Crime makes a comeback in Lakewood Heights

Blight surrounds the neighborhood even as new residents move in



Beltline-adjacent, with reasonably priced homes and a convenient location, Lakewood Heights seemed to be primed for a revival.

But the crime wave that roiled the city this summer hit the Southeast Atlanta community particularly hard. And its showing no signs of abating. On Thursday, a man was found shot dead inside a car near the gated entrance to South Bend Park. Police are treating it as a homicide.

The week before, a man was shot and killed less than a mile away at the Little Bear Food Market on Jonesboro Road. That’s as many homicides in one week than occurred in all of 2018 and 2019. For the year, there’s been five in Lakewood.

“We hear gunshots most every night,” said Kelly Jeanne, a 39-year schoolteacher who moved into the neighborhood in 2016. That year, a national real estate web site, citing FBI crime data, named Lakewood Heights the ninth most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S. But crime has been a problem in Lakewood for much longer than that.

Back to the past

“This was a solid, working class neighborhood at one time,” said Gloria Hawkins-Wynn, who has lived in Lakewood Heights for more than two decades.

Fifty years ago, the area was an industrial hub, with General Motors' Lakewood Assembly Plant the biggest employer. It’s where the Chevrolet Chevettes and Caprices were first produced. But consumer interest fizzled and, in 1988, GM laid off 1,600 workers. Two years later, the remaining 2,200 employees lost their jobs when the plant was shut down permanently.

Hawkins-Wynn, president of the Lakewood Heights Neighborhood Association, said the job losses devastated the community.

“That’s when crime really became a problem,” she said. Lakewood Heights became a civic afterthought — abandoned plants, vacant homes and pervasive blight.

Jeanne said many residents feel like it’s “the red-headed stepchild" of Atlanta.

“Every city has those neighborhoods — out of sight, out of mind,” said Jimmy Moore, who moved in eight years ago.

Despite the persistent crime, Lakewood retains appeal because of the home prices. You can get a 1,055-square foot fully refurbished bungalow, with two bedrooms, two baths and an outsized deck, for $225,000.

Developer Omar Ali said he sees considerable potential in Lakewood Heights. He’s invested in a mixed-use development he says is 90 percent leased out. Ali also is building 20 houses in the neighborhood and, in three weeks, is opening a vegan restaurant.

“This area has been neglected long enough," he said

But Ali worries that Lakewood’s renewal is at risk.

A sense of lawlessness appears to prevail, particularly in the community’s main corridor around the intersection of Jonesboro Road and Lakewood Avenue. A recent afternoon found cars making brief stops, drivers making quick exchanges with people standing around.

“Prostitutes, drug dealers ... it’s the same thing every day," said Lakewood Heights resident Travan Foster, 36.

Squatting is another major concern in Lakewood, where the vacancy rate is 69 percent, Ali said.

“We need some help,” Ali said.

Atlanta Police Interim Chief Rodney Bryant acknowledged the ongoing problems in Lakewood and said APD needs to build stronger relationships with the community.

”What we recognize is that the problems are generally beyond the scope of just policing," Bryant said. “We can’t arrest our way out of a given situation. There are other levels of resources that I think we’ll be able to bring to bear as it relates to us addressing that type of barrier.”

Bryant said he favors more community policing.

“It starts with us really just sitting down and having a dialogue with the residents of that community to see how they want things policed and how we can better serve them,” he said.

Moving on

“We’re in the middle of the bad stuff,” said Foster, an illustrator. He moved to Lakewood two years ago.

Foster said he decided on Lakewood after comparing housing costs in other parts of the city. And he felt the the Beltline – cleared but not yet paved – would eventually revitalize the neighborhood.

But his patience is running thin. The recent homicides have Foster considering a move.

“Lakewood has been neglected for so long you just wonder if it can overcome all of its problems,” he said.

Moore, treasurer of the neighborhood association, said there are, by his count, 77 abandoned homes in Lakewood. Until those homes are razed or refurbished, “little is going to change,” he said.

“Some of these properties have been vacant for 10 years,” said Moore, 43. “If you’re not going to do something with it, sell it. They are crime magnets."

Moore said he still believes Lakewood has potential but probably won’t be there to see it.

“We are actively trying to move,” he said.

Losing homeowners like Foster and Moore would not bode well for the neighborhood’s future, Ali said. But he understands, saying if the situation does not improve within the next year he’d seriously reconsider future investment.

Still, there remains a steady influx of new residents. Homeowner Kelly Jeanne cautioned that change will take time.

“It’s not going to happen in three to five years,” she said. “The structure is there.”

Hawkins-Wynn said Lakewood has too much going for it to fail.

“Progress is coming,” said Hawkins-Wynn, 65. “This is one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Atlanta, and with the Beltline as close as it is ... there’s no going back now."