Eva Davis, 76: Community leader, advocate for Villages at East Lake

In 2003, seven years after a notoriously crime-plagued Atlanta Housing Authority project called East Lake Meadows began its transformation into a highly desirable mixed-income neighborhood renamed the Villages of East Lake, Eva Davis declared in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview that “we tore down hell and built heaven.”

Other angels had a hand in this miraculous process, but Eva Davis was definitely in their inner circle.

“I’m not sure the redevelopment would have been possible without Eva,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. “She had the confidence to ask the right questions, to engage in robust debate and to approve compromises necessary for the project to work. She was a community leader who broke all the stereotypes of race, gender and class.”

Eva Belle Favors Davis, 76, died June 5 at her residence in Villages at East Lake of complications of ovarian cancer. Her funeral is 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Philip AME Church, 240 Candler Road S.E., Atlanta. Donald Trimble Mortuary is in charge of arrangements.

Mrs. Davis was among the earliest residents of East Lake Meadows, moving in with her children shortly after it opened in 1971. Soon she was elected president of its tenants association. She led rent strikes against the AHA to win improvements such as better outdoor lighting, more sidewalks and a day care center. She persevered in her mission of community upgrade even as dope peddlers turned the housing project into a war zone with the infamous nickname of “Little Vietnam.”

In the mid-1990s, the elements essential to remaking East Lake Meadows – financing, vision, determination – came into alignment. With the support of the AHA and developer Tom Cousins, the East Lake community embarked on a multi-year, $125 million residential remake, gaining fresh amenities like a charter school, a YMCA and a PGA championship course.

“Eva Davis was a passionate and effective leader for her community, a skilled negotiator and someone for whom we have tremendous respect,” Mr. Cousins said. “Her legacy will live on in the success of the children of East Lake.”

Mrs. Davis’ contribution was crucial, said Renee Glover, chief executive officer of the AHA.

“Most important, she engendered trust," Ms. Glover said. "Eva convinced understandably suspicious tenants that we, the developers, could be trusted. Likewise, we came to believe her word was her bond.”

Carol Naughton of Atlanta, formerly with the AHA and now senior vice president of Purpose Built Communities, called Mrs. Davis a woman of extraordinary courage.

“In 1996,” Ms. Naughton said, “Eva called a meeting of tenants to vote on the plan to transform East Lake Meadows. Standing at the back of the room was a line of drug dealers and their thugs who were intent on keeping the status quo. In the face of that show of intimidation, Eva rallied the rest of her community to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the redevelopment.”

In her later years, Mrs. Davis became a tireless advocate for the Villages at East Lake model of community overhaul, speaking to scores of interested out-of-town visitors.

“I know of no better spokesperson for this kind of redevelopment than Eva,” Ms. Naughton said.

Survivors include three daughters, Louise Bankston of Fairburn, Rosetta Heath of Decatur and Roberta Heath of Atlanta; five sons, Alonzo Davis of Atlanta, Randy Heath of Decatur, Larry Heath of Jonesboro, Harvey Heath of Marietta and Cedric Lemon of Lithonia; 32 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.