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Cover Story: The gentry are coming

What's not to like about better schools, lower crime rates and improved city services? A lot if you can no longer afford to live here.

A faux Victorian mansion takes shape on a block filled with shotgun shanties and dilapidated apartments.

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Longtime neighbors of limited means watch as a yuppie couple pulls up in a Volvo station wagon to direct the movers.

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It's a scene that could be repeated in about half of Atlanta's neighborhoods.

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Big-spending new residents bring a lot of benefits to the city. After all, who would be opposed to plummeting crime rates, spruced-up homes, better-funded schools and a wider selection of shops, restaurants and bars?

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But gentrification — the influx of middle-class residents into working-class neighborhoods — gets tricky when you consider how the city of Atlanta has, or hasn't, kept it in check.

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Critics of the city's laissez-faire approach lament that officials didn't take steps to protect Atlanta's stock of affordable housing when the redevelopment craze cranked up a decade ago.

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Instead, starting the mid-1990s, the Atlanta Housing Authority tore down thousands of public housing units and replaced them with mixed-income developments that offered a fraction of the number of homes for the poor. At the same time, developers and home buyers who discovered the benefits of city life pushed up prices in neighborhoods from Kirkwood to Castleberry Hill. And Mayor Shirley Franklin and Atlanta City Council didn't require that a portion of the tidal wave of new development be set aside for subsidized, low-income housing.

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"The first thing you do in a situation where affordable housing is under attack is keep what you've got," says Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech professor of city planning who sat on Atlanta's gentrification task force earlier this decade.

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The next step is to adopt policies that prevent new construction from serving only one class of society. "There's always going to be pressure from the development interests to service more higher-income people," Keating says.

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Some argue that the influx of mostly white, middle-class residents stands to make Atlanta less diverse. But that's not entirely true.

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To people like Ed Gilgor, who heads up the city's Neighborhood Planning Unit that covers one of the fastest gentrifying pockets of Atlanta, the arrival of new residents should be encouraged. That's because newcomers ensure that a wider mix of people will live in a given place.

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But shouldn't the influx be staved off once a neighborhood is in danger of being populated predominantly by one class of people at the expense of another?

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In a perfect world, every neighborhood would be populated by a cross-section of people of different races, religions and sexual orientation — and neighbors would find a way to peaceably coexist.

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The coexisting part isn't always easy, though. And that's particularly true today as wave after wave of wealthier residents flow into the city.

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"The people who move in now have a very different view from the folks who moved in even as recently as two to three years ago," Gilgor says of his East Atlanta neighborhood.

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"They have a more suburban mentality," he continues. "They don't understand that they've moved into a community where we all live on top of each other, and, in the words of Rodney King, 'We all have to get along.'"

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Mara Shalhoup

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Comments and questions can be sent to mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com or letters.atl@creativeloafing.com.

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This report was prepared by Mara Shalhoup and Michael Wall, with assistance from Ken Edelstein and Sarah Winterfield.

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