[June 6, 2012: See the note at the bottom of this post for updated details.]
Many elderly African Americans living in Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood live in fear for when the next shoe will drop. Or, more accurately, when the next house will fall.
“It’s kind of a shock. You know, all of a sudden the next thing you know the house is torn down and another one is put up quickly,” said Elizabeth Wilson, an 80-year-old African American woman who has lived in Oakhurst for nearly four decades and a former Decatur mayor. “And then we get a little nervous about that because you know, it’s like when will the next one go and how is that really going to impact me?”
In 2007, Wilson was among Oakhurst’s elderly African Americans who were told that the creation of a historic district would destroy their community, impact property values, and prevent them from making necessary improvements to aging homes.
Now, five years later, Wilson and many of her neighbors question what they were told by anti-preservation activists. They live in what some call a state of constant fear that new McMansions will spur further rises in property taxes and that the un-ending entreaties for them to sell their homes to builders will result in displacement from the neighborhood and the demolition of their family homes.
People like Wilson and her neighbors have watched young, non-African American families move into the neighborhood, changing its cultural rhythms, architecture, and public spaces. Gentrification has pitted young white professionals who buy McMansions built on teardown sites against elderly African Americans who resent having their homes called “ugly” and their neighborhood described as in need of “improvement.” As one person wrote on the Oakhurst neighborhood list in March, 2012, “All the renovations and development have improved the neighborhood.” It’s not an open conflict; it lies hidden in rhetoric wrapped around “better homes” and a “better community” that claims diversity as a goal but in practice is eliminating all historical and contemporary ties to the African Americans who settled in South Decatur in the 1960s.
Over the past decade more than 150 homes have been torn down and new McMansions – buildings that are out of scale and character with the existing community – have been built. The teardowns are described by some residents as “decrepit” and substandard. One Oakhurst resident who tweets anonymously using the handle @OakhurstGossip left this comment on a blog post about the teardowns:
According to Dekalb County property records, 450 Ansley is 873 sq feet, 454 Ansley is 1016 square feet, and 470 Ansley is 1037 square feet. Not only are these homes incredibly small for all but maybe single person households today, their architecture does not really add anything to the neighborhood, and there is not much you can really do to improve them or expand them. How many of the people that are protesting their demolition is willing to live in these tiny homes? I doubt any.
The people who live in the smaller, vernacular houses, though know them as homes where their children were born and raised and where spouses, parents, and even children have died. As she described the recent teardowns on Ansley Street, Wilson said,
Well what’s ugly? What’s ugly for some people is not ugly for others. I don’t think some of the places – I didn’t think the little house up the street from me, the first, very first one, was ugly. It was a little small house. I thought it was cute as it could be. I didn’t think it was ugly.
So what’s ugly to some people – my house might be ugly to some people but to me it’s a mansion, you know. So if a newly built building is the definition of clearing up and being pretty, that’s not necessarily my definition of what I want to see.
JAL is another elderly African American Oakhurst resident. She and her family were among the many black Atlantans who moved into formerly white South Decatur in the 1960s. She laments the displacement of friends who lived in rented homes and others that were sold and torn down for new McMansions.
JAL described one neighbor who lived a few doors down. “He was renting the house and his wife died and then he got sick and so he just sold it,” she said. “And they just tore it down.” The older home was replaced by one of the many historically inspired foursquares appearing in the neighborhood. The new home, she said, was shocking because it was out of scale and ill-fitted to the lot:
Because I was surprised because they have a garage, they have a basement, and that land didn’t look like it would cover all that. But I heard a lot of people – I didn’t go see it but they said they don’t like that garage. It’s such a narrow path going down through there.
JAL, Wilson, and others describe an almost daily barrage of mail, phone calls, and personal visits from builders and their agents who try to get the elderly African Americans to sell their homes. Despite comments left on blogs that the older homes are torn down by existing residents to make way for larger homes to accommodate growing families, the story told by Oakhurst’s longtime residents suggests more opportunism than opportunity.
Ida Fudge was one of the HUD urban homesteaders who moved to South Decatur in the late 1970s. The African American woman recalled the attempts starting about a decade ago. “There were at one point people coming in and asking you to sell, if you’re interested in selling, on a regular basis,” she explained. “Not only coming to your door but, you know, getting through the mail and other things.”
“I get more cards in the mail,” explained JAL. She then recounted a familiar story that I have heard several times since I began interviewing Oakhurst residents last fall:
Now I had one lady I heard of, I don’t know her, but she said a man came up to her door and asked her did she want to sell her house. She asked him, “Do you see a For Sale sign”? She said, “Don’t come to my door no more.”
Wilson says that she can’t work in her garden without being approached by people who want her to sell her home. Like JAL and the others, she hasn’t heard of any of her white neighbors getting the same offers. “As far as I know, as far as I know, they don’t,” she said. “I know for a fact that the older African Americans, my generation, we get it because we talk about it.”
Wilson then explained how she and her friends discuss the offers:
“Did you get one of those letters?” or, “Did you get one of those cards?” Or, “Did somebody knock on your door?” Or, you know, “Are you feeling the pressure of a new house going up next to you?”
So we feel uncomfortable because it’s like you know, your privacy is being invaded. Nobody talks to you about it. I mean there’s not been one conversation with the four houses that’s been built on my street. You know, they built and I think somebody is living in at least three of them. And I guess I’m not a good neighbor, either, but it’s bringing that – we don’t know the neighbors as we used to.
According to CVC, a lifelong Decatur resident and owner of an Oakhurst business, the opportunism and exploitation of Oakhurst’s elderly African Americans began more than a decade ago. “There was a time, and this would be fifteen or twenty years ago, when housing prices were beginning to go up in Decatur and a lot of the residents didn’t realize it,” he said. “And so people would go around and go to the doors of elderly people and offer them, on the spot, big cash amounts for their house.”
CVC recalled that some residents made impromptu efforts to help their neighbors:
A group of white people, feeling like they were looking out for their neighbors, their elderly neighbors, most of whom were African-American, would intercept – would get together and intercept – these wandering real estate speculators and invite them to leave the neighborhood.
Another person who works and lives in Oakhurst and who has written and spoken widely on its history has seen the exploitation. “There were people coming in saying, ‘Well, you bought your house for five thousand. We’ll buy it from you for eighty-five thousand’,” he said. “So a lot of speculation going on.”
Oakhurst is changing more rapidly than any other part of Decatur. Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne disagreed in a recent conversation over coffee at a downtown restaurant. She doesn’t see a community crisis. Others, like Wilson, live in constant fear as they watch their community carted away to landfills, bin by bin. “I would say, just my observation, that Oakhurst is changing more rapidly than any other part of the whole city,” she said. “I don’t see as much construction going on in the other parts of the city: Winnona, Great Lakes, you know, any of that.”
Asked how she feels about all of the teardowns, she said, “That’s very stressful. Very stressful.” Wilson later added, “You know, in a minute, what are we going to have in Oakhurst? The village? With, you know, the few little houses?”
Historians, sociologists, and psychologists agree that urban renewal destroys community fabric and has longterm, multi-generational impacts on the people displaced to make way for new socially engineered communities. A number of elderly Oakhurst residents who moved to South Decatur were voluntarily and involuntarily displaced by urban renewal in Atlanta and in Decatur’s Beacon Community.
Wilson compared the rampant teardowns, mansionization, and displacement of Oakhurst’s African Americans to urban renewal. “Yeah, without the government funding,” she began. “This is not government funding, what’s happening in here. This is a developer, private, who can afford to buy up these properties and then build.”
I asked her, somewhat uncomfortably, how it was similar to urban renewal. She replied,
Well it feels that way because the people are gone. You know, if you look at – all I have to do is look at South Decatur, Southwest Decatur, and see the number of new buildings and all and it’s frightening. Because every time a senior moves out because they moved in with a family member or moved into a nursing home or passed away, that’s another house gone.
And so Ansley Street is a good example for me.
In December, surveyors were out marking property lines on behalf of Thrive Homes, LLC, an Atlanta builder who specializes in constructing “historically inspired” homes. The surveyors said that Thrive was planning to tear down three homes so that three nice new homes could be built. On March 17, 2012, the first of the three homes was demolished and within two weeks, a new “historically inspired” McMansion was rising in its place.
By late 2011, Ansley Street had followed the rest of Oakhurst by becoming more white as its African American residents died out or moved away. One person I interviewed thinks there may only be two African American households remaining on Ansley between Greenwood Avenue and Oakview Road. Many of the homes along Ansley are what Georgia architectural historians call American Small Houses: modest vernacular homes built in the mid-twentieth century for working-class people. Aerial photographs and historic fire insurance maps show that many of Ansley Street’s homes were built, perhaps for returning veterans, after World War II.
One of the homes, torn down last week, was 450 Ansley Street. It had been one of the HUD urban homesteading properties sold for a dollar, returned to private ownership, and rehabilitated. In the 1970s and 1980s, the small, older homes were recycled as starter homes for young families and were bought by older people expecting to age in place. Three decades later, they are disposable and are removed from that market to make way for more expensive, larger homes that will further reduce the community’s economic, age, and ethnic diversity.
Said Wilson about that,
I feel sad. I feel sad because I don’t believe that we have to tear everything down to start anew. In less than fifty years from now we’ll be ready to tear the big mansions down and start anew again, I guess. It will be another generation of people who come, who can’t manage with what’s here. It’s gotta be bigger or better, at least that would be the definition, that’s what I hear the definition now.
The people I have interviewed love Decatur and they love their neighborhood. They cry and their voices break with emotion as they describe the teardowns and the insensitive comments they hear about their homes and their community by newcomers. While some, like the anonymous blog posters, tweeters, and email writers, hide behind screen names that mask their identities, others, like architect Eric Rawlings write openly about their disdain for the vernacular buildings and for the neighborhood they claim credit for “cleaning up.”
“It wasn’t that long ago when drug dealers and prostitutes had gun fights in the streets of notorious Oakhurst and people like me have helped to make this a safer, more desirable place for all of us,” Rawlings wrote on my blog last year. At a Curbed Atlanta blog post, Rawlings wrote this,
We are witnessing a change in the socioeconomic status in a place that has been severely economically depressed since the Great Depression. Out of the Great Recession, Oakhurst is now prevailing economically and we have one of the best school systems in the metro area because people like me helped clean up this place.
Rawlings’s comments and those by other Oakhurst gentrifiers offend many of the older residents who have lived in the neighborhood since the 1960s. “The more difficult part for me is that many of the young whites in the neighborhood feel like racism is a thing of the past,” said one white man who moved with his wife to South Decatur in the 1980s. He added,
I think the third thing that’s a downside is there is a real sense of entitlement or meritocracy here. That this neighborhood was transformed from a terrible… place to live and the people with money came in and transformed it and now it’s a wonderful place to live….
I think there’s kind of tensions about the white folks coming in and taking our stuff and not just that but also saying how terrible we were and they’ve transformed the neighborhood, making it much better, all that kind of language makes for kind of tensions.
Oakhurst in many ways is a mythical place. There’s the place romanticized by new upper-middle-class residents moving in and buying large new homes on teardown sites. And then there’s the place described by the people who have witnessed economic strife and rebirth who feel increasingly alienated and marginalized. It’s the latter folks who are dying out and who are being displaced as their homes are torn down and their neighborhood is reworked into a hip, trendy residential community with outdoor cafes, jazz nights, wine crawls, and festivals. City and neighborhood leaders turn a blind eye to the problems so evident that they are plainly visible to anyone who looks and who speaks to those most affected.
Wilson summed it up best when I asked if there was a solution to the teardowns, mansionization, and displacement stressors she and her neighbors face. She said that the City and its residents need to take ownership of the issue:
I wish we had some type of program that would help to educate not only those of us who live here and have lived here for all of these years, but also to help educate the people who are coming in about some of the history of the neighborhood. You know, the neighborhood wasn’t just discovered in 2010, nine, eight. The neighborhood has been here all of these years and I think it’s all of our responsibility if we are truly going to claim that we are a diverse city that we’ve got to take a big wide look at what that really means. What is diversity, you know? And you know, put a face on it because every time an African American elderly person moves out of the community, there is not another African American young person moving in. So how are we going to maintain what we have and how are we going to encourage the diverse population.
I hear what African Americans say. They can’t afford it. But I’m not, you know, I’m not sure.
The City needs to take at least some responsibility of educating the whole community. How, you know, that can be done, I don’t know. I just believe that it could be.
Note: The individuals quoted in this post were interviewed between October 2011 and April 2012 as part of a study of Oakhurst’s housing history. Although the individuals signed releases allowing me to use the interviews in articles, public presentations, etc., I have elected to anonymize them to protect their privacy. The complete interviews have been transcribed and will be donated to the DeKalb History Center later in 2012.
At a May 22, 2012, DeKalb History Center presentation, I played several of the quotes used in this post to illustrate the impacts of gentrification in Oakhurst. Since the individuals were named in the presentation, I have updated this post and replaced the pseudonyms first used with their real names. A complete transcript of the April 2012 interview with Elizabeth Wilson, quoted in this post, may be found in this post.
© 2012 D.S. Rotenstein