Tearing down this house will help halt west Atlanta heroin sales, feds say

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

The Georgia National Guard on Wednesday demolished the first of 18 houses they'll knock down as part of an effort to stop drug sales in a west Atlanta neighborhood notorious across the Southeast for heroin.

"Today represents a significant step on the path towards renewal, and towards healing in English Avenue," said Acting  U.S. Attorney John Horn at a press conference before the demolition. His office is spearheading the Drug Market Initiative, a collaboration with local law enforcement and residents to rid the neighborhood of drug dealers. Authorities made some two-dozen arrests in a related drug sweep earlier this summer and offered non-violent offenders a chance to enter a drug program and get jobs or face federal charges.

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

“What we want to do is change what we see forever,” said Atlanta Police Chief George Turner. Blighted properties are considered one of the most pressing issues facing the city. The houses are being torn down because of housing code violations.

The demolition came as a relief for Juanita Wallace, the public safety chair of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association. She was raised in the neighborhood when it was one of the few neighborhoods where African-Americans were free to purchase a home, and remembers when it was a source of pride. After its decline, she and other residents spent years taking photographs and making lists of the neighborhood's most dangerous and dilapidated properties with the hope that the city would tear them down.

“I feel that this is a new day in the community,” Wallace said as she took a break from photographing the scene. “I feel like it’s time to move forward and tear down these properties.”

The property sits near the corner of Griffin Street and North Avenue, which has long been known as the “The Bluff,” a nickname for English Avenue’s most crime-ridden section, said Rev. Howard Beckham of New Jerusalem Baptist Church. As poverty and drug sales intensified, the entire neighborhood became known by that name.

Heroin addicts used to stumble the nearby streets glassy eyed, and lay inside the house at 551 Griffin Street shooting up, residents said. Public records show it changed hands seven times since 2005, falling in and out of foreclosure and changing hands between investors. A wall was caving in, and the house was deemed “highly hazardous” by code enforcement. Fulton property records show unpaid taxes total more than half of its $15,800 value.

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Horn stepped inside for one last look and emerged moments later.

“It’s not pretty,” he said. Trash stood knee high.

Press and dozens of officials snapped photographs as a military green excavator lumbered towards the house. Some onlookers climbed to the top of the fire escape of an abandoned apartment building nearby for a better view.

“Tell ‘em to hold up,” a reporter called out as he adjusted his video camera for a shot.

“Don’t stop,” a resident shouted. “We’ve waited long enough.”

The excavator crushed the house’s broken window and gouged holes in the vinyl siding. When the roof came crashing down, onlookers cheered.