Withering on the Vine? Or a new rebirth?

Dan Cathy, the purveyor of tasty chicken sandwiches, this week expressed a pang of collective civic guilt when he worried aloud about the world getting a glimpse of Atlanta’s dirty little secret.

The Atlanta Falcons’ brand new $1.4 billion stadium sits on the doorstep of some of the city’s most reliably poor neighborhoods.

“The horror that I think of is when the Goodyear blimp is flying over the new stadium with Atlanta’s beautiful skyline in the background,” the Chick-fil-A boss told the Business Chronicle. “And then the blimp shows the area on the other side of the stadium and it looks like a scene out of Baghdad.”

I read that comment having just spent the day in Baghdad. More correctly, I was in Vine City, the historic neighborhood that once housed a generation of civil rights leaders and has, for the past generation, deteriorated in full view of fans visiting the Georgia Dome.

I paid a visit to Vine City because it is apparently showing signs of gentrification. That’s according to Governing magazine, which touts itself as “the nation’s leading media platform” for state and local government leaders.

The magazine studied the nation’s 50 biggest cities and ranked Atlanta fifth when it comes to gentrifying, with 46 percent of its poorer census tracts (30 of 65) showing regeneration.

The analysis said that to be eligible to gentrify, the median household income and median home value of a census tract had to be in the bottom 40th percentile of those in a metro area. Gentrifying was measured in the growth of home values and percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees — in other words, educated folks residing in appreciating assets.

So that brings us to Census Tract 25, a few blocks west of the doomed Georgia Dome: 220 acres of concentrated poverty where you might barely discern the fading remnants of a middle class. The tract is bounded by Vine Street on the east and three streets named for civil rights leaders: MLK on the south, Joseph Lowery on the west and Joseph E. Boone on the north.

It has 846 households with 46 percent of its residents below the poverty line. Median household income is $19,912. About 94 percent of its 1,944 residents are black.

But the green shoots of hope, according to Governing magazine — and census figures — are that the median home value is $138,800 (a 97 percent bump in 10 years) and 18 percent of adults have college degrees, double the percentage in 2000.

The numbers were surprising, especially the median home value. From what I’ve seen, $138,800 should buy a couple of houses here and leave you with money left over for paint.

Part of reporting is knocking on doors, so I saw a brick bungalow on Sunset Avenue (it needed paint) with a couple of cars in the driveway. I figured someone was home. I knocked.

A lady named Patricia Latimore answered. The home, it turns out, was where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived when he was killed in 1968. Latimore started with the family as a baby-sitter and still works for the Kings, who own the home.

She said all sorts of the Who’s Who of Atlanta’s black community once lived on the street. She also scoffed at the idea of an upswing.

“I don’t see how it’s going to boost up; these houses are torn up, falling down and there’s drug people all around,” she said. “But there’s so much potential. It could be so much better.”

Coca Cola’s headquarters is visible from the porch.

Talk to the guy next door, she said. Another knock found a stoic looking fellow named John H. Lewis III, who differs somewhat with Ms. Latimore’s take on the community. “We know it’s gentrifying,” he said. “But the history is being erased. All they see is you can buy low and sell high. It’s not to bring this community back to its pristine background but to destroy it.”

The term “they” gets tossed around a lot here, a term that refers to monied outside forces licking their chops to descend and feed off the carcass of the once-proud community.

Lewis is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed to stop the city from issuing up to $278 million in bonds that would help build a football palace for a billionaire. Like many of the others in the neighborhood, Lewis weaves a tale of conspiracy, of suspicious fires and non-working street lights meant to bring prices down for the benefit of speculators. Another theory circulating was that a string of elderly women strangled to death years ago was to scare away the widows.

Conspiracy theories often bloom in areas where people are used to getting the shaft. Another plaintiff is 84-year-old William L Cottrell, a minister who was the point man for the renovation Vine City was supposed to experience 25 years ago when the dome was getting built.

The city support never materialized as promised, he said. And not being the type who wants to get fooled again, he signed up for the lawsuit that is now working its way through the judiciary.

The southwest corner of Census Tract 25, near the corner of MLK Drive and Lowery Boulevard, has rows of new town homes called The Commons, advertised “From the $190s.” An agent said she sold three recently. They are apparently why the neighborhood’s median home values jumped.

A few people chatted at Black Buck’s cafe nearby. I told the customers what I was writing about, and a guy looked quizzical and asked, “Gentrification? What’s that?”

“It means white people are moving in, black people are moving out,” said Drewnell Thomas, describing the shorthand version of urban renewal, Atlanta style.

But that’s not necessarily the case here. A brick house on Sunset Avenue had the earmarks of some recent TLC. Inside were Stafford and Jennifer McIntosh, a couple of New Yorkers who bought the home two years ago trying to catch an upswing.

“We’re trying to be ahead of the curve,” said Stafford. He works at MARTA, she works for the state.

“We were looking for a fixer-upper,” said Jennifer, with a chuckle that spoke of the amount of unforeseen work fixing up entails. She was holding their younger son, Joffrey, 11 months. The other, Jacob, is 6 and attends a charter school nearby.

The McIntoshes are black and excited by possibilities — the nearby rail station, the proximity of downtown, the area’s historic aura, the affordability and the hoped-for appreciation.

“We’re going to be the best looking (house) on the block,” said Stafford, taking a break from painting his back room a rich yellow hue called “beeswax.”

“It’s not the best now, but in 10 years, I see it being a better place,” he said. “I’m looking at what I’m leaving my kids.”

There have been times before that Vine City residents took an optimistic long view into the future. Hopefully, this time they are right.