East Lake success a model for other troubled areas

They used to call East Lake a shooting gallery, a poverty trap and worse. The neighborhood’s massive public housing project was so violent it earned the nickname “little Vietnam.”

Times and reputations have changed for East Lake, now a mix of single-family homes with leafy tree cover and tidy apartment complexes surrounded by golf courses.

This week, more than 200 educators and community advocates are gathering in Atlanta to discuss East Lake’s successes — more people working or in training, higher literacy rates, rising incomes and falling crime.

Their focus: duplicating it in places like New Orleans, Cleveland and California.

Greg Giornelli, president of Purpose Built Communities, says he believes that can happen. The Atlanta nonprofit, which bills itself as a sort of coach and coordinator that brings professionals together in Atlanta and other cities to craft holistic solutions to poverty, is backed by Warren Buffett, Atlanta developer Tom Cousins and Julian Robertson Jr., co-founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds.

“You have to break up the concentration of poverty,” Giornelli said. “There aren’t a lot of places in America where the middle class and the working poor live side by side. The fact of the matter is, there should be.”

Once feared as a drug and gang haven, the neighborhood five miles east of downtown Atlanta is now being held up as a national model for providing cradle-to-college education, high-quality mixed-income housing, safer streets and a web of support for low-income families.

East Lake has a farmers market and an urban garden, but it’s not Mayberry just yet. Residents cheered the opening of a new coffee shop, but much of the main drag on Memorial is still populated by hair salons, sign stores and auto shops. It’s been difficult to attract more upscale businesses. Car break-ins and thefts of lawnmowers are not uncommon.

In the mid-1990s, only 13 percent of the 1,400 residents of the East Lake Meadows projects had a job, Giornelli said. Nine of 10 had been the victim of a crime within the past year, according to data provided by Purpose Built Communities.

Today, about 70 percent of the adult residents of the mixed-income development called The Villages of East Lake are employed, and the crime rates have plummeted.

Among Purpose Built Communities’ recommendations, which it says were honed in East Lake:

  • Break up pockets of poverty by mixing middle-class families with low-income ones.
  • Help pre-k children get ready to learn with programs to boost literacy and language skills.
  • Provide a web of support services for families, such as job training and reading programs.
  • Find a strong lead agency to coordinate assistance. Locally, that is the East Lake Foundation. Founded in 1995, the organization helped build more than 540 new apartments to replace the projects.

Giornelli is not alone in his optimism that East Lake’s progress can be replicated elsewhere. A book titled “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities” applauded the East Lake Foundation’s coordination of an alphabet’s soup of organizations that help residents. A contributor from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco recommended that similar quarterbacking be done elsewhere.

“Money is typically not the obstacle,” said Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta and current chair of Purpose Built Communities. “The obstacle is the will and the vision.”

But the history of East Lake contains warnings that plans for rebirth rarely go smoothly.

After the Atlanta Housing Authority announced it would demolish East Lake Meadows and build something better in the late 1990s, a group of residents sued to stop the redevelopment, saying they were being mistreated and given sub-par relocation options.

Even after the housing project was knocked down, East Lake residents continued to fear drug crimes, prostitution and violent assaults. In 2002, some residents became so incensed with regular crime at one intersection that they proposed renting a nearby billboard and emblazoning it with the message: “Atlanta, Buy Your Crack Here.”

In the past, too many attempts to help suffering communities focused on one facet of poverty, said Tom Kingsley, a housing and urban policy expert at the Urban Institute in Washington. But East Lake’s backers recognized that problems such as dilapidated housing and inadequate education had to be tackled together.

“Everybody still recognizes the effort to do what they are attempting to do is very difficult, and no one is expecting perfection,” Kingsley said. “But the East Lake model is generally recognized as one of the most promising things out there.”

Today, The Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income development with neatly trimmed bushes, clean playgrounds and access to a golf course, covers the site where the notorious Meadows public housing projects once stood.

Nearby, a sparkling YMCA shares space with Drew Charter School, founded in 2000 as Atlanta’s first charter school. Serving children ages three to eight grade, it is now one of Georgia’s top-ranked schools.

East Lake is home to more than its share of engaged young parents who have pushed for more resources for other local public schools, including Toomer Elementary and Jackson High School. A group of parents converged to stop Atlanta Public Schools from closing Coan Middle in a round of redistricting.

Kat Lindholm, president of East Lake’s neighborhood association, says she has seen dramatic improvements in her seven years there.

“When I first visited…that was a bit intense,” she said. “Now, I walk this neighborhood all the time. I feel very safe. We have a neighborhood watch, and we look out for each other.”