Down on Boulevard: Positive change might finally come to Atlanta’s lawless street

As long as he can remember, Cortez Hill has wanted to be a police officer. He yearns to drive a patrol car and be able to give something back to his community.

Perhaps most of all, Hill, 18, would like to feel safe.

For the past three-and-a-half years, the Clarkston High School graduate has shared an apartment with his parents down on Boulevard, the notorious mile of crime-infested asphalt between Atlanta Medical Center and Ponce de Leon Avenue. During his time here, Hill has been chased down the street by a group of boys wielding guns. He’s seen 13- and 14-year-old neighborhood kids skip school to earn money as lookouts for crack dealers.

Last Christmas, his older brother was killed — shot in the back of the head, Hill claims, by an acquaintance who wanted him to take part in a robbery. A trial is scheduled for later this year.

Asked how it feels to live on Boulevard, Hill simply says: “I just thank God I could live to see another day.”

For decades, the street — now bounded on all sides by gentrified avenues with coffee shops and boutiques — has been a no-man’s land dominated by drugs, street crime and bitter poverty. Rappers name-check Boulevard as a place where gang-bangers earn their stripes. Generations of boys have come up in the neighborhood, joining gangs, going to prison, ending up shot or, like Cortez, looking forward to the day they can finally get out.

Many locals lock their car doors when they drive down Boulevard and wouldn’t dare to stop at the gas stations on the street, says Councilman Kwanza Hall who represents the area. He adds: “That’s not what a neighborhood should be about.”

In recent years, the surrounding Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, like much of the city, has seen waves of new development. Nearby Glen Iris Drive is now home to loft buildings, upscale restaurants and the Southern Dairies office complex. Edgewood Avenue has become a dining destination. Even Ponce de Leon began cleaning up its act long ago, trading off its hookers and street hustlers for condos or such signifiers of retail gentility as Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters.

Boulevard, meanwhile, is virtually unchanged. And there’s a reason for that. Most of Boulevard’s dozens of aging, two-story apartment buildings — commonly mistaken for public housing projects — have been owned since the early ’70s by a single company, Boston-based Continental Wingate, which has rejected all offers to sell or upgrade their properties. All of Wingate’s nearly 700 units are federally subsidized, making the apartments the highest concentration of Section 8 housing in the Southeast.

Despite the civic revival happening on all sides, the street remains seemingly lawless. Debi Starnes, the former City Council representative for the area, remembers a night in 2005 when she walked down the street with a local TV reporter and a hidden camera. “We got offered drugs a couple of times every block,” she says.

Earlier this year, when Kyle Keyser was robbed at gunpoint in the Pizza Hut parking lot at Boulevard and North, he responded by founding Atlantans Together Against Crime, a grassroots group that has so far attracted more than 6,500 Facebook followers.

“This is the last area that has yet to be redeveloped,” says David Patton, a real-estate consultant who served several years as president of the local Neighborhood Planning Unit-M (NPU-M). “It’s the hole in the donut.”

So imagine the surprise for Patton and other neighborhood activists when they learned last week that Wingate has plans to redevelop all its local holdings, which include more than 70 separate buildings and parcels on Boulevard and in the nearby Bedford-Pine neighborhood.

The resulting overhaul could add more than a thousand market-rate apartments to the street and create a mixed-income, pedestrian-friendly environment where stopping for a pizza doesn’t mean risking your life.

If Wingate intends to follow through with this promise — and there’s reason to believe it does — it would mean the first real progress in nearly 40 years for one of central Atlanta’s last true ghettos.

By most standards, Boulevard should be valuable real estate. The four-lane street forms an important north-south artery, connecting Cabbagetown and Grant Park to Midtown and Morningside.

“Boulevard runs along a ridge, so if you get four or five stories up, you get some really amazing views of Atlanta,” says architect Tom Dalia, who’s worked on redevelopment projects throughout the Old Fourth Ward. “It could be one of the coolest parts of the city by virtue of its location.”

But the area has also seen more than its share of setbacks over the past century.

A little after noon on May 21, 1917, the Atlanta Fire Department received a call about a stack of burning mattresses at a warehouse just off Decatur Street. For the next 11 hours, the fire burned out of control north across the Old Fourth Ward. By the time it finally ran its course, it had burned nearly 2,000 buildings over 300 acres, including both sides of Boulevard from Highland Avenue to Ponce.

Boulevard was redeveloped in the ’20s and ’30s with the two-story brick apartment buildings that remain today. But as the Civil Rights era brought social change to Atlanta, the area was hit hard by white flight. Census figures show that the Old Fourth Ward was one of the city’s densest residential neighborhoods in 1960, with more than 22,000 residents. Over the next two decades, the population would eventually bottom out to about 6,000. By the dawn of the ’70s, most of the buildings along Boulevard sat vacant and boarded up.

In response to a nation-wide shortage of low-income housing, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which launched the Section 8 subsidy program. Continental Wingate got in on the ground floor, buying up blighted chunks of large cities — including Atlanta, Boston, New York, Houston and Detroit — and rehabbing old buildings for occupancy by people too poor to afford market-rate apartments.

Under Section 8, a tenant pays 30 percent of his or her income toward rent, and the rest is covered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, taking the local housing authority out of the loop. Therefore, Wingate enjoys a guaranteed revenue stream, as long as the company finds enough tenants to fill its units and is able to meet HUD’s notoriously low standards for maintaining Section 8 status.

Recent NPU-M President Derek Matory says the result of Wingate’s sweetheart arrangement with HUD is that there’s never been an incentive for it to bring its properties up to date. Over the years, the company has brushed off countless buyout offers, most recently from Bank of America, which sought to redevelop portions of Boulevard.
“Wingate doesn’t have to compete in the rental market,” Matory says. “They haven’t had to spend money on landscaping, parking, laundry facilities or any of the usual amenities that renters now take for granted.”

That business model has earned Wingate CEO Gerald Schuster a national reputation as a slumlord. As early as 1979, then-New York state lawmaker Chuck Schumer led an investigation whose report branded Wingate as “an unscrupulous developer only interested in profit.” A decade ago, HUD took over management of a Bronx housing project that Wingate had reportedly allowed to sink into squalor and become a haven for drug gangs.

When Lydia Meredith arrived in Atlanta in 1994, she and her pastor husband discovered the church on Boulevard they’d come to run had previously been known as a criminal hangout. Every day, drug dealers would congregate at a 24-hour convenience store on the corner.

Nearby apartments were populated by “third-generation unwed teen mothers,” she says.

“This was a place where I wouldn’t want my kids growing up,” says Meredith, who believes the street has incrementally changed for the better, thanks to the efforts of neighborhood organizations and social-service groups like her own Beacon of Hope, which operates a community learning center.

“Wingate hasn’t done a thing,” she says. “They’re not a good citizen and they’ve impeded economic development. I don’t understand how the federal government can keep giving money to a landlord that hasn’t tried to stop drugs.”

But Gene Lockard, Wingate’s regional vice president, says the company spends $200,000 a year to have the Bedford Pine apartments patrolled by off-duty police officers.

“It shouldn’t be our responsibility to round up all the drug boys in their white T-shirts,” Lockard says. “I can’t think of another part of town where this kind of open-air drug market has been allowed to operate.”

Kit Sutherland, a historic preservation planner and neighborhood activist, insists it’s Wingate’s own policy of keeping all of its apartments rent-subsidized that has fostered a crime-friendly environment. “There’s not a single person who puts on a tie and goes to work every day,” she explains. “That doesn’t give the kids here any role models.”

In the last few years, the Atlanta Housing Authority has been at the forefront of a national trend of demolishing permanent housing projects in favor of mixed-income communities. The AHA’s current model calls for no more than 40 percent of a development’s units to be rent-subsidized.

Activist Patton believes that, just as Techwood Homes was replaced with Centennial Place, Boulevard will only see progress after the Bedford Pine apartments are redeveloped.

“We don’t want to see poor people pushed to the margins,” he says. “But we need a mixed-income approach so that we don’t have an island of poverty.”

Last fall, the city approved the Old Fourth Ward Master Plan, which calls for a huge urban park behind City Hall East and other improvements along the nearby Beltline, a proposed 22-mile loop of transit and trails that would circle the city. For Boulevard, the plan envisions a landscaped median running down the middle of the street, which would be lined by five- to eight-story buildings with ground-floor retail.

“Boulevard has the potential to become a beautiful, grand street,” says Councilman Hall, who concedes that the plans won’t count for much if Wingate keeps things as they are.

Which is why residents are viewing the company’s latest rumblings with cautious optimism.

The proposal discussed at last Thursday’s Fourth Ward Alliance community meeting represented a toe in the water: Wingate wants to tear down five old apartment buildings on Parkway Drive — directly behind the Pizza Hut — and replace those 42 units with a modern building containing 87 units, also all Section 8.

It was a no-brainer for the homeowners in attendance to reject a proposal that would add still more subsidized housing, but they want desperately to coax Wingate into redeveloping its properties.

“If they’re coming to the table, we don’t want to scare them off,” says architect Dalia, “but we want to hold them to some conditions.”

At the meeting’s conclusion, Ralph Cole, Wingate’s Boston-based consultant, agreed to collaborate with the community over the next year to create a holistic plan to transform the apartments into a mixed-income neighborhood with street-level retail and dedicated housing for seniors.

“These units are old and they’ve run their course,” Cole announced. “Wingate is committed to redeveloping its properties in accordance with the principles of the Old Fourth Ward Master Plan. We want to get off on the right foot.”

While there are a few signature buildings on Boulevard that should be preserved, Sutherland says, most should come down; the Depression-era apartments are too small to house families and the properties lack adequate parking. She predicts neighborhood activists will gladly accept much higher density along Boulevard if the concentration of poverty is diluted.

Cortez Hill is looking forward to this fall, when he’ll be going to Georgia State University on a scholarship. By then, he hopes to have his own apartment, hopefully in student housing downtown. He plans to study law enforcement.

“I want to be able to deal with all these drug dealers and robbers,” he says.

Perhaps by the time Hill has earned his badge, Boulevard will no longer be a problem.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story called Derek Matory the current NPU-M president. He is the immediate past president.