Democrats push to knit together divided Atlanta communities

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The Downtown Connector cuts a jagged scar through the historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first impression of the busy highway that roars through the area: “Who thought that was a good idea?”

Democratic lawmakers are now trying to reconnect some communities divided by rampant highway building, a relic of 1950s-era infrastructure policy. Billions of dollars have been set aside in federal packages to stitch together isolated neighborhoods.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who led Pelosi on a tour of historically Black neighborhoods, said it’s needed to restore the network of streets “intentionally decimated” by segregationist building practices more than a half-century ago.

“The Downtown Connector only a few feet behind us, that you can hear in the background, was one of the most destructive interstates built in this country,” Williams said as she stood outside Big Bethel AME Church, a few blocks from the highway.

Credit: Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

Credit: Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

In the post-World War II boom, highway construction tore through Black neighborhoods, leveling homes and businesses to provide a speedier path to the city center. The construction binge in the 1950s and 60s displaced many residents and isolated Black communities.

The construction of I-20 through Atlanta dissected the Summerhill neighborhood, separating it from downtown businesses. It also carved a path through the Atlanta University Center. And I-75/85′s snaky path split Auburn Avenue, home to a thriving Black economic ecosystem.

At the time, freeways often barreled through mostly minority areas because land was cheaper and local leaders had less political clout. Longtime residents are still dealing with the aftermath.

“We as a community are still recovering,” said Kevin Jackson, whose family has lived in the Sweet Auburn area for decades. “It’s in our DNA. Any way to try to restore the fabric that this community created is needed.”

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Tucked in the federal $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last year is $1 billion for communities cut off by federal highways. And the recently approved federal climate and tax bill includes $3 billion in grants to reconnect neighborhoods.

Georgia’s Republican delegation voted in unison against both measures, citing concerns about wasteful spending. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde echoed his GOP colleagues by saying the legislative package that was adopted in August will “only make life worse.”

The initiatives Pelosi and Williams touted don’t seek to straighten the Grady Curve or relocate freeways. But they involve proposals like The Stitch in downtown and the Midtown Connector to knit together divided areas by placing decks over busy highways covered with acres of greenspace.

The programs take years of planning that are still in early phases, but funding is also available for smaller-scale projects. Pelosi encouraged organizations to apply for a grant pilot program by visiting grants.gov.

“Our goal is to unite communities, and that takes money and it takes time,” Pelosi said in an interview. “We want people to know that the resources will be there — but they also have to be part of the planning.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com