In 1995, the East Lake Meadows housing project was among the worst places in the United States to live. Its crime rate was 3.3 times higher than the rest of Atlanta and 18 times higher than the national average. The neighborhood experienced an average of one murder a week. As Mayor Shirley Franklin commented, in a program organized by the Division of U.S. Studies and cosponsored by the Comparative Urban Studies Project, it was the only neighborhood in Atlanta she would not drive through alone. Its median household income was $4,536. Fifty-nine percent of the adults living in East Lake Meadows were on welfare. Its employment rate was 13.5 percent, and only five percent of the fifth graders at its elementary school met state mathematics standards. Sixty percent of its housing units did not meet safety and sanity standards; 30 percent were uninhabitable. City officials referred to the neighborhood as "Little Viet Nam."
Today, violent crime in East Lake is down by 95 percent. Only five percent of its adults rely on welfare. While 69 percent of all Atlanta public school system students meet or exceed state math standards, the figure for East Lake's Charles R. Drew Charter School is 78 percent, and 80 percent of its eighth graders meet or exceed state reading standards. Not a single recent graduate of the Drew school has dropped out of high school. As an East Lake resident and activist in its neighborhood association has commented, "We tore down hell and built heaven."
The change was made possible by the East Lake Foundation, an entity organized to transform and revitalize East Lake. The endeavor was the idea of Thomas G. Cousins, an Atlanta businessman who realized that successful urban renewal depended upon a holistic approach. Working with members of the East Lake community, the Foundation tore down the substandard public housing and replaced it with small mixed-income rental apartment buildings organized around crescent-shaped streets. It turned Drew Elementary School into a charter school and housed it in a bright, light-filled building connected to a YMCA that is used by the community for both recreation and meetings. The community has an early childhood learning center, playgrounds, senior citizen programs, and job skills programs. Its renewal has also transformed the surrounding neighborhood, as the median home value has jumped from $47,000 to $153,000.
The project's success, the panelists agreed, stems in large part from its holistic approach, combining attractive and well-maintained housing, education, and family services. Former Mayor William Hudnut of Indianapolis, Indiana and Chevy Chase, Maryland spoke about the need for mixed-income housing as a major element in urban renewal, emphasizing that it can be both profitable for investors and the creator of enormous social capital. Fifty percent of East Lake's housing is market rate. Apartments are organized, Cousins said, so that the few families on welfare live in-between two working families and are literally surrounded by examples of what they can accomplish. That, along with job training and education, helps move additional members of the community into the paid workforce.
Charles Knapp, the Foundation's president, described East Lake as an ongoing process. The Foundation has now bought nearby land and plans to put working class housing on it, both so that low-income homeowners can build up equity and so that the neighborhood does not become gentrified rather than mixed-income. An urban renewal project such as East Lake requires a long-term commitment, Knapp said. The panelists commented that it also requires the ability to be flexible, a strong funding plan, an equally strong board of directors, and extensive neighborhood involvement. The lessons of East Lake have now been utilized by a number of other communities, and the premise behind the day's program is that other urban areas may well find it a useful example of best practices.
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4147