Cover Story: Where'd the neighbors go?

Wilma Jackson Jones grew up, raised children and suffered tragedies in Carver Homes. Now after three decades, she's watching the city dismantle her community.

Seven years ago, the Atlanta Housing Authority began to dispel its reputation as one of the worst public housing providers in the country. Armed with more than 100 million federal dollars and a new director, the authority has carried out the demolition and reconstruction of five of the city's 42 housinxg projects. Its mission: build neighborhoods that mix poor and middle-income tenants, thereby diluting crime and improving the quality of life for residents. Once ranked among the country's five worst public housing providers, the authority now is recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a national trendsetter for future urban neighborhoods.
Carver Homes, one of the city's largest public housing complexes, is one of the next all-poor projects set to become a "mixed-income neighborhood." The 100-acre complex three miles south of downtown is being reconstructed at a cost of $145 million. When all four phases are complete, there will be 648 apartments, 66 townhomes and 250 houses.
Since construction began last year, Carver Homes has slowly been dismantled. Those 97 families and almost 300 others await word as to whether there will be room for them in the new complex. The other 600 families that used to live in Carver Homes either received vouchers for reduced rent somewhere else in the city or were cut off from housing authority assistance.
She is thinking how sick the building across the street looks, so little flesh left clinging to 50-year-old bricks, so hollow after the people who lived there trickled away a year ago. All that had been inside the old building — the little things one acquires in a lifetime — is gone. A green blanket is crumpled on a concrete stoop, an open umbrella upturned in the yard. The wings of a bird, its body gutted by a predator, lie spread under a window. The building above appears to be dying.
The way my son looked seven years ago.
Wilma Jackson Jones cringes, then waves her hand around her head as if a halo of flies was buzzing around her. Whenever she speaks of the hardships she's faced, she cringes and waves, as if shooing away a bad memory.
I wanted to always be a part of making history, of making life better in the community, for the people and for myself.
Wilma raises her eyes to the building's roof. Firefighters have torn it up, busted holes in it to practice for future rescues. Crazy to tear up a good building like that. But it's for the good of the greater whole, Wilma supposes. You tear things down so you can help people, right?
Come on over Miss Marjorie, I'd yell out my front door to the lady across the street. I've got fish frying, and you sure look hungry.
The people who lived in the building moved out so that the housing authority could start construction on something new and bright and clean, a neighborhood with two clubhouses, a pool and jogging trails. Like Mayor Bill Campbell told CNN back in 1996: "In order to preserve, sometimes you must first destroy." He was talking about what was going on at East Lake Meadows, a housing project that was razed and rebuilt soon after the Olympics. But he might as well have been talking about any of the projects that are (or will be) refashioned as "mixed income."
Public housing complexes in Atlanta traditionally have been called "homes," as in Perry Homes or Harris Homes or Carver Homes. But they're being renamed "villages" or "parks" or some other idyllic name, as if by calling something a garden, you can forget that it was ever a cement jungle. The city tore down the unseemly Techwood and Clark Howell Homes, and rebuilt them under the name Centennial Place, where some former project dwellers — thanks to reduced rent — live next door to white collar professionals. Then it was East Lake Meadows turned Villages of East Lake. John Hope Homes became Villages at Castleberry. John Eagan Homes became Magnolia Park. Carver Homes is next. Almost half of the original 50-year-old buildings have been torn down. The rest will likely be gone by the year's end.
But I'm not going nowhere. At least not until June or so. I'll be getting a new apartment in Villages at Carver.
Sure, there were times when Wilma wanted the hell out of Carver, times when women blocked their front doors with couches to keep out the violence, times when the drug trade, once confined to certain buildings, started crossing all boundaries. It crossed Wilma's front door and left with one of her sons.
But despite the hardships, Carver Homes is to Wilma what the name says: a home. She knows no other. She came to Carver Homes more than 31 years ago and has never left.
She worries about her neighbors who remain, and her former neighbors who are waiting to return. The fact is, there won't be room for everyone who wants to come back. But you shouldn't just abandon them. Not all of them will pass the application process. But you shouldn't ignore them just because they're troubled, or steeped in drugs, crime, disease. Same as your children. You shouldn't just tell them they have nowhere to go.
Johnny got sick. I was taking care of him. I had to pick him up just like a baby. I had to change his diapers. He wouldn't eat. He didn't even look like himself. He was just wasting away.
Wilma sighs, turns her back to the empty building and disappears into her own.
A maelstrom of civil rights issues blew through Atlanta in 1969, the year Wilma moved out on her own. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of Atlanta public housing tenants who claimed state law made it easy for landlords to evict them. Gov. Maddox called for nine Southern states to defy court orders to integrate schools. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigated Atlanta after hearing allegations that state and local government kept blacks in low-paying, low-skilled jobs.
None of that was of much concern to Wilma, then just 16. She had her babies to take care of. There was Johnny — "Chicken" she called him, because he could screech like a bird — and Anthony, whom she called 'Cowboy' because he walked a little bow-legged from a breech birth.
Wilma had gotten pregnant at 13, before she knew the consequences of sex. By the time she got pregnant a second time, a year later, she thought her teenaged boyfriend would marry her and take care of the family. He didn't. Wilma learned she'd have to take care of herself.
She started working at the Davis Brothers cafeterias downtown and went to Price High School at night. Coffee, tea or milk? Wilma would ask a thousand times a day. She saved her money and moved out of her mother's three-room duplex. She found a place a mile away, on the other side of Pryor Road, across from Carver Homes. She used to haul her laundry, one child in her arms, the other in tow, to her mother's most days. As she walked through Carver Homes, she thought how much she'd like to live there. From where Wilma stood, Carver looked like heaven. It was only 16 years old back then — the same age as she was — bright with flower boxes and manicured green grass.
While Wilma was at school one night, someone broke into the squat brick apartment where she lived. She gave away her furniture and returned to her mother's. She decided she'd wait until a unit came open at Carver Homes.
A few months later, one did.
This was my new beginning, my promise land of milk and honey. I didn't think of it as a project. It was my own private mansion.
Wilma's older sister gave her a living room suite. Wilma went to Rich's and put orange curtains on layaway, to match her orange tweed couch. Her great-aunt gave her a rollaway bed where Johnny and Anthony slept. She quit work to devote her time to her high school diploma and the boys. They survived on an $88 monthly welfare check and surplus food handed out at local charities.
The year Wilma earned her diploma, she started working behind the counter at a drug store. And she started listening to the way tenants spoke of life in Carver Homes. Wilma asked a friend what went on when the people gathered certain nights to talk. Come see, her friend said. So Wilma went with her one night.
All of a sudden there were tenant association meetings to attend, equal opportunity committees to chair, causes to fight for. Wilma felt the light on her. She felt that the more she was exposed to the ills of the world, the more equipped she was to battle them. She took a job in Carver Homes, going door to door as an inspector for the housing authority. She often was met with the angry glares of stubborn neighbors, but she wasn't complaining. She created a system of "building captains," each of whom kept neighbors informed about what was going on and urged them to keep their home and the surrounding yard clean.
I seen that our community was deteriorating, and it was going down, and there wasn't anybody doing anything. I just seen a lot of things going on in the area that I didn't like, and I wanted to be a part of making things better.
When Wilma's mother died in 1977, she thought for a moment that she wanted to die, too. But she was pregnant again. She wanted the best for Johnny, Anthony and baby Rasheda. She thought her hard work in Carver Homes could be better to use at the top of the totem rather than the bottom. She wanted to make the three-mile trek up Pryor Road into the heart of downtown Atlanta. She decided to run for city council.
The way Wilma saw it, nobody outside Carver Homes paid any attention to what was happening all around her. Not the police officers, of whom seven would later be arrested for taking payoffs from drug dealers. The schools, although no longer segregated, still had as few resources as the students who filed through the doors. Jobs were available, but few paid a livable wage. The black population meant nothing but potential voting blocs for black-friendly officials, who only showed their faces around election time, whose talking heads spouted the same empty promises.Wilma vowed to be different.
I told them that I knew the problems and needs of the district. I will speak for all of the people — not just some of the people.
She ran her campaign out of her living room and cruised the streets in her station wagon. She and her friends and relatives handed out red and white pamphlets urging the people to vote for Wilma Denise Jackson. She packed boxes with her homemade beef stew, old-fashioned potatoes and cornbread. She carried the meals to beauty salons, selling them to raise funds. On Fridays, she hosted fish fries on her apartment's back stoop.
For a few months in 1981, the people listened. She told them she could direct the city's attention to the neglected south side. Wilma had an audience. And it almost didn't matter that the audience wasn't big enough to capture her a council seat.
Once the election was over though, once her supporters left the post-election party at a hotel across from Turner Field, Wilma felt an eerie quiet. When she raised her voice in protest, it just bounced back at her off her living room wall. She spent her days buying groceries and paying bills and making doctor appointments for her grandmother. She was keeping busy.
One day, as she walked down the hospital hallway to visit her grandmother, Wilma felt eyes on her. She looked over her shoulder and saw a man with a chiseled face and sideburns, pushing a trashcan. She turned a corner and peeked again. Still, he was behind her. He told her his name was Ronnie, and he told her he was checking on her grandmother for her. Soon he had Wilma on the phone, assuring her that her grandmother was doing fine. Wilma cooked him lunch and brought it to him at the hospital. They married in June of 1983.
The marriage failed her though, just as the voters did.
He was just a man that enjoyed fooling around. He wanted me, and he wanted a lot of other women, too.
But Wilma was losing more than her husband, whom she later divorced. As the neighborhood began slipping, so did her son.
Carver was growing more sinister with each card game waged, each beer swilled, each joint rolled, each drug-deal-turned-shooting. Johnny's reddened eyes reflected the worst. There were certain areas of Carver you didn't go into anymore. Johnny disappeared to those places.
Time passed between his phone calls.
But every time he said, "I love you. I miss you."
The detective met Wilma at Grady Hospital. He said someone found Johnny lying near Ashby Street. He had been shot in the back of the head.
He had tubes going all through him. The doctor said he'd be a vegetable.
Wilma sat by his bedside, praying and anointing him with oil. When he could talk, he asked her to stay by his side. When he couldn't, she whispered to him: Fight for your life.
After a month, Wilma took Johnny home. He was soon well enough to roller-skate. He started collecting Social Security and moved into a high rise on North Avenue. Three years passed. He turned 25. By then, he had slipped again.
He landed in a hole.
The drugs got to him. But his sickness wasn't just from the drugs. Wilma didn't know what was wrong. But he didn't have the strength to eat or walk. She brought him home.
There were times when Wilma had to tie Johnny's hands to the bed so he wouldn't keep tearing his diaper off. The day after she took him to the hospice, he could no longer hear her. Her voice of protest — Fight for your life — just bounced off the walls back at her.
I couldn't even cry. Even when they told me he was dead.
Seven years have passed. Wilma Jackson Jones arrives home from work at 9 a.m. For the last three hours, she has been riding on a school bus, helping the driver pick up a dozen handicapped children. She changes out of the red vest with the Atlanta Public Schools emblem and heads to a meeting rumored to be taking place at the Carver Homes community building. She looks out the car window. Hollow buildings flash by.Wilma arrives at the meeting a half-hour early and takes a seat at the end of a long folding table. Other Carver residents shuffle in. First, a small, frail woman in a pink corduroy hat and a houndstooth coat. She was Wilma's first next-door neighbor at Carver, 31 years ago. Then, a statuesque woman dressed head to toe in black, her hair tinged red. When Wilma called her the night before, the woman told her about the meeting. The housing authority would be giving an update on the relocation process.
A man in a suit strolls in, leaning lightly on a fine-carved wooden cane. He is followed a moment later by a woman in a mink hat and jewel-colored scarf. Most of the dozen residents who arrive at the community center are in their 50s, 60s or 70s. Most have been meeting in the gymnasium-style room for two decades or more.
But today, the day after Valentine's Day, is different.
The packet handed to them says "The Villages at Carver."
The 10 authority members meet the residents with wide smiles. They are here to describe what will happen in the next six months. Rosetta Dixon kindly lets the audience know, "If you can't establish utility services in your name, you will not be eligible to return."
The crowd bristles. Some people scribble notes. Wilma keeps silent. The woman in the mink hat sighs in disbelief.
"A lot of people aren't going to be able to move back here," she whispers to the man with the wooden cane.
He nods knowingly.
Margaret McCarley with the housing authority steps up next. She explains how the authority will soon screen those who want to move from Carver Homes to Villages at Carver. She says each applicant must agree to a review of their credit history, an investigation of past rent and utility payments, an examination of their home inspection records and a review of their criminal past. Most crimes are relevant only if the applicant was convicted in the past seven years. There is no time limit, however, on drug charges.
Dwayne Vaughn speaks last for the housing authority. Of the 990 families who once lived at Carver, 389 applied to return to Villages at Carver, Vaughn says.
Of the 990 families that once lived at Carver, 389 applied to return to Villages at Carver, Vaughn says.
Vaughn clears his throat. He says there will not be enough apartments in Phase One of Villages at Carver for all 97 families who are still living in Carver Homes. Two-hundred-and-twenty units will be ready this summer, but a certain number are set aside for new residents who can afford to pay full rent. (Public housing applicants pay one-third their total income.)
Furthermore, the buildings where current residents live will be torn down this summer, in preparation for Phase Two. (Phase Two, which may be ready by 2002, still will not have enough apartments for everyone who wants one.)
"That was the idea, to stay on site until it's ready," one resident says. "Now you're telling us to move?"
The crowd mumbles in agreement. Vaughn tries to continue. Louise Watley, the spirited if not volatile leader of Carver Homes, cuts Vaughn off: "The guarantee was that until you had a replacement for these buildings, these buildings were not going down."
Vaughn tries to interject, but Watley talks right over him.
"If they're going down, they're going down over my dead body. That's not a threat. That's a promise. You understand?"
Vaughn suggests that not all the applicants from Carver Homes will want to come back. Some might change their minds, which will allow others to move into the new complex sooner.
Watley argues that the housing authority had promised to let every person who lived in Carver more than 20 years stay until their new home was ready.
"That was not a promise," Vaughn says softly.
"I'll tell you this much," Watley says back. "Anybody who don't want to go ain't going. Y'all can go back and put that in your pipe and smoke it. A deal is a deal is a deal."
Vaughn vaguely responds: "OK, then. Any other questions or concerns?"
The meeting is over.
Watley struts over to the end of the table and grins over Wilma's head at the woman in the mink hat. "Don't worry," Watley tells her.
"I'm just going to pray," the woman answers.
Wilma nods.
Once she's outside, Wilma raises her voice as if the 10 housing authority members are sitting before her.
I think their minds be already made up when they come out here. I think they're just going through motions. They just play mind games and word games with people's lives. Mixed-income is good, but it needs to be where the people who was here really have an opportunity to come back in.
Inside that vast room, her voice would have just bounced off the walls.
With five housing complex transformations at least partially complete — and with Carver and several others underway — the Atlanta Housing Authority will demolish at least 3,850 public housing apartments and replace them with 3,000 mixed-use units. Not all of them will be for low-income tenants.
When it is finished in 2003 or so, Villages at Carver will have 272 fewer apartments than Carver Homes. The Carver Homes residents who don't get homes there will eventually be displaced. They will scatter throughout the city, holding vouchers for reduced rent. If they cannot pay their utility bills, their vouchers will be taken away. And they will no longer be the responsibility of the Atlanta Housing Authority.