Abandoned apartments in the Creekside Forest Apartment complex in Decatur, Georgia, on Monday, November 21, 2016. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Photo: David Barnes
Photo: David Barnes

Hope at last for notorious South DeKalb strip?

Funny they called it Ember Drive. Something on this short strip off I-20 is always burning.

The sun on the backs of working mothers walking to the bus stop. The desires of patrons at the Chit Chat Lounge. The pipes of junkies squatting at bombed-out Creekside Forest Apartment Homes.

Bullets searing flesh.

The road runs parallel to the interstate, off Candler Road, a few miles south of idyllic downtown Decatur.

Ember Drive is but .3 miles long. A five-minute walk from end to end if you take your time.

Yet, it so well embodies what ails many pockets of South DeKalb. Name a problem the community faces – poverty, blight, nuisance properties, gun violence, drugs, gangs, endangered children. This street has them all.

In recent months, it has been in flux thanks to the county government’s crackdown on the conditions at the largest development on the strip, Creekside Forest. In a wildly rare move, a judge issued a bench warrant for the owner – who remains wanted – after he skipped a September court hearing on several hundred code violations.

Officials say the fact the warrant even exists is a sign of hope for this strip.

If they make lasting progress here, it would be encouraging for all bleak spots in the entire county. It would send the message that DeKalb County will no longer stand for blighted properties that breed trouble.

But it will take much more than locking up a wayward landlord to solve the decades-old problems of Ember Drive.

Can the county deliver?

Lives marred, lives lost

“That’s like the hottest strip in DeKalb County,” said Terry Glass, a 29-year-old self-employed mechanic and contractor. “Prostitution, drug sales, whatever you want.”

He’s one of untold numbers of people who found Ember Drive as a place of last resort and left with horror stories.

He moved a few years ago to the street, which was first developed in the early 1970s. He and his fiancé needed somewhere fast and cheap to rent.

Creekside Forest Apartment Homes didn’t seem that bad.

It was.

They found old food and dirty dishes in the apartment.

Mushrooms were growing in the carpet, Glass said.

They protested to get to a second unit, which wasn’t much better.

“My ceiling collapsed,” Glass said. “Keep in mind, I stayed on a ground unit.”

The upstairs neighbor’s home was crashing in on Glass’.

These issues are only the beginning.

Records released to the AJC show a drumbeat of 911 calls to the .3-mile-long road, sometimes as many as seven or eight per day. Fights, robberies, fires, medical emergencies, shady characters who won’t leave, gunfire.

On Aug. 11, a man was rushed to the hospital after being shot in the chest at Creekside Forest.

Less than two weeks later, a family filed suit against Ember Drive’s A2B Budget Hotel, alleging that employees did nothing to help as 32-year-old Thearon Lee Almond bled to death in the parking lot. He was shot on June 6, 2015, by a security guard, who wasn’t supposed to be armed, who was subsequently charged with murder.

On Jan. 6, Jaylon Maddox, 15, and Justin Sellers, 27, were walking near the entrance of Creekside Forest when a car pulled up beside them and started shooting, striking both. Police have said it was apparently a random robbery.

The teen died, his blood staining the pavement for weeks.

“You had to pass it every day,” resident Khisha Johnson said somberly, looking down.

A paradise

It wasn’t always this way.

DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson, who represents the area, recalls a time when Ember Drive was much calmer.

He lived there in the mid-90s, at Creekside Forest. It was called Eagle’s Nest then.

The management firm promoted the complex with their “vision” and “mission” to empower residents.

“Providing four walls is just not enough anymore,” Sandy Hoskins of the management firm said in a 1995 article in The Atlanta Constitution.

Johnson lived in the apartments with his wife and daughter.

There was 24-hour security, a strict curfew, afterschool programs for kids, visits from a food pantry to help families who were struggling. Some residents got jobs working at the apartments.

“That was a paradise when I was over there,” Johnson said.

Eagles Nest went by the wayside in the early 2000s. It became Candler Crossing, then Creekside Forest Apartment Homes.

The conditions declined steadily until, when Terry Glass was there, trash began to pile high and badly needed repairs went undone. He said he and his fiancé, who was pregnant, had to stay in hotels many nights because their apartment had such problems, and the complex wouldn’t reimburse them.

He even started working for the apartments, where he was locked in a lease, doing labor on the grounds. But he was never paid, he said, and he stopped paying rent.

After “the worst year” of 29-year-old Glass’ life, he and his fiancé moved out as the management was trying to evict them.

They were out of money, and the fiancé moved with their infant daughter to stay with family in Ohio. Glass stayed behind.

They broke up.

In large part, he said blames his experience on Ember Drive.

Far-reaching plight

Commissioner Johnson, who took office in 2002, said development decisions going back to the beginnings of the road play a part in how it ended up. Steps weren’t taken to make sure too much impoverished development wasn’t built in one place.

Commissioner Nancy Jester, the northern DeKalb representative who took office last year, went further. She said elected officials and county staffers failed the street – and much of the nearby area around Candler Road – for many years.

Jester blasts code enforcement officers for not being strict enough.

But she knows how complex the street’s perils are.

Her own spokesman, Jeff Breedlove, was arrested and terminated after a bizarre incident in which he allegedly told police he’d purchased crack from a man on Ember Drive. Only weeks earlier, Breedlove suggested the road was “ground zero of everything wrong in south DeKalb.”

He told police he had an addiction.

Evidently, the well-known longtime political consultant, who’d worked on major campaigns, fell to temptations on Ember Drive.

Demolish this property

Johnson and Jester share a belief in hope.

Both intend to lobby hard for commercial development in the area to take advantage of its location along I-20. Both intend to see that code enforcement is tough and consistent.

Jester said she sees a loose, bi-partisan “coalition” of residents and officials building all over DeKalb to try more than ever to help the county’s troubled areas. Johnson said he sees hope in renovations at an office complex on Ember Drive and the opening of a stylish new events center there.

Another recent sign of progress in the fight against DeKalb blight came just last week when a judge gave the owners of the notorious Brannon Hill condos outside Clarkston 60 days to take care of four burned-up buildings, or else the county can tear them down.

As for Creekside Forest, the county and local organizations have been working in recent weeks to relocate residents. A slew of county staffers are trying to maneuver laws that hamstring government efforts on private property, said Luz Borrero, deputy DeKalb chief operating officer for development.

The process, of course, is costing DeKalb money, largely because employees are working on the complex instead of other projects.

But officials feel their efforts are worth it to aid Ember Drive.

The plan is to get a judge to allow DeKalb to fix Creekside Forest.

“Our intent would be to – if in fact we’re allowed to – demolish this property,” Borrero said.

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