citizens to public housing (a promise that often amounted to nothing). Residents were often unaware that the city was leveling their homes until city officials knocked on their door and told them they had a few weeks to move.

Ivan Allen, Jr., who succeeded Hartsfield in 1962, continued his predecessor’s renewal projects. In Allen’s mind, urban renewal meant more business, which meant more taxes, which meant better infrastructure and public housing. Follow his logic, and renewal would actually help the citizens it ended up displacing.

The Washington-Rawson project, however, did not go as Allen had hoped. A newly constructed chaotic intersection of Interstates 20, 75, and 85 formed a barricade between downtown and the neighborhoods. Ultimately, urban renewal destroyed over 3,000 living units and closed 154 businesses. The results: Thousands of displaced black families, 600 empty acres, and zero potential investors. “Urban renewal,” as James Baldwin famously said, “means negro removal.”

“They tore down all of the shotgun houses,” recalls lifelong Peoplestown resident and activist Columbus Ward. A community fixture, Ward has had a hand in every instance of activism in Peoplestown since the 1960s. “They never did come and develop nothing for the neighborhood.”

Faced with this fiasco, in 1963 Mayor Allen decided that a major league stadium on the razed land would show that urban renewal was beneficial for the whole city. The mayor negotiated in secrecy; only once the Milwaukee Braves had committed to moving to Atlanta and stadium construction was ready to begin did he go public. The Board of Aldermen held a single open meeting with an informal straw-poll vote for attendees (around 400 citizens). When that vote went well, Allen and his supporters were thrilled. “I feel that this proves the mandate of the people,” Arthur Montgomery, chair of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Authority, said proudly. “I see no obstacles now.”

Atlanta Stadium did not even make it through its first full season before the three neighborhoods burst into four days of riots. On September 6, 1966, a white police officer shot a black man named Harold Prather on Capitol Avenue. Prather went down; citizens of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville rose up. That night, Mayor Allen found himself standing on top of a cop car just blocks from the stadium, dodging rocks as he failed to quell a furious crowd. “Black Power! White Devil!” they chanted, as they rocked Allen off the car. Canisters of tear gas, not the mayor’s conciliatory words, finally dispersed the crowd.

Though Prather’s shooting was the immediate inspiration, the riots were a long time coming. In less than a decade, Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville had gone from integrated to almost entirely black, from working class to impoverished. (Peoplestown, for example, was 50.2 percent white and 49.8 percent black in 1960. By 1970, it was 11 percent white, 89 percent black.) They had become the home of heavy traffic, loud fireworks, and a massive public venue, none of which they had ever requested or approved.

Today the area is a food desert. Development is sporadic at the very best, and the median income of residents is estimated to be about half the Atlanta average. Most people do not walk around as Lee Sullivan used to. If they can, they drive. They drive because Atlanta is a driving city with a frail public transit system, and because it is sticky hot outside, the air gauzy and damp. The neighborhoods sound even emptier than they look; the whir of engines is all that interrupts the silence on major avenues.

“Isn’t this just awful?” Lee Sullivan asks as we turn onto an unpaved sidestreet in Mechanicsville with battered houses, many decrepit beyond repair. “You can say yes, because it is. It’s awful.”

* * *

In November 2013, when the Braves abruptly announced they would leave Turner Field at the end of the 2016 season, it became clear that the ensuing redevelopment would shape the surrounding area for decades to come. To reintegrate the Turner Field area—a space more than 10 city blocks long and at least three wide—into its neighborhoods without pushing poor residents out would take a conscientious developer nudged along with generous tax breaks and governmental support. Historian Marni Davis thinks this is an impossible vision. “There is nothing in the modern history of Atlanta that suggests that anyone gives a shit about any of that,” she says, spitting out the curse in frustration.

Activists, however, are pushing back. “The expectation is that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be top-down,” says Moki Macias. Macias is a transplant. Originally from New Mexico, she studied city planning at Georgia Tech and settled in Peoplestown (though she has since moved). When the Braves went public with their move, she worked with existing neighborhood organizations to create the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition, an organization designed to advocate for neighborhood input in what happens to that 77-acre plot.

For the moment, members of the Coalition are focused on one thing: the $212,000 Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) study that the Atlanta Regional Commission awarded the city. Set to begin this month, it will consult neighborhood residents about what they would value in a developer’s plan. Coalition members made news in July when 60 of them marched into City Hall to give city officials a letter that requested they commit to seeing the LCI through to completion before selling the land. That way, Coalition members believe, neighborhood input will become a formal part of the development process.

Mayor Kasim Reed supports the LCI, but has also said he will not hesitate to sell the land should he receive a compelling offer. Georgia State, in partnership with commercial real estate firm Carter USA, has already submitted a proposal: two new stadiums surrounded by mixed-use buildings and university housing. Carter representatives received an earful at a neighborhood meeting in June where they presented the idea.

Macias insists the coalition is not about being pro- or anti-GSU. “It’s about, ‘You do the plan [the LCI study] before you invite developers to the table.’” She says the coaliton will not hold back. “We‘re willing to put some pressure on.” Part of the coalition’s strategy is highlighting the legal hoops Mayor Reed has to jump though before selling the land. The City of Atlanta owns only two-thirds of the Turner Field area. Fulton County controls the other third, and Fulton County Chairman John Eaves has said he will not let the Mayor sell without a transparent process that listens to residents.

Despite this, some residents remain convinced that Mayor Reed will push through a deal with the same secrecy and disregard for neighborhood voices as Mayor Allen did 60 years ago. “I think he would sell it and let a potential lawsuit play out,” says Max Blau, who covers the stadium area for Atlanta Magazine. “I’m sure he’ll be challenged, but I don’t think that’s going to stop him from trying to sell it if it came down to that.”

“We got schooled,” says Lee Sullivan, remembering Mayor Allen’s actions in the 1960s. “They promised to do certain things for the surrounding area, and they didn’t. And I think that’s why the coalition is so strong. We don’t want that to happen again.”

* * *

The coalition, however, has its own scars and divisions. The neighborhoods were internally divided long before the Braves decided to leave, owing in some large measure to yet another stadium.

In 1996, the Olympics came to Atlanta, and city organizers set their sights on the intersection of Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown once again. By this time, the area had been subject to a variety of failed experiments in poverty alleviation. The federally funded Model Cities program, Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to redevelop communities with local input, resulted in a 15 percent net loss of housing before it stumbled to a halt in 1974, stymied by low funding. From 1960 to 1990, Peoplestown lost 60 percent of its residents; Mechanicsville, over 70 percent. By the time Olympic planners arrived in the early 1990s to scout out a location, some community organizers were ready to bargain with the city.

An Olympic stadium, which would become Turner Field after the games, was built right next to Atlanta Stadium. Columbus Ward and other Peoplestown residents protested the stadium with a tent-in at the groundbreaking ceremonies. Despite the initial protests, all three neighborhoods eventually took advantage of a deal with the Braves, still in place today, in which 8.25 percent of parking revenue each year—a paltry amount—goes towards a neighborhood development fund.[1] Summerhill leaders struck an additional deal with the city to obtain new housing developments in return for publicly supporting the Olympic Games and the new stadium.

Summerhill’s deal created a rift with enduring consequences. The new housing funded by the city, coupled with a wave of gentrification in neighborhoods immediately to the east of Summerhill, has slowly spurred gentrification of the neighborhood since the Olympics. Some residents in Peoplestown and Mechanicsville see this as a sign that Summerhill will soon become a different breed of neighborhood. “A lot of people said [Summerhill] sold out,” says Ward.

Gentrification is clearest in the northeast corner of Summerhill, where blocks have become havens of quaint single-family homes, complete with garages and shiny new hatchbacks nestled inside. Peoplestown and Mechanicsville remain mostly poor and mostly black. Their residents fear that Summerhill, flush with new homeowners and better housing, might fight for more expensive housing and retail in any new development project, which they see as yet another way to nudge low-income residents out of their communities.

Lifelong Peoplestown resident Catherine Prather-Williams sees Summerhill as increasingly hostile and foreign. “Right now, I think Peoplestown is really fighting for Peoplestown,” she says. “They [Summerhill] think they got more class than Peoplestown and Mechanicsville. They want to push people like me and people in Mechanicsville out.”

Many of the new residents see things differently. Suzanne Mitchell is the president of Organized Neighbors of Summerhill (ONS), a community organization founded in 2006, whose members Prather-Williams described as predominantly white, middle-class homeowners, though Mitchell herself is black. Mitchell believes she and other new residents have invested in their neighborhoods and care deeply about their future. ONS hosts neighborhood events and aims to be “the voice of Summerhill,” representing community concerns to the city. “Understand,” Mitchell says, imploringly, “we are not trying to gentrify Summerhill to the point where we lose our residents.”

These tensions over neighborhood pride, class, and race also stem from a more primary schism: age. Longtime residents remember Mayor Allen’s era and believe they have the deepest investment in their communities. Newcomers and younger activists look to the 1990s and see an area that needs a new guard willing and able to work with Atlanta’s top-down leadership before it mutes them yet again.

Lee Sullivan introduces me to another lifelong Mechanicsville resident who goes by the nickname Peanut. He acknowledges internal divisions, and identifies their root: memory. The people who are new to the neighborhood “basically don’t even know the history of Summerhill and Mechanicsville,” he says. Ward seconds Peanut: “One day we’ve got to get a map of the neighborhood and show the new people, because they don’t really know what we had there,” he says.

“In Atlanta,” Max Blau says, “neighborhoods are kind of like fiefdoms. You have people who have lived here for generations. There is a certain territorial element to it. New residents need to prove themselves to kind of be the voice of the neighborhood.”

* * *

A poster with bird’s-eye views of the Turner Field area in 1949 and 2015 sits propped up on an easel at Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition meetings. New residents constantly emphasize their desire to find out what turned the neighborhood in the 1949 image into today’s hollow concrete desert. But knowing this history is, of course, different from having lived it. New and old residents do not openly disagree about their goals for the future just yet; for now, they are focused on the LCI. But both groups acknowledge a rift born from their neighborhoods’ pasts. And both fear this rift might further divide their community when redevelopment plans become concrete.

Macias knows she is not working with united neighborhoods. “It’s tricky, because so much of this is based on wielding the moral authority of community, and yet community is such a fraught and contentious concept,” she says. She then pauses for a few seconds, lowering her voice even though we are in her car. “There isn’t a community, and yet, that’s the stuff that we have to handle on the inside.” She continues, “It’s about constructing a narrative about the community and what we deserve as the community, and just holding that it is a messy beast.”

Since delivering letters to City Hall, coalition members have met with roughly half the members of Atlanta’s City Council to push for a resolution endorsing the LCI. They also have a meeting with Mayor Reed scheduled for early September. The next few months will be crucial: On August 21, the Braves officially chose not to renew their lease on Turner Field. Sale of the land could now technically occur at any moment.

The only hope, it seems, is for the community to move beyond their own historical divisions and force the city’s hand. The story of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville must be recalled in full: the warm glow of the 50s, the horror of the ’60s, the schisms of the ’90s. An open union between new and old residents might prevent a repeat disaster. It would certainly make the Coalition difficult to ignore.

“I think that people want to categorize us,” Macias says. “Either you can be the gentrifiers that are making noise because you think you deserve x, y, and z, or you can be the old guard that just wants to get your piece of the pie. But what do you do when the gentrifiers and the old guard are together in a fragile union, but a union nonetheless, and are saying, ‘We’re gonna work together on this’?” She adds: “That’s the hope.”

[1] As of 2015, the “Impact Fees,” as the parking revenue deal came to be known, had amounted to about $8 million total, or just under $3 million per neighborhood over the course of nine years—a negligible figure for communities in such drastic need.

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