Residents of one Atlanta neighborhood say a change occurred when the 1996 Olympics came to the city. Most call that change gentrification, but in one crime-ridden area nicknamed “Little Vietnam” the city managed to renovate and improve the area without removing its residents. It’s now a national model for cradle-to-college education with safe streets and better quality housing for low-income families.
Now, a group of Tallahassee advocates and local officials are trying to bring the model to the Southside, but there is a disconnect with the school district, a major player.
Charles Drew High School is a massive, glass and metal encased building, with fenced green lawns. It sits on the top of a hill overlooking a neighborhood Publix and neat rows of mixed-use apartment buildings and tidy, houses. Inside, David Edwards, the CEO of Purpose Built Communities, is giving a tour of a group of Tallahassee officials.
They walk down hallways bordered by indoor Olympic sized pools, basketball courts, and tracks on one side; and classes where kindergarteners learn engineering, robotics and coding on the other. This, all before walking onto a balcony on the second floor that looks over the state of the art turf soccer field and neighboring golf course where young kids can learn to golf. The balcony is next to a row of lockers where kids can check out iPads at any time.
"So when we started here this was a 100% African American neighborhood and basically 90-plus percent low income," Edwards tells them.
"So it was a typical low income distressed neighborhood that had concentrated poverty primarily in the public housing complexes in the center of the neighborhood.”
Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, Rep. Lorrane Ausley, Mayor John Dailey and Rep. Ramon Alexander are in awe.
Purpose Built To South City?
In 2015, the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group, did a study on Tallahassee’s South City.
It showed the area bordered by East Magnolia Drive, Jim Lee Road, Orange Avenue, and South Monroe has the city’s highest rates of unemployment, poverty, crime and vacant and distressed properties along with; with high rates of infant death and chronic diseases.
Ausley thinks this area is perfect for Purpose Built Communities.
"One of the key components of Purpose Built is to want a defined neighborhood. And that’s been one of their success stories to be able to define in a smaller area," she said, after the tour. "So, the South City neighborhood is where we are looking to make what we hope is a real positive change."
Local residents have grown weary of promises of revitalization they’ve yet to see materialize.
“When I first came here in the south city area the crime was at a level that was just unbelievable. With the murdering and the shooting to the point that on Wednesday night, after our bible study, the deacon would have to escort us to our cars because we could hear the shooting all around the church," says Reverend Eddie Franklin, the pastor at Friendship Primitive Baptist Church in South City. He’s been there for eight years and says past efforts to clean the area up have failed.
"We could clean up the community and send children back into the same environment. Basically, all your doing is, you’re not accomplishing anything.”
Franklin thinks the area needs a bigger change. He’s spoken with Purpose Built Communities and believes it could be that catalyst.
"We need Purpose Built, we need that example. And they have from what I understand has set a good standard all apart across the country where they’re located. So I want to be apart, and I want South City and they Southside to be a part of what they’re trying to do.”
Back in Atlanta, Edwards continues the tour. The question is raised: what will it take to bring the model to Tallahassee? What are the city’s next steps? Edwards answers, “autonomy”.
"So everything you see today you can do, and we are doing in public school systems. It’s just a question of getting districts to agree to do it that way," he tells the group. "The good news is, when we started this ten years ago it was very hard to get a school district to agree and give this kind of autonomy to individual schools. Now it’s become almost the way of doing business in most places."
But state law and the constitution puts control of schools under local school districts. Rocky Hanna is the superintendent of Leon County Schools and would have to make the choice to bring Purpose Built Communities into South City. But he says talks are at a standstill.
"Some of its kind of frustrating because there’s been a lot of meetings and a lot of conversation and a lot of talk, and I’m more of an action person," says Hanna. "I want to see concrete sequential to see okay, we keep talking, talking and talking at some point we have to act or we have to find another path."
But Ausley is confident the group is working in the right direction.
The next step is to get both Purpose Built and the school district to sign into an agreement but Hanna says he’s not willing to do that until the housing part is concrete.
"We’re just kind of on hold right now until the housing part’s figured out. But as far as the school system and engaging with them, we’ve been engaged for the last year and a half," said Hanna.
The Price of Purpose
The housing part of the plan relies on the Florida Housing Finance Corporation which is a state program that provides grants to develop affordable housing. Last year the county applied for funding to redevelop Orange Avenue Apartments but it was not reviewed. The housing corporation does a lottery application process and reviews only the applications that have the possibility of being funded.
The Housing Authority is hoping this year they win the lottery and receive the funding for the project.