Reporting and writing conducted by James Gao under the instruction of Arelis R. Hernández at AAJA JCamp 2019.
ATLANTA, GA. – If Georgia State University’s 2017 construction of a brand-new football stadium was meant to give their brand-new football team a morale boost, it seems as if their $30 million venture may have been fruitless. With a 29-77 all-time record and continued difficulty recruiting, the GSU Panthers are coming to terms with a difficult realization: they aren’t very good. In fact, some students have already given up on their athletes. “People care more about Georgia Tech football than they do about our own team,” one graduate student remarks unapologetically.
Although GSU students feel the anguish of another football season devastatingly barren of wins, many are oblivious to the painful history of the grounds where their present football stadium lies. Georgia State Stadium - previously known as Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, sits squarely between some of Atlanta’s poorest areas by median income – Adair Park, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, Pittsburgh, and Summerhill. The lifelong residents of these working-class communities are certainly no strangers to stadiums, however, having hosted the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996 and, before then, serving as home to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for nearly 40 years.
When the Braves announced that they would be leaving the stadium in 2013, Georgia State University offered to purchase it and redevelop the surrounding area for its collegiate football team. As local residents prepared to welcome yet another stadium to their towns, however, they reflected on a troubling past, one where development has been synonymous with gentrification and division. In the 1950s, these districts – then known as the Washington-Rawson region – saw a line bulldozed through their streets in order to clear a path for new Interstate highways, displacing thousands and placing an immovable physical barrier in the center of a low-income black community in decline. In the 1960s, the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium scared away business in droves, resulting in Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown becoming three of metro Atlanta’s most destitute neighborhoods.
After the first whispers of redevelopment began to spread once again, locals were determined to ensure that their families and friends did not befall a similar fate. In 2015, a group of neighborhood activists formed the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition (TFCBC), aiming to present to authorities a community benefits agreement (CBA) - essentially, a contract mandating the protection of certain rights for locals. The plan, a collaboration between city council members and representatives of municipal organizations, was ambitious, detailed and comprehensive; a 2016 TFCBC poster lists demands ranging from investments in infrastructure, guarantees against displacement and eviction, upgraded energy and water efficiency, and the construction of a grocery store to improve accessibility to fresh produce. (A majority of the region surrounding Turner Field is considered a food desert by the USDA.)
Despite ensuing protests in city council meetings and across the GSU campus, the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority (AFCRA) signed a deal with Carter and Oakwood (the development firm representing GSU) in early 2017 without adopting the goals of the TFCBC’s community benefits agreement. Community leaders and GSU students reacted with fury; the GSU campus soon became engulfed in heated debate. Senior Brandon Andrews was only a freshman when he, along with many other students, protested the redevelopment of Turner by interrupting city council meetings, picketing the president’s office, and stationing themselves on the grounds of Turner Field to protest the university’s lack of receptiveness to their demands, resulting in the creation of a “Tent City” that had to be forcibly taken down by police. “It was rough,” he concedes grimly. Some students, decrying their university as “Gentrification State,” were arrested or barred from campus when they confronted the university’s president, Mark Becker, over his refusal to discuss the merits of a CBA. Andrews continues, “there were a lot of student government meetings,” so many to the point that “the student government president pretty much said, ‘stop asking me [about the CBA], I’m not going to talk to the President [of the school] about it anymore.’” Becker never acquiesced to the students’ demands, arguing that the school, having a sole responsibility for its own well-being, “cannot pay for something if it is not a university activity” and characterizing the TFCBC as a group of “self-interested individuals” with “personal agendas.” “What they’re telling you is, this is a poor neighborhood and we don’t want it to get better. We want it to stay poor and we just want you to put money in there to keep it the way it is,” he responded in a Georgia State Signal interview. Although student protests mostly died down in defeat after the completion of the purchase, several students ended up permanently leaving the university in protest. Now, Andrews says, “We don’t really talk about any of it anymore.”
Senior Brandon Andrews of Georgia State: “We don’t really talk about any of it anymore.”
Two years after GSU and Carter finalized the Turner Field redevelopment plan without the legally-binding CBA that community activists had asked for, many still express resentment over the lack of transparency and inclusivity in the planning process. Micah Rowland is the former chair of NPU-V, one of Atlanta’s twenty-five “neighborhood planning unit” advisory boards that includes Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville. “We stood there, we fought the building of this stadium… I stood in front of city council, I stood in front of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, but right now, it’s irrelevant. It’s already done,” Rowland, a current systems administrator for GSU, says, a hint of defeat in his voice. He suggested a desire not to reopen an old wound: “You talk to all these activists [who fought for the CBA] and they’re not going to say anything negative. Because it’s there. It’s there now,” he said. “People aren’t really engaged. Gentrification is continuing.”
Former NPU-V Administrator Micah Rowland: “It’s irrelevant. It’s already done.”
Just as impactful as the effects of redevelopment is the apparent rift that the fight for a CBA seems to have exposed between leaders within the NPU-V community. Some members of the now-defunct TFCBC say that the reality of the final redevelopment plan was a far cry from their worst fears. Wanda B. Rasheed is the current treasurer for the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill (ONS), a nonprofit organization that continues to participate in redevelopment negotiations with both the university and Carter and Oakwood. She reflects back on the negotiating process with pleasant satisfaction. “Honestly, it was a win-win for Summerhill,” she said. “While they didn’t want to sign a legally-binding CBA, we felt as if we were heard. They accepted our recommendations, and they implemented them even without the binding agreement.” The new developments in Summerhill excite her, she said. “We can have the old [businesses and homes] with the new. This is a community, and things are changing.” Regardless, she indicated, her goal was still to protect her district’s residents: “We are still representing Summerhill. We are not sleeping on any of the issues surrounding the development. We are asking the tough questions. And we just want to make sure that at the end of the day, that everything is OK for everybody.”
To others, however, including former State Senator and 2017 Atlanta mayoral candidate Vincent Fort, Rasheed and ONS’s reconciliatory approach represents a betrayal of the constituents they were supposed to represent. “The Organized Neighbors were gentrifiers who sold out their community,” he exclaimed with resentment. “They were gentrifiers who didn’t care about the poor and working-class community getting a greater community benefit from this redevelopment.” Fort, who worked closely with the Housing Justice League - an anti-gentrification advocacy organization - suggested that the debacle had put solidarity within low-income black communities to the test: “There was an element of racism on social media. People were saying mean things about African-Americans and promoting resistance to the deal.” The root cause? “There were white gentrifiers within Summerhill, within Mechanicsville, within Peoplestown. They are still gentrifying the community today."
Former State Sen. Vincent Fort: “They were gentrifiers who didn’t care about the poor.”
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Regardless of perspective, no involved party can deny that there is an element of truth in Fort’s insistence that gentrification has proliferated as a result of the lack of a CBA. Even as she extols the business boom in downtown Atlanta, Rasheed admits that “[they’ve] had some renters… who have been displaced” and that “property taxes -- especially for our seniors -- are rising quickly.” Advocates for the initial CBA suggest that such an outcome could have been avoidable. “Community housing development organizations are no longer getting funding from the government as a result of the redevelopment,” Rowland laments. “There’s not gonna be any affordable housing anymore.” “I think that everything that we thought would come true came true, unfortunately,” Andrews assents. “Atlanta already has a huge homeless issue -- and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more displacement as a result of all of this.”
Both on and off-campus, however, students and residents alike have begun to accept the Turner Field redevelopment plan as an immutable component of their lives. Sophomore Keyshawn Phillips will be one of the first students to move into 120 Piedmont next month, a 26-story privately-owned housing tower that looms over Georgia State Stadium. “I’ll be able to see into the stadium just from my dorm window,” he commented excitedly. Meanwhile, businesses revival in Summerhill is evident. Strolling down Georgia Avenue reveals many an establishment with newly-painted signs and bustling shoppers. “The Little Tart Bakeshop,” one elegant red sign reads. Another — a brewery — is named “Halfway Crooks.” “NOW OPEN!” posters and signs line new apartment complexes running all down the street. “Crime has, for certain, gone down in Summerhill,” Rasheed exclaims happily. Andrews agrees. “It is beneficial for the students, I mean, even if it is awful for the residents,” he says, sounding less-than-excited. “I have a friend who lives over in [Mechanicsville] and he says it is a much nicer place to live — it’s no longer considered a ghetto, or whatever it used to be.”
In a few years, the painful, complex redevelopment process will be forgotten by most. Seasons go by for the residents and business-owners in downtown Atlanta. Some are evicted. Some move in. And on the campus of Georgia State, the only reminder left of the months of protests, deliberate negotiations, and camping out on “Tent City” will be the football stadium itself; nowadays, the only thing left to stir up gripes and jumbles is its emptiness. “You know how big a football stadium is?” one junior asked with wide-eyed incredulity. “I think it was a waste of money.” She shrugs her shoulders, then walks away.