Bulldozers begin razing Bowen Homes housing project

Bowen Homes is no more.

The Atlanta Housing Authority began bulldozing the housing project Wednesday.

Housing authority leaders hailed the demolition of the complex, considered by some as one of the most dangerous places in Atlanta, as a major step in an ongoing effort to end what the authority describes as a failed practice: the projects.

Many cities have come to the same conclusion.

Demolitions since 2006 in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities have claimed 186,000 public housing units, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There are a number of reasons a city might choose to tear down a development, and creating a better quality of life seems to be at the top, said Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman.

In Atlanta, housing authority leaders pointed to a string of slayings last year to push their case that Bowen Homes be razed. Five young men were shot and killed in a five-month stretch.

Atlanta was the first U.S. city to have a public housing project with the construction of Techwood Homes in 1936. Now, housing authority officials believe it will be the first big U.S. city to remove all such projects. By this time next year, all the city's housing projects will either be demolished or will have a date with a wrecking ball.

HUD cannot confirm that Atlanta will be the first to shed all housing projects, though, because its records do not automatically allow for tracking such statistics, White said.

Renee Glover, the housing authority's executive director, said Bowen's demolition "marks the end of an era where warehousing families in concentrated poverty will cease."

On Wednesday, some housing authority officials celebrated as a bulldozer cracked the shell of one building into a pile of bricks. Nearly a dozen former tenants and community activists brought signs protesting the demolition.

Shirley Hightower, a former president of the Bowen Homes tenants association, wanted the complex renovated.

"This is just wrong," she said. "I wish I could join in with their rejoicing. I can't."

About 535 families were relocated from Bowen Homes, located in northwest Atlanta near I-285 and Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. The sprawling complex of two-story, orange duplexes, with an elementary school and a library, opened in 1964.

Glover said Bowen tenants received vouchers to cut the cost of rent in their new homes. The families will receive 27 months of counseling and other assistance.

The authority plans to redevelop the 64-acre site into a mixed-income neighborhood. Glover said the authority will seek proposals to build a mixed-use community there.

Hightower and other critics say some tenants are moving into homes that are being foreclosed. She does not believe most tenants who want to return after the redevelopment will get an apartment.

Asked whether a mixed-income neighborhood in the heart of one of Atlanta's most impoverished areas is a reasonable goal, Glover noted there was similar unfounded skepticism when the authority redeveloped projects such as Techwood Homes and the Villages of East Lake.

"It is working today," she said. "It is what will work in the future."

White, the HUD spokeswoman, said similar successes have been seen across the nation, with mixed-income communities "reducing the intense concentration of poverty that has plagued inner-city neighborhoods."

Glover is a longtime opponent of housing projects, calling them "a horrible practice and a horrible policy." She points to studies on behalf of the authority that found most tenants who left the projects improved their economic, educational and social standing. Critics of Bowen's demolition, though, argued that the authority is only pushing tenants into other pockets of poverty.

Ex-Bowen tenant Darrell Thomas had mixed feelings about the demolition.

"It hurts, but it's time for change," said Thomas, 49, a construction and demolition worker who lives in a nearby gated community. "The projects limit your ability to move on and have a better life."