Opinion - Boulevard's coming out

Kwanza Hall's 'Year of Boulevard' project has yielded encouraging progress

When Councilman-about-town Kwanza Hall this past January unilaterally proclaimed 2012 the "Year of Boulevard," I wasn't the only one who wondered what that could possibly mean. Was he trying to draw more public attention to an area that represents Atlanta's highest concentration of poverty? Did Hall hope to leverage more resources to reduce crime and visible squalor along one of the city's most notorious stretches of pavement? Or was his plan to put more pressure on the Boston-based company that owns many of the apartment buildings to clean up its act?

Six months into what has become a fascinating experiment in urban renewal without bulldozers, it's now clear that Hall was shooting for all three. And his efforts have been surprisingly effective. So far, the Year of Boulevard has resulted in a new on-site police precinct to help drive down street crime; an outpouring of community support in the form of financial aid and internships; and, notably, movement by the above-referenced landlord toward redeveloping some of its properties.

For the uninitiated, Boulevard — at least the portion of the single-name street running south from Ponce de Leon Avenue to Freedom Parkway — contains the highest concentration of Section 8 housing in the entire Southeast. Back in the stagflation '70s, Boston-based Continental Wingate became the country's largest slumlord when it bought up sizable chunks of large cities like Detroit, Houston, and New York and turned hundreds of aging apartment buildings into federally subsidized housing. Along Boulevard, the so-called Village of Bedford Pine contains 700 such units, for which its desperately poor occupants pay as little as $12 a month in rent.

Led by the Atlanta Housing Authority, the entire model of public housing in America has undergone a radical shift away from dedicated "projects" like the erstwhile Techwood Homes to voucher-based systems that spread subsidized-housing occupants across the city (the less-ritzy parts, anyway) in an effort to break up concentrations of poverty. Yet Boulevard endures, resisting the gentrification and revitalization that have taken place on all sides. That's because HUD's site-based Section 8 program ensures a guaranteed revenue stream that overrides all incentives to sell or even upgrade a property. As long as Wingate can find warm bodies to fill its units, the government checks will keep rolling in forever.

Knowing that Wingate isn't going anywhere, Hall decided to turn a bright light on one of the city's biggest civic sinkholes in hopes of helping its residents, who are the very definition of downtrodden. According to Wingate's own records, of the 700 families that call Bedford Pine home, 25 have a male head of household. That's not 25 percent, but the number 25. The average household income is less than $3,000 a year. And, under Obama, HUD has lowered the age of eligibility for Section 8 from 25 to 18, meaning the street's population of young, unwed mothers will likely skew even younger.

"Atlanta is great at building things," he says, "but we're not so good at building people."

Atlanta magazine jumped on the bandwagon immediately by running print stories and launching a blog charting the progress of Hall's initiative. The Year of Boulevard's first tangible payoff was an out-of-the-blue offer in March by TEDx Atlanta, the technology and ideas forum, to help raise money to send the children of Bedford Pine to summer camp; create internships with local businesses; and lead Saturday seminars on entrepreneurship at the local community center.

Many of the TEDx initiatives can be followed on a website the group charmingly named YoBoulevard.com, and Hall is proud of the achievements so far. Several local restaurants — the Sound Table, P'cheen, and DBA Barbecue, among them — have invited youngsters to come in and see what it takes to operate a kitchen and run a business. Hundreds of other kids are involved in nearby summer camps operated by the Truly Living Well urban farm; Operation P.E.A.C.E., a long-standing neighborhood nonprofit; and a community outreach arm of the Atlanta Hawks. Wingate even donated $15,000 toward the summer camp program, Hall says.

In May, the APD opened a mini-precinct in one of the apartment buildings. As a result, says Hall, who also lives along Boulevard, in just two months there already seem to be fewer guys hanging out and dealing drugs.

This weekend, part of the street will be shut down for a huge block party for the families that live along the Boulevard corridor. While the all-day fest will feature hoops demonstrations by Hawks players, a mobile zoo, a police bicycle rodeo, and other arguably fun attractions, much of the focus will be on connecting people to social services offered by Fulton County, Atlanta Workforce Development, and myriad other agencies. Hall's ultimate goal is to reach the parents through their kids, eventually showing them a way out of poverty.

The final piece of the puzzle, though, is Wingate itself. Hall is encouraged that Mark Schuster, son of Wingate's founder, seems genuinely interested in bettering his company's image and improving the lives of its tenants. Hall says Wingate is talking with partners about redeveloping some of its buildings into mixed-income properties. The 700 cash cow Section 8 units would remain, of course, but they would be diluted by affordable market-rate housing, changing the nature of Boulevard's population and improving the look of the streetscape.

If the progress Hall has helped spur on Boulevard seems slow moving, consider the alternative: another three decades of crime, poverty, and misspent lives.

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