On Abandonment and other impressions
Sunset Boulevard in Vine City begins at an intersection with Martin Luther King Drive SW. Following it towards north one can appreciate colorful wooden buildings, mostly single-family detached units, on both sides of the road. Some have well kept, tidy front side gardens; others look like their yards could do with a lawn mower. Martin Luther King Jr's residence appears at 210 Sunset Boulevard - a sober looking brick building with a large lawn around it. A little down the road, there are the remains of what once was Vine City's first German settler's, Edward Wachendorff's, large wooden mansion. Burnt and broken, it now embodies the vestiges of a lost splendor that eons ago may have even characterized the area.
As one goes further up north on Sunset Blvd., the landscape undergoes a dramatic change. Past Joseph E. Boone Blvd. NW, the neighborhood officially turns into English Avenue, in the vernacular also known as 'the Bluff' for its reputation as one of the city's main drug suppliers. Suddenly the overwhelming majority of houses on both sides of the road appear to have their doors and windows boarded. Shadowed by giant magnolias and dogwoods, they have been overtaken by the merciless Georgian flora that effortlessly envelops their foundations and corners in a plethora of green. It is virtually impossible not to notice the stark contrast between these phantasmagorical residences and the tips of Atlanta downtown's skyscrapers behind the canopy, less than two miles to the east. On any given adjacent street, the landscape repeats itself: dereliction here is the rule, not the exception. Garbage on the streets, in front of the houses, abounds. What has brought about such undisguised abandonment here; are these houses inhabited at all? Who are the few individuals one may spot on some of the streets, those who carry plastic bags or small carts and whose gait is slow, but is taking them somewhere, nonetheless. Where are they going?
The 2008 housing crisis hit the state of Georgia hard, placing it on the top ten of American states with highest rates of foreclosures within the country (Realtytrack 2013). (In 2010, however, signs of economic recovery were heralded by Georgia's dropping out of the notorious top ten to the sought-after place number eleven on the same list.) While the city of Atlanta at large witnessed an unprecedented rate of foreclosures, in the neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue the crisis was seen as a mere sequel to a history of abandonment in the making since the 1970s.
One the main hubs for the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta, Vine City (and, to an extent, English Avenue) experienced waves of social and political ebullience towards the end of the 1960s. The following decade, however, began to reveal the scaffoldings of poverty that had sustained the area as white middle classes had began their exodus towards the developing suburbs around Atlanta's periphery. The 1970s were characterized by the construction of building complexes that would later be infamously known as 'the projects'. Families moved to low-income housing provided by the city; unemployment was rife, and local income-generation in decline.
The 1980s introduced a novel distraction from the everyday social problems: cocaine and its cheaper derivate, crack, appeared in the markets for the locals' consumption and distribution. Leading to rapidly swirling whirlpools of increasing crime (Stone, 1993), the presence of crack on the streets of Vine City and, especially, English Avenue, became the main marker of the area and its signpost of fame amongst Atlanta's drug consumers.
Driving around Vine City on a Sunday early afternoon in search for impressions, images, and locals to converse with, my colleagues and I park by the side of the road to photograph the facades of a few buildings there. A lady comes out of her house, we greet each other. At first hesitant to engage in further conversation, she gradually becomes more loquacious about the area, its social problems, demographics, and internal dynamics. Towards the end of our conversation, I tell her I much appreciate her willingness to talk, acknowledging the hesitancy that she had first expressed. "Well, you're three white kids driving in Vine City", she says. "Over here that means you're looking for drugs."
By 1990s, foreclosures in the area had become a staple marker of the local real estate industry. Houses quickly exchanged owners; renters came and went depending on their ability to maintain their credit history and payment record in order. Jobs in and around the area became scarcer and scarcer. While the 1990s witnessed an upsurge in Atlanta's construction industry, and the 1996 Olympic Games were forecasted as a major income-generator for the city, the residents of the already marginalized areas of Vine City and English Avenue were able to take little solace in the prevailing economic boom (Vine city Historic District, 2008).
The 2008 housing crisis thus reached Vine City and English Avenue as a wave of intensified foreclosures that certainly reverberated through and across the areas, yet did not present the locals with anything they had not already familiarized themselves with. "Many houses were foreclosed but they were quickly sold. A small number of people have purchased many of the houses here, but they aren't living in them, or doing anything to improve them". Some voices in the neighborhood have explained that this is a part of the investor strategy. One local resident emphasized the centrality of profiteering, claiming "they're just waiting for their values to go up." Meeting with this neighbor took place on a street in Vine City that was dotted with renovated homes, a small islet of functioning properties in a vaster landscape of boarded, even burnt buildings. She emphasized that she was engaged in the process of micro-rejuvenation, understanding that small section of streets as a place different from the larger Vine City and English Avenue, and yet intricately connected to it.
2013. The marginalization of Vine City and English Avenue has again made the local headlines. The construction plan for the forthcoming Falcons Stadium, less than a mile from Sunset boulevard, has been approved after arduous negotiations between two of the area's largest churches on whose land the stadium is to be erected on. Multi-million deals between various involved parties have been closed, sealed with photographs of handshakes and promises of wealth for the local residents. Simultaneously, many community-driven initiatives for the improvement of both neighborhoods have diffidently appeared in diverse parts of the area: community gardens, sui generis artist communities, church-led youth programs now all form part of the area's social landscape. Yet the unforgiving demographic and economic statistics gathered from the neighborhoods still speak of enormous socioeconomic inequalities, poverty, drug abuse, and crime. Almost half of English Avenue's houses (Census data, 2010) continue to have their windows boarded, facades dilapidated, and vegetation creeping around them at the lack of permanent human presence.
It is difficult to grasp the flagrant contrasts, incongruities, and paradoxes that jump at one's face in any given street in Vine City and English Avenue. Next to a splendid, majestic church building there is a row of boarded apartments, reminiscences of what perhaps once were the infamous 'projects'? A beautiful, diligently attended community garden is situated between two large single-family homes with boarded windows: their ghostly emptiness towers over the less than a quarter-of-an-acre of tomatoes, lettuce, and squash. In front of the facade of a dramatic-looking, enormous stone church that once was the first church in English Avenue, four people have gathered to spread the gospel. Looking at any direction from there, all one sees are abandoned looking houses, one after the other. "Oh, but there are lots of people living in them", one of the evangelizing individuals casually tells us. How?
A gamut of different scales converges in these neighborhoods. The pounding forces of capitalism, city-development and racial politics meet here with micro histories of individuals trying to draw the contours of their own space and place. Space, subsistence and capital seem to be continuously under negotiation. Definitions here could all too easily be formed through exclusion - the omnipresent vista of the Atlanta downtown silhouette constantly reminds one in the neighborhoods what the neighborhoods are not. Does it also suggest what they could someday be? Does it invite and allure, or simply mark a two-mile distance between two almost entirely separate worlds?
"English Avenue neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia (GA), 30314, 30318 detailed profile" CITY-DATA. 2013.
"City of Atlanta 2010 Census Summary Report Neighborhood Planning Unit L." City of Atlanta. 2013.
"U.S. foreclosure starts decrease 8 percent in august to lowest level since december 2005, bank repos up 6 percent." RealtyTrack Staff. Sep. 12 2013.
Stone, S. (1993) Problem-oriented policing approach to drug enforcement: Atlanta as a case study. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Emory University.
Sunset Avenue Historic District in Vine City