Two years ago, Priya Marzorati was apprehensive about her move from Buckhead to College Park to be closer to Woodward Academy, her daughter’s school.
But she quickly came to love the south Fulton County community — so much so that she was quick to defend it recently when College Park, along with East Point and Union City, appeared in February on a website's list of the 50 worst cities in the United States.
“It’s been great for us. It’s like moving back to the 1960s,” she said. “I think the area gets a bad rap.”
Marzorati was not alone in her indignation over the list, published by the financial website 24/7 Wall St., which cited home values, poverty rates and violent crime, among other factors, in compiling its rankings.
Civic leaders and residents in the south Fulton cities have pushed back hard against the website's ranking, saying the data was old and the small size of their cities made it unfair to extrapolate crime rates per 100,000 residents. More than anything else, they said, though some perceive their cities to be bad, the cities themselves are not.
In College Park, a city of about 15,000, City Manager Terrence Moore said the fact that the list was written up by news organizations like USA TODAY and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution only helped to spread the word. But he contended that the website used poor methodology to come up with rankings that would reverberate through that city and others for years to come.
“They do not take under consideration the realities of the community,” he said. “It’s a false perception issue. It compromises our ability to share what we really are.”
Moore and College Park Mayor Jack Longino acknowledged that there is crime in their city. They said they have isolated pockets where it is more frequent, but much of the problem is linked to the small city's proximity to the world's busiest airport.
College Park has more than 5,000 hotel rooms and a number of park-and-ride lots that serve Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, part of which is within the city limits. All of that swells the city’s daytime population to close to 50,000 people — not counting those who are merely there for a layover, Longino said. The city gets dinged for every car break-in, and all the crime committed by people who are just passing through. It all goes to increasing the city’s crime statistics.
Police Chief Ferman Williford said College Park’s major crimes, such as rape, robbery and aggravated assault, fell 20 percent in 2017, and an additional 12 percent last year.
Like others who were frustrated by the rankings, Corey Brooks, who owns a shop in College Park's downtown, thinks race helps shape people's perceptions of the area.
College Park is 79 percent black, according to Census data, while East Point is 76 percent black and Union City 87 percent. In Buckhead, a largely white part of Atlanta, residents are complaining about a spike in crime, but no one is calling the neighborhood a bad place to live, said Brooks, who is African-American. They’re asking officials to make it better.
“Without a doubt, there’s a racial component,” he said. “No it’s not fair. It’s what happens, unfortunately.”
He said “worst” rankings feed into people’s preconceived notions of a place, and don’t show the money that’s being invested in an area, or the work people are doing. So the narrative doesn’t change.
Kupcakerie owner Henry Adeleye was almost a victim of perception as well, despite growing up in East Point. Adeleye said he initially planned to open his shop in East Atlanta or Midtown, before settling on a spot in downtown East Point. He decided to open the bakery in his hometown after a visit to his parents' house.
“Slowly but surely, the perception is changing,” he said. “There are a lot of people trying to push this area forward.”
One of those people is Deana Ingraham, East Point’s mayor. She said when the worst cities list drew unwanted national attention to her town in February, her team met about whether to respond, but in the end, decided not to. In addition to the three south Fulton communities, Albany and Fort Valley were the other Georgia cities on the list.
“If you pay attention to negativity only, you allow that to overtake you, sometimes you’re stopped,” Ingraham said. “We’re going to keep moving.”
Ingraham tries to focus on the positive. Last month, Pop Displays USA announced it was bringing 300 jobs to East Point, from New York. A new city hall is scheduled to open later this month with a large mixed-use development in the works across the street. And a task force started in January to reduce car thefts and break-ins has already yielded results for the 35,000 residents in her city.
Ingraham said she knows East Point is not a utopia, but civic leaders there and elsewhere try to keep making things better.
"What people call blighted properties, I call opportunity," she said. "The overwhelming majority of residents know the value of East Point."
Erik Lewis, an East Point resident, said he’d like something to be done about the vacant properties, and he thinks the city could be a little friendlier to business. But the part-owner of the Beer Girl bottle shop in Hapeville said he largely likes his community.
“I think East Point could get better, but is it the worst?” he asked. “I live here, so I don’t want to think it is, but I don’t live anywhere else.”
Najay Dowdell isn't surprised by the negative views of the south Fulton cities. She said she plans to move back to Sandy Springs when her lease is up, after her boyfriend's car was stolen in Union City, and someone tried to break into her vehicle.
“I would say there’s better out there,” she said. “I’ve seen it and lived it.”
Union City’s mayor, Vince Williams, said he is working hard to address crime and other issues. Through March, major crimes were down 17 percent, though vehicle thefts had risen. But Williams said he’s taking steps to improve the city — boosting the city’s reserves, adding businesses and opening a community center.
City officials say the uptick in some crime stats is a result of increased reporting, which they think will have a positive impact on quality of life in the city.
“We’re working hard to make sure we change the narrative,” Williams said. “I think we’re doing all the things that are necessary.”
College Park, East Point and Union City in south Fulton County — along with Albany and Fort Valley, elsewhere in Georgia — recently appeared on a list of the 50 worst cities in the country. The list was compiled by a website, 24/7 Wall St., and quickly spread online. But the leaders of the metro Atlanta cities pushed back against the list, saying their cities were improving and were good places to live. Lists like this one create bad perceptions of good places, they say.