"You don't build communities on their brokenness, you build communities on their assets."
- Rev. Cottrell
Reverend Cottrell, pastor emeritus of Beulah Baptist Church in Vine City, has an engaging, velvety voice one can hardly not be captivated by. We meet him at Beulath Church, where he became Pastor in 1968, to talk about the neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue, their histories and present challenges. Cottrell was born in Mississippi in 1930, and after a brief stay in Nashville, Tennessee, he arrived in Atlanta in 1952. He enrolled at Morehouse College, a renowned African American university, where he completed his degree. Morehouse College still sits on the southern border of Vine City, now part of a cluster of historically African American universities - a fierce complex of black academic learning that forged many prominent community leaders and Civil Rights activists. As a firsthand witness to the tumultuous civil rights movement, and active in the community at the same time as Martin Luther King Jr., Cottrell emerged as one of the most prominent voices advocating for community improvement in Vine City and English Avenue.
Reverend Cottrell was receptive and eager to tell us the neighborhood's past. History immediately permeated into the present in Cottrell's recounting: "these people, in this area, have been promised for years that the city would do something... MLK choose to live in Vine City, he was born over there in Auburn, but he choose to live here, in Vine City, and you can't choose where you're born...MLK wanted to develop a community, and Vine City was where he came, to create the Beloved Community." The notion of community, both past and present, pervaded his description of the area. As Cottrell continued to explain the importance of MLK, he gestured with his hands to point out what happened around the community as if the walls surrounding us had fallen away, and we sat in the middle of Cottrell's Vine City, able to see and navigate his understanding of the past.
We asked Cottrell about the broken promises he had mentioned, and how he understood the community as well as its current conditions. Marginalization and brokenness, he indicated, were everyday experiences in the neighborhoods. We asked him to explain why 'brokenness' is so prevalent; where it was rooted, and how it could be remedied. "The community as it stands now is not the one and the same as it used to be," Rev. Cottrell told us.
"This used to be a ghetto. White folk lived in one area, black folk in another. These areas were bound to the black institutions like Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. White folk had started to move out before the Civil Rights Movement and Vine City and English Avenue had become all-black areas. But Vine City wasn't poor, the black bourgeoisie lived here; Martin Luther King Jr. lived here; there were pastors and teachers and other richer black folk living in these streets. But after the (civil rights) protests poverty started arriving here, too; the community started to decline.
After pausing only for a moment, Rev. Cottrell began to tell us a history of racial segregation and the misfortunes of being a black person in the 1960s deep-south. Above all, however, his recounting revolved around the importance of black churches as institutions that, apart from places of worship, would serve as promoters of political and civic engagement.
"The churches here were, and still are the battlegrounds to move our folk. Earlier black folk didn't have places to go to, you couldn't go to the theatre, to restaurants, or to public libraries. So we went to the church. The church made us powerful, no politician here (in Atlanta) could get elected without the backing of the black churches. In the churches we organized marches and protests, we went in buses to D.C. in 1963, we held the community together."
The construction of the Georgia Dome loomed large in our discussion of Vine City and English Avenue. The Dome had brought about an opportunity to implement community development programs, supported with funds from the Dome's trust fund. As we began to discuss how things had unfolded, Cottrell's smooth delivery increased in pace and emphasis, revealing his passionate commitment to a particular struggle. As the leader of a coalition of eight churches, they sought to negotiate the terms of development intervention in Vine City and English Avenue.
"Let me tell you how (the politicians) got started. They wanted to build all sorts of stuff here but the churches protested. They wanted to build a labor building, and we'd thought about this too, but what were we gonna do with a labor building, we needed jobs, schools and better housing. So I pulled the preachers together not just in this community but all the other churches, and we formed Vine City Housing Ministry to get better housing and jobs for the community. We were heard, and money for development was made available. But the city was not true to these two communities. They took that money and build everything except these two communities. (The politicians) are good on promises, they promised to rebuild these two communities but don't have a dollar available to do it. They have no idea how. We also secured jobs for local folks to take in the Dome's construction. Then we realized folks couldn't keep their jobs 'cause they were on drugs. So we changed our name to Vine City Health and Housing Ministry, to help educate folks to live healthier lives."
When asked about the impact of the post-2008 housing and financial crisis, Cottrell bluntly responded: "2008 didn't hit us that hard. Our people have been driven from the community (already). They allowed the community to stay dead because people could come in and buy land cheap to gentrify." The post-2008 housing crisis certainly had an impact on the prices of homes and land in the area, and also accelerated the foreclosures, but it is telling that Cottrell almost dismissed the event that ruptured across the nation. Vine City and English Avenue had already experienced the decline of value, widespread foreclosures, and the results of these processes were not overly shocking.
Cottrell, R. (2013) Interview with Coulis and Kauko