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Peoplestown grapples with aftermath of police shooting

Dirk Bateman talks about growing up in Atlanta and his experience living in Peoplestown, a historically Black community, on July 2, 2020. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Dirk Bateman talks about growing up in Atlanta and his experience living in Peoplestown, a historically Black community, on July 2, 2020. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Outside R&R Tire Service on University Avenue in south Atlanta, Eugene Bell surveyed the businesses around the busy Peoplestown thoroughfare.

Up and down the street, boards cover doors and windows at convenience stores, gas stations, a beauty supply shop. The charred remains of the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks lived his last moments is now a symbol of the national push against police brutality.

“It changed the dynamics of the whole situation,” Bell, 38, said of the fatal shooting that took place last month.

Bell, who works at the tire shop owned by his uncle, was talking about the community’s growing impatience with leadership that seemingly has allowed the neighborhood to become forgotten while the city’s downtown and Midtown neighborhoods flourish.

Brooks, a Black man, died from two gunshot wounds to the back after struggling with two police officers outside the University Avenue fast-food restaurant, where he’d fallen asleep in the drive-thru. During the struggle, he took an officer’s Taser and began running away from police. Brooks was shot after surveillance footage shows him turning and pointing the Taser in the officers’ direction.

The officers — Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan — face charges in connection with his death. Both are white. Rolfe was fired.

That shooting — coupled with decades of conflict between police and the Black community as well as a demographic shift brought on by gentrification — has upended the historic community, largely made of low- and middle-class Black residences and homegrown businesses.

The shooting took away the peace many saw here, in their version of the quiet suburban cul-de-sac, despite an abnormal crime rate. The burned-out fast food restaurant punctuates the loss, a glaring reminder of missed opportunities.

“Martin Luther King preached nonviolence, peaceful protest,” Bell said, “What’s peaceful got you?”

Protesters at Wendy’s on University Avenue on June 14. Protesters set fire to the Atlanta Wendy’s the day after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Atlanta police. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Protesters at Wendy’s on University Avenue on June 14. Protesters set fire to the Atlanta Wendy’s the day after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Atlanta police. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Peoplestown, home to about 2,700, is located just south of Turner Field, bordering Mechanicsville at I-75 to the west, Grant Park at Hill Street to the east, a northern border at Ormond Street and the beginning of the Summerhill community, and University Avenue and Pryor Street as part of its southern boundary.

The once segregated neighborhood became less desirable to white people in the 1920s and 1930s as they flocked to the city's northern neighborhoods, according to a city of Atlanta community profile. By the 1960s, a census count showed the neighborhood was almost equally Black and white.

Christopher Lemons, president of the Peoplestown Neighborhood Association, has deep roots in the community. His home was built on land his family once used as a garden, from which they sold fresh produce. In 1959, his great-great grandparents built and moved into a home there. It has since been occupied by a great-great aunt, as well as his grandmother before him.

As recent as 10 years ago, the community was largely made up of older residents who raised families and stayed because they paid off their homes and were ready to enjoy retirement, Lemons said. Gentrification has significantly changed that, bringing in younger people of different races, new businesses like a juice bar.

Still, Lemons said, 30% of the community live below poverty.

“Every spring, you can see how much the neighborhood is changing,” said Lemons, 34, adding that he saw more new neighbors as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, as people took to outdoor activities as working from home became more commonplace.

The median income here is about $28,000 a year, according to Statistical Atlas, which compiles demographic data for communities around the globe. About 60% of homes here are occupied by families. About 70% of the neighborhood’s residents are Black, down from 80% about 10 years ago. Just under 5% are immigrants.

Among notable Peopletown products is rapper YFN Lucci, whose hit "Everyday We Lit" reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart.

Lemons said as with much of the city, crime has plagued the neighborhood. Most of that is due to the proximity to the interstates, he said, which gives people easy access in and out of the community.

The community is in Zone 3 of the Atlanta Police Department’s district system, which had the second most homicides this year among zones, with 9 as of June 20. Only Zone 4, which includes much of Southwest Atlanta, had more at that point, with 17.

In the aftermath of Brooks’ shooting, as people converged on the University Avenue Wendy’s, Lemons said some Peoplestown residents saw hope in conversations calling for justice. They also pushed for economic development in the community, better relations with city officials, and a community center to be built at the site of the burned out restaurant.

They had been asking for much of that, and more, for decades, Lemons said.

“We’re kind of the red-headed stepchild of the city,” he said.

Wendy’s in flames on June 13 after demonstrators blocked nearby Interstate 75. (BEN GRAY FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Wendy’s in flames on June 13 after demonstrators blocked nearby Interstate 75. (BEN GRAY FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Then came the guns. Lemons said outsiders who effectively took over the fast-food restaurant were being “overly aggressive” with residents who went there offering support. Several people were injured in shootings there.

On July 4, an 8-year-old girl was killed across from the restaurant. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the site cleared out. Leaders of the group that had been camped out at the restaurant denied involvement in the fatal shooting.

"People were saying 'Put the guns up because it is only going to exacerbate the situation and not get what you want out of it,'" he said. "Just losing her life like that. It was that armed factor.

Dirk Bateman has lived in Peoplestown for 30 years, atfe rbeing raised just across the interstate in the city’s Pittsburgh neighborhood, also in south Atlanta. He said the neighborhood’s lure is that it’s in the city, with easy access to MARTA and a stone’s throw from the city’s entertainment hot spots.

“I just love the city, and the city life,” said Bateman, 63, who was an equipment monitor for DeKalb County’s Sanitation Department before he retired.

He said the neighborhood is changing through gentrification and businesses popping up to benefit from the new demographics. Brooks’ shooting only added to division among the neighborhood’s residents and the police.

“Both of them were wrong,” he said. “But I don’t want to hear about a deadly Taser. Not when you’re running around and shooting him in the back. How do you fear for your life when he’s running from you?”

The shooting felt more deliberate and racially driven, said William Williams, whose father owns the R&R Tire Shop on University. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, in announcing charges against the officers, said Rolfe, the officer who fired the fatal shots, could be heard saying “I got him” afterward.

“You always wanted to get you one,” Williams said, referring to police officers killing Black men, “so you got you one.”

In the days after the shooting, Williams said he was frustrated by how people responded to the area. Police officers barely drive through. Many called in sick following the arrests of the officers after the fatal shooting.

“A lot of that could have been saved,” he said, glancing down the street at businesses boarded up in the wake of Brooks’ death.

One day recently, the neighborhood was bustling with activity. Some rode bicycles near Four Corners Park. Older residents were out watering their lawns. Neighbors chatted with each other through masks, or across driveways.

Before the shooting of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner on July 4, Bateman felt the impact from activity at the Wendy’s was pushing for long overdue conversations to forge better relations and treatment of Black people.

“Even if it wasn’t them, if they weren’t (at the Wendy’s), this wouldn’t have happened at all.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, whose district includes the Peoplestown neighborhood, called it a great community and said she received a list of demands from community leaders seeking better conditions with other city leaders.

Other wants, Lemons said, include being part of the process that selects a new police chief, providing racial and implicit bias testing for police candidates and reallocating money away from the police for neighborhood resources.

“Had some of those demands been met, maybe nobody would have been down there,” Lemons said about the Wendy’s.

Raisa Habersham and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this story.