Midtown activist Peggy Denby retires
The longtime neighborhood leader looks back at her controversial fight against homelessness, drugs, and prostitution
It's not every couple whose departure from Midtown generates a press release and public buzz. But then, Peggy Denby and Don Jones are half-famous, half-infamous for running the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance.
Since arriving in Midtown in 2001, Denby has taken her share of criticism for her own plain-spoken, unbending opposition to street-level prostitution, drug-dealing, homeless camps and wee-hour nightclubs — as well as MPSA's aggressive approach to ousting all of the above from the neighborhood.
"The streets were filled with hookers and drug dealers, and I mean literally filled with them 24/7," Denby says. "Which was somewhat disconcerting, having moved from another part of town where we didn't, I'd never seen any of that. It took us a while to figure what it was, then we had to decide what we were going to do about it."
The husband-and-wife team discovered that other residents were sick of car break-ins and sex workers. Denby and Jones helped create — and became the public faces of — the MPSA, a resident-run security team that, in addition to neighborhood watches and safety campaigns, hired off-duty cops.
But Denby and the MPSA's tactics generated controversy, including from some of the nightlife lovers who flocked to Midtown. Her critics claimed that she was bringing an element of suburbia to urban Atlanta.
One of the first (and most enduringly controversial) missions was taking on Backstreet, a legendary 24-hour gay nightclub that nearby residents claimed brought litter and prostitutes. Since then she's also cracked down on drug dealers and petty criminals. She's been a vocal critic of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless' Peachtree-Pine shelter. As a board member of Keep Atlanta Beautiful, she's not only fought litter but also been a fierce critic of graffiti.
Some of her biggest opponents have also labeled her a bully and argued that overseeing arrests, plus posting mug shots and watch lists online, doesn't curb drug use or help survival of sex workers.
Matt Hennie, the editor of Project Q Atlanta, a local LGBT news site, says Denby earns every critic she gets. MPSA try to tackle tough issues, he says, but do it with inflammatory rhetoric and misleading statements.
"She wants to impose her vision of the way life should be on Midtown and do it without reaching consensus with the area's vibrant mix of constituencies," Hennie says. "That's not a healthy approach. She and the MPSA score some wins, and actually do some positive things, but often at the expense of stepping on toes and over a few bodies to get there."
Denby pushes back against claims that she's anti-sex worker, anti-homeless, and anti-transgender, claiming the individuals who brought the crime happened to match those descriptions.
"We knew that with all the homeless camps came the car break-ins and came the misdemeanor crimes that were just rampant. We knew that the prostitutes brought in the drug dealers. We knew that the drug dealers brought in everything else. ...So once you break it down, it's pretty easy to know what you're dealing with and what you have to do. We couldn't always do all the things we needed to have done, but that was our M.O."
Regardless of her tactics, Denby says some Midtown residents swear her dogged efforts have helped make the neighborhood safe and more appealing for longtime neighbors and newcomers. "Somebody had to stir the pot and that kind of became our role," she says.
"I would just like to leave positive rather than negative thoughts about what we've done," she says. "The critics, it's so easy to sit back and fire shots at people who are out there busting our buns because we make good targets, and that's what people do, and I understand that and we've always known that."