I met the former owner of 526 McKoy Street in Decatur, Georgia, on a cool winter morning the second week of January 2012. She was one of the first interviews I did with Decatur homeowners in the city’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Earlier this year, she died at age 86.
Washington architectural writer Amanda Kolson Hurley recently examined the origins of what she’s dubbed “flip house gray” for Washington City Paper. According to Hurley, house flippers prefer a neutral, boring color palette. Over the past few years gray has emerged as the dominant bland color in the nation’s capital.
Hurley’s article provided an answer to a question I had back in 2012: why was a Decatur, Ga., house flipper painting a red brick bungalow and its garage matching shades of gray?
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.
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:
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
History News Network has published my article, When a City Turns White, What Happens to its Black History?
The HNN article is the first of several on history and historic preservation in Decatur that will be published over the next year. My book on structural racism, gentrification and housing history in Decatur will cover all of these issues.
The HNN article doesn’t explicitly state it, but I believe the problems laid out in the article are not a history problem; they are a civil rights problem. Gentrification and demographic inversion are rapidly diminishing Decatur’s African American population. Decisions by Decatur’s elected and appointed officials offer irrefutable evidence that their city’s community and economic policies embrace gentrification and demographic inversion as municipal growth strategies.
The erasure of black history and culture from the contemporary landscape and the historical record is as much of a civil rights issue as the city’s police racial profiling. As I have told folks in presentations and conversations about Decatur, erasing Decatur’s African Americans and their history is little more than an invisible form of ethnic cleansing that is related to the mass incarceration of African Americans and the substantial prison economy that has developed to profit from it. It is, in effect, another example what author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein