Archive for December 5th, 2011

Peoplestown

Josh recently wrote a paper on the history of Peoplestown and current issues the neighborhood is facing. I’ve provided some of the excerpts from his paper (the whole paper is 11 pages, a little long for the blog) so people can have a better idea of where we are living.

Peoplestown: The Beginning

The story of Peoplestown began in the 1890’s.  The Peoples family, a Jewish immigrant family, owned over half of the developed land in the neighborhood.  They are reported to be the namesake of this Atlanta community.  In its infancy, lining the streets of Peoplestown were single-family Victorian style homes with small servants’ quarters hidden in the rear.  By the 1920’s the population of Peoplestown was comprised of African Americans, Whites, and Jewish immigrants.  The residential area continued to expand with the introduction of the street trolley system that transported residents to and from work in a growing downtown Atlanta.  As the neighborhood experienced continued growth it also became segregated by race with whites living on the west side of town and blacks on the east.  By the 1930’s and 40’s development slowed and many white residents began to move out of the neighborhood.  The large houses that were left vacant quickly became boarding houses and fell into disrepair.

With the conclusion of World War II, Peoplestown saw a revitalization of its once diverse community.  A large successful industrial area had developed that stretched from Peoplestown to the neighboring community of Mechanicsville.  “Schools, a library, post office, hospital, drug store, clothing stores and movie theaters were close enough to the neighborhood to provide employment and recreation, allowing for a convenient urban existence” (Neighborhoods Count NPU-V 2004).  As a result of all of this, many jobs were made available within walking distance.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, Peoplestown and surrounding areas experienced drastic changes.  Two of the biggest things to impact the community were the massive freeway and parking construction projects, and the Federal Housing Act of 1949. The housing act brought subsidized rental housing to the community, which inevitably decreased property values. It is said that the decline in property value was a root cause of “White Flight,” the rapid loss of affluent white residents and business people.

However, race and racism were also prevalent forces in the loss of nearly half the population of Peoplestown from the 1960’s to 2000.  In Atlanta, white business leaders met with other leaders in the surrounding African American communities to mediate issues surrounding violence.  During that time there was evidence of how hate and violence related to Jim Crow laws, desegregation in schools, and Civil Rights, were affecting the economic stability in Birmingham, Alabama.  However, Atlanta during this time was deemed “The City Too Busy to Hate”; in return individuals, most of whom were white, verbalized “other” financial reasons for their departure from Peoplestown.  The use of “financial reasons” allowed themselves to not have to focus on race relations or the true reason they were leaving Peoplestown.

These changes and attitudes, and the affects they had of Peoplestown, were also seen in other areas of Atlanta.  During this time there were several promises made via the Urban Renewal program that were not kept.  For example, the former Fulton County Stadium and its parking facilities were constructed on land in Summer Hill, a neighboring community, which was originally reserved for the rebuilding of homes that were destroyed because of the freeway systems.  In general, the Civil Rights movement greatly affected the city of Atlanta as a whole.

The book, Who’s Who In Peoplestown, highlights a brief history of the community during the 1950’s until the late 1990’s.  In the book, community members described Peoplestown in the 1950’s before the freeway was contracted and built, and they discussed the area before the Fulton County Stadium that was then demolished and a new stadium was built for the 1996 Olympic Games.  Louise Phipps:

“After we got the gas and the street paved, and the school and the park, everything looked good. Most everybody owned their houses down in here…We used to do our shopping on Georgia Avenue. They had a big supermarket there. They had a chicken house there and they sold chicken and fish. And then they had a theater on the corner of Crew Street and Georgia Avenue. Then below that they had a shoe shop, a bakery and on the other side of the street they had Fritz’s Ice Cream. They used to have a grocery store up there at Violet and Haygood.”

Activist Ethel Mae Matthews (a dear friend of Father Austin Ford):

“Peoplestown was a people’s town. Rich Jews, poor blacks, rich, white, just mixed in together. We had drugstores, grocery stores, a theater” (Who’s Who In Peoplestown).

Peoplestown: Continued Change

The population of Peoplestown continued to drop from 5,598 in 1950 to 2,527 by 1990, and has continued to drop to approximately 2,096 as of 2010. This shift in population has continued due in part to the failed promises in 1970, and also the lack of resources, jobs, and recreational activities within Peoplestown. During the early 90’s after the city of Atlanta had  been given privilege of hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, several key community members in Peoplestown including Ethel Mae Matthews, Columbus Ward Jr., May Helen Johnson and others formed the Atlanta Neighborhoods United for Fairness (A’NUFF).  A’NUFF protested the stadium being built in the Peoplestown neighborhood. The plans for the stadium and subsequent parking areas were moved ¼ of a mile further from Peoplestown as a result of their dedication and activism.

At this time the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation was formed by many of the same community members as A’NUFF. The Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation has a mission to create positive opportunities for community members related to recreation and housing.  Ms. May Helen Johnson is a member of several activist groups including Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation. In addition, she is one of the board members for Emmaus House, worked side by side with Father Ford, and has lived in the community for more than 40 years.  Ms. Johnson met with me to discuss her views of Peoplestown:

“There are no banks, drycleaners, post office, groceries, not even a Home Depot or anything like that for people to shop in and be able to feel productive and fix their own homes. There are no tax dollars coming into Peoplestown. The only good things we have here are families, the McDevitt Center, and Emmaus House. I want to see opportunities for people to have employment. I don’t know the answers, but I have always believed that; it may not change but you must make the effort to make it change. That is what I have been trying to do for almost 40 years here.”

When asked about her highlight over the time she has spent with Emmaus House Ms. Johnson replied:

“The highlight for me would be that when people come down here to Emmaus House in spite of what they read or know, they always leave with a good impression of what we do here. Our doors are always open, even until the last biscuit. I’m glad that all my work will pay off in the end and better the neighborhood instead of myself.”

Peoplestown: Present

Currently there are approximately 876 homes in Peoplestown and 300 of those are abandoned or have been boarded up by their respective owners. With the lack of inhabitants, crime and vandalism are rapidly becoming a more noticed issue. The current trend, however, in neighboring communities such as Grant Park is that young white business people are moving back into neighboring areas often gentrifying the poor there, while trying to boost the economic structure.

Emmaus House completed a community needs assessment in October 2011 highlighting the perception of residents in 251 of Peoplestown’s 876 occupied residences. The project focused on race, employment, education, homeownership, renting, length of time in the neighborhood, children, religion, health, crime, safety, recreational activities, quality of life, and services offered through Emmaus House. “Of the 251 participants, 69.7% were female and 30.3% were male. The majority (88.4%) identified themselves as Black/African American; 8% were White/Caucasian, and the remainder reported being Hispanic/Latino, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander, mixed heritage or other” (Emmaus House Community Needs Assessment). Of those surveyed one in four (25%) are between 25 and 34 years old and 62% have lived in Peoplestown for three or more years. The number of residents’ having a high school diploma/GED are 39.4%, and the percentage of those who completed college is 21.9%. Employment rates for Peoplestown are low.  Only 26.3% of those surveyed have full time employment, 17.5% have part time employment, and almost 55% of the residents surveyed in Peoplestown reported being unemployed. . Over half of the individuals have a place of worship, however less than half of those attend services in the Peoplestown neighborhood.

For the majority of individuals surveyed there were significant issues mentioned concerning: gang violence (31.5%), drug dealing (53.8%), violent crime (43.8%) and property crime (51.8%). Other challenges for the community include little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables, or even a grocery store, limited activities for teenagers, and educational attainment in Peoplestown is below average for the City of Atlanta. However, even in light of the concern, it was interesting to learn that over 68% of those surveyed feel that Peoplestown is a good place to live over all.

In relation to Emmaus House, and the services offered, 77.7% of individuals reported knowing about Emmaus House.  Of those people that had utilized the programs offered, most acknowledged they had positive feelings about the resources being offered at Emmaus House for the community.

Emmaus House, and the McDevitt Center, is actively involved in the daily life of the Peoplestown community. The community’s nine Christian churches and one Mosque seem to do little in the way of providing for the needs of individuals outside their congregations. On the fourth Thursday of each month Emmaus House hosts a free community dinner. During a recent special dinner held on November 10, 2011 discussions were taking place while waiting in line by several of my neighbors. They were discussing that it seems none of the other churches in the neighborhood are willing to provide assistance or an area for fellowship for Peoplestown community residents.

One may be tempted to focus on all of the negative that exists in Peoplestown and become disheartened and jaded that anything positive could thrive here.  But, daily I have been able to see positivity in my neighborhood. I see the guidance of mothers who want the best for their children. The smiles of children as they play in the field at Four Corners Park, or the new D.H. Stanton Park that will one day be part of a much more accessible public transportation network called the Belt Line. Peoplestown has grown up out of racism, industry, and segregation. But an old deeply rooted hope exists focused on reconciliation, justice, peace, and safety. What Peoplestown lacks in resources for employment and economic opportunity it makes up for in the attempts at increased education at D.H. Stanton Elementary School. Peoplestown has potential. Its community leaders are passionate, its neighbors are involved, and again there is hope for a successful future. This hope is the heart beat of many who feel that the “inner city” and Peoplestown is not lost.

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