08/15/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- The exterior of the The Villages of East Lake apartment community in Atlanta's East Lake Village community, Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

How golf, activists saved the once crime-ridden East Lake community

Drive around the East Lake community and you’ll find quaint shops and eateries, the picturesque East Lake Golf Club, and the much boasted about Charles R. Drew Charter School.

Children’s laughter at a nearby playground and runner’s footsteps on the neatly paved sidewalks are the few sounds that break the neighborhood’s quiet on a summer morning.

The calm scene is a stark contrast from 25 years ago when the old Atlanta housing project East Lake Meadows grappled with drug dealers and gunfire.

With time, the community has become home of the annual Tour Championship, which began Thursday. It’s now a powerful economic arm of the community and one that works to serve residents who live in The Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income development that replaced the razed housing project.

In the early 1990s, East Lake Meadows — nicknamed “Little Vietnam” because it was likened to a war zone — was home to 1,764 residents, 64% of whom had children, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives.

“Some days were good, and some were rough days with crime, drugs, and murders,” former resident Shannon Heath-Longino said. “It was pretty OK at times for kids during the day, but at nighttime, we knew to be in the house by the time the street lights came on.”

Heath-Longino, 48, lived at the housing project with her grandmother and late prominent East Lake community activist Eva Davis, who worked with Atlanta real estate mogul Tom Cousins to revitalize the area over the course of five years with a $33 million federal grant, the East Lake Foundation, and the community’s golf club.

But the community’s transition wasn’t easy.

08/15/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- The East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta's East Lake Village community, Thursday, August 15, 2019. The PGA TOUR Championship is played at East Lake Golf Club. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

‘We weren’t focused on the golf course’

To understand East Lake is to know Davis and her dedication to the community.

The Crawfordville, Georgia native moved to Atlanta with her children in 1971, shortly after the East Lake Meadows housing project was built. She was the second resident who moved into the complex and immediately joined the neighborhood association, where she organized voter registrations and worked with Atlanta activists and national figures such as former President Jimmy Carter, Heath-Longino said.

Davis served as the East Lake Meadows Tenant Association president, so residents were at the front of her mind. “She did what she could to make the community home,” Heath-Longino said. That included ensuring the community had a food bank and onsite health clinics.

Davis’ larger vision was improving the quality of the housing. In 1992, she used her relationship with Carter to help land a $33 million Housing and Urban Development grant for Atlanta to revitalize the community she’d seen fall into disrepair.

“At that time, we weren’t interested in paradise. We were trying to have safe, livable housing and get drugs out,” Heath-Longino said. “We weren’t focused on the golf course.”

But the massive grant wasn’t going to be enough to renovate the brick property that needed a long list of repairs, including updating aging plumbing and central air systems that had been there since the housing project first opened.

“With all of what we were going through every day, we were trying to have some light at the end of the tunnel,” Heath-Longino said.

08/15/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- A sign directs traffic to the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta's East Lake Village community, Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Building the community

Enter Tom Cousins, the Atlanta real estate developer and founder of Cousins Properties who was known for his Buckhead businesses and high rises. Cousins was no stranger to the East Lake community. He grew up nearby and his grandfather and father were members of the East Lake Golf Club, founded in 1904.

Cousins, who still lived in Atlanta in the 90s, saw East Lake’s transition from a thriving community to a violent one that subsequently turned away golf club members, East Lake Foundation CEO and President Danny Shoy said. Cousins wanted to help, so in 1995, he purchased the golf club at an auction with the hopes of transforming the area.

That same year, Cousins approached Davis with the idea of creating the East Lake Foundation and using the golf club’s membership fees to help fund it, Shoy said. Cousins set a $125,000 membership fee at the golf club plus a suggested $200,000 donation to the foundation. The funds were also used to assist in the creation of mixed-income development The Villages of East Lake.

By 1998, Cousins’ convinced the Tour Championship to play at East Lake Golf Clubalternating with a golf course in Houston. By 2005, the Tour came to East Lake permanently. Last year alone, the tournament raised $1.9 million for the foundation.

“Initially, people didn’t trust Tom,” Shoy said. “He was a wealthy white man living in Buckhead with successful businesses.” Efforts to reach Cousins for a comment were unsuccessful, but in a 2013 interview with the AJC, he said his concern was about alleviating poverty in the area.

Before Cousins, Heath-Longino said people had come to the predominantly black neighborhood offering to help but never delivered on promises. The pattern was one Davis was accustomed to and why she was initially wary of Cousins.

“People would pretty much disappear after they got what they wanted,” Heath-Longino said.

Carol Naughton was involved in the early stages of East Lakes revitalization and is now president of Cousins’ non-profit Purpose Built Communities. 

“The early days of the East Lake Meadows revitalization were hard,” she said. “We didn’t know one another and before any serious planning could take place, we had to begin to build relationships and trust. That took time together, consistency and hard work.”

08/15/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — East Lake Foundation president Danny Shoy, Jr. sits for a portrait at the foundation in Atlanta’s East Lake Village community, Thursday, August 15, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Future Mini-East Lakes

The work of Cousins, now 87, and Davis, who died in 2012, has transformed East Lake into a thriving community. It benefits from the East Lake Foundation and proceeds from the annual Tour Championship, which has had a hand in the Drew Charter School’s golf teams.

Heath-Longino said a few residents who’d lived in East Lake Meadows now live in The Villages of East Lake, where half the residents are using public housing assistance. Revitalization efforts have also allowed residents to have easier access to child care and food. Shoy said the neighborhood got its first Publix in 2001; the community also has an urban farm.

Children living at The Villages of East Lake also have top priority for acceptance into Drew Charter School — a strategy designed to ensure residents inside the community have access to a quality education.

The nearest public school is Toomer Elementary School, which sits in nearby Kirkwood where all of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the AJC school guide. In 2018, the school received a failing grade from the Georgia School Grades Reports; by comparison, Drew Charter School is graded B.

Tour Championship executive director Allison Fillmore said the tournament has embedded itself in the community, with its net proceeds funding the East Lake Foundation and work with Drew Charter School’s golf teams. Earlier this summer, the varsity boys team won the Class A public state championships.

“It is truly amazing to see where the area came from,” Fillmore said of the community’s transition.

East Lake’s revitalization is now being mimicked throughout the nation through Cousins’ non-profit organization Purpose Built Communities. The initiative, which was co-founded with Warren Buffet and Julian Robertson, seeks to restructure failing communities that could be comparable to present-day East Lake. There are 20 communities in the United States who are adopting purpose-built projects, including one in Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood in northwest Atlanta. The neighborhood sits in an area that has a median income of $23,000 and 18.3% poverty rate. 

Now in its 10th year, the non-profit works to ensure struggling communities’ needs are met and that their children can attend schools that have similar success seen at Drew Charter School.

“What makes this model work is having a mixed-income neighborhood,” Shoy said. “The theory is to have residents living side-by-side without the stigma of being poor.”

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