Formerly high-grade neighborhoods are subject to extraordinarily rapid obsolescence, since there are few takers for the aging and oversized dwellings vacated by the departing elite. Their prohibitive purchase price and maintenance expense rule out their availability to successively lower income groups and their continued use as single-family homes …. (Hughes and Bleakly 1975: 49).
To the casual viewer, the 1,064-square-foot brick ranch house at 235 West Pharr Road in Decatur, Ga., was just another midcentury home. Set just inside the Decatur city limits in the Oakhurst neighborhood, the house recently was demolished.
Last week I attempted to email a Decatur, Ga., real estate professional. His uninvited and unwanted letters and flyers are delivered to homes throughout the gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood and I wanted to ask him some questions about the “as-is” house buying business.
After I sent my email to him, I received an automated response triggered by his email provider’s spam setting:
What an irony. He blankets neighborhoods with gentrification spam, much of which ends up in old-fashioned spam filters: trash cans. At least he has the opportunity to screen unwanted materials even before they reach his eyes. You can’t say the same for the elderly homeowners who receive his literature.
Postscript: As for my effort to ask the individual questions about his business, I completed the form to get beyond the spam filter and I completed a “contact-us” form on his company’s website. I received no responses.
Over the past four years I have collected thousands of articles, photos, and documents to write a book on gentrification in Decatur, Ga. The journey has yielded lots of WTF moments, some of which will be in the book; others that won’t. This post describes one episode that likely won’t reach print.
In the spring of 2012, Decatur High School social studies teacher Chris Billingsley took a group of students in the school’s “Close-Up Club” to Washington, D.C. Billingsley described the trip in a note to a local blog. According to the teacher, he and the kids had a “Capital [sic] Hill Day”:
The students took a tour of the Supreme Court, the Capital [sic.], met with staff from John Lewis and Saxby Chambliss offices, and had a seminar at the Heritage Foundation.
We’ve spent more than a decade (split into two parts) living in the Washington metropolitan area. Like many residents, we frequently get queries from friends, relatives, and colleagues about places to visit on trips to Washington. And, of course, we also read local newspapers and magazines that report on the region’s most popular (and educational) tourist destinations. The Heritage Foundation — a conservative Capitol Hill think tank and influence peddling operation — has never been on any of those lists.
Residents of Decatur, Ga., who question whether their elected and appointed leaders have a genuine commitment to preserving affordable housing in the Atlanta suburb can find the answer to their query among the crop of 2015 Decatur Design Award winners.
Last month, a home at 156 Feld Ave. was one of six recipients of a Decatur Design Award. The awards, doled out by the Decatur Historic Preservation Commission, recognize projects “that promote excellence in preservation, design, sustainability, and advocacy.”
Over the years, the Decatur HPC has given awards to teardown projects in the “sustainability” category. Under Decatur code, the Feld Ave. project is considered a “substantial alteration” to an existing building — an “addition” — and that’s the category in which it was recognized. In other jurisdictions, the Feld Ave. project likely would be considered a “teardown.”
Invitations were sent out to a private viewing of a home for sale in Decatur, Georgia’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Is this a new trend in gentrifying neighborhoods, middle-class millionaires marketing McCraftsman McMansions as though they are located in historically upscale neighborhoods like nearby Druid Hills or the gated communities of the suburban nouveau riche?
Like many of its neighbors, the Greenwood Avenue lot had a modest one-story vernacular home on it:
And then a developer came along and scraped it away. According to DeKalb County tax records, in 2010 the developer paid $135,000 for the teardown and then sold the new home the following year for $550,000.
After four years, the property is again on the market:
In part, it’s a case for historical knowledge: the world of Jim Crow seems increasingly distant and incomprehensibly foreign to blacks and whites born in the wake of the civil rights movement. In part, it’s also an issue of relevance and public policy: the segregated history of the United States is inextricably intertwined with the state of modern race relations, one of the most significant unresolved items on the nation’s political agenda. Few would go as far as the man in St. Louis who suggested that every American community should preserve at least one site associated with segregation in order to remind us that there are two racial universes in the United States and that we are not a single unified nation. Whatever the merits or practicality of the proposal, his larger points will resonate for many, both white and black: the country remains divided by race, and historic preservation has a potential to inspire reform. — Robert Weyeneth, The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past (2005).
Between 2013 and 2015, the City of Decatur, Georgia erased the final reminders of its “problematic past.” In what could have been an opportunity to teach about the city’s history — preserving the city’s historic African American schools — Decatur leaders and residents instead chose to build a monument to enduring white supremacy: the Beacon Municipal Center, which the City officially dedicated last month. Continue reading
I can remember when my next-door neighbor, they had been here probably as long as my mother and the last thing, when that U-Haul took off to move them out of here, I couldn’t do nothing but cry. I couldn’t do nothing but cry, it really hurts to see them go knowing that this was their neighborhood. — Oakhurst resident, January 2014.
Note: The resident quoted above was describing a location in the Decatur neighborhood near the property illustrated here. U-Hauls, tears, and trash bins are common sights in Oakhurst.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein
Two recent articles document the human side of teardowns in Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood. The articles are about two very different women who experienced gentrification and displacement in Decatur.
The first article, Fragile History in a Gentrifying Neighborhood (National Council on Public History’s History@Work) is about playwright Valetta Anderson, her 2008 play Hallelujah Street Blues, and the politics of public memory.
The second article, Doing Public History: This Is What Success Can Look Like (History News Network), is about a graduate student who found a creative way to resist the alienation she felt among a growing number of McMansion-dwelling families.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein