College Park has to battle image and crime

Yvonne Dorsey and Geronimo Garcia both say they never know who they might meet in their College Park neighborhoods.

Dorsey, who lives in one of the cluster of apartments off Camp Creek Parkway on the city’s western edge, is referring to the gunman who burst into her former apartment, demanding money as she and her 8-year-old daughter were in bed.

Garcia, renting a duplex in the south Fulton County city’s leafy historic district, is more likely to run into commuters who have just left the MARTA station and are brandishing briefcases or bags of groceries on their walks home.

They dwell in two very different worlds, just a few miles apart, in the city that had the highest crime rate in metro Atlanta last year.

But despite the bad reputation, statistics for 2009 show that crime is dropping across the board. Whether residents are feeling that change in their daily lives depends on which College Park they call home.

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“The area doesn’t matter to us but we are aware how people feel about other parts of the city,” said Interim Police Chief Thomas Kuzniacki. “The challenge is to get everyone looking at the big picture, at the whole city.”

College Park dates back to the 1840s -- nearly 870 structures are on the Historic Register -- but saw its fortunes as an inner-ring suburb decline just as Atlanta’s took off. Since the 1970s, Atlanta and bought and demolished countless properties, in an bid to limit the noise from airplanes at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The airport is in College Park but is owned by Atlanta, which now owns more than a third of the city.

At the same time, the city’s population has fallen from 28,203 in 1970 to an estimated 20,113 in 2007, according to U.S. Census figures. Those who remain tend to be renters rather than homeowners who are spread out on quasi-residential spurs to the south and west of the historic enclave.

“When I go to work and tell people I live in College Park, they say I live in the hood,” said Dorsey, a certified nursing assistant whose apartment sits behind the complex where an apparent robber was shot and killed at a house party in May. “I feel safe here but I’m always looking around to make sure.”

Garcia, a renter in the fashionable historic district, keeps an eye on his neighborhood as he tends to a lush garden in his front yard. Unlike Dorsey, who won’t let her 11-year-old daughter outside alone, Garcia allows a relative’s 3-year-old girl stay outside to play if he has to run inside for a moment.

“I love College Park. It is so quiet and friendly,” Garcia said over the song of his three pet parakeets keeping them company in a cage hanging nearby. “I hear people making bad comments but it isn’t like that. It’s so nice here.”

Those perceptions matter as much to Kuzniacki as the actual crime rate. More residents in the historic district have begun complaining about abandoned houses or other quality of life problems, which he said, could create the impression of bigger crimes looming.

That’s why he launched a special operations unit when he took over in January. The four-member crew targets hotspots -- such as the rundown corridor of Old National Highway and Godby Road -- to boost police presence and crack down on smaller crimes.

Presently at stake is which College Park will win out: the Mayberry image that prompted Atlanta Magazine to call it the “Best Place to Call Home” in 2003 or the “nightmarish Southern ghetto” named one of the worst places to live in the country in a 2006 travel guidebook.

“They are taking steps but I’d like to see them cataloging the problem areas more aggressively,” said Brad Wadkens, a graphic artist who takes digital pictures of problem properties in the historic district and brings them to the attention of code enforcement and police. “There is potential for spillover from the problem areas if they don’t.”

Kuzniacki agrees. He hopes a shake-up of his department will help College Park repeat the successes of larger cities such as New York, that revitalized with a focus on quality-of-life issues.

The chief also is meeting with U.S. attorneys to figure out ways to get some criminals -- such as those facing weapons charges -- prosecuted federally. Doing so would not only increase jail time but also send a clear message to would-be criminals, Kuzniacki said.

Already, adding special operations and restructuring the department to turn patrol officers into beat officers, has helped. Violent crimes such as murder, robbery and aggravated assault have seen double-digit reductions when compared to the same period last year. Even burglary, which as been a focus of special operations, is down 11 percent.

But given College Park’s dubious honor of leading the metro area in crime in 2008, Kuzniacki aims to at least double that reduction.

“Last year was a crazy year, so does it make us better to drop from a year like that,” he asked. “I won’t be satisfied until we stop the crime and change the perception. Even if the perception of high crime is there, we still have our challenge.”

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