“It’s really impossible to create any kind of improvement without causing the same types of challenges,” Ryan Gravel said about the product of his graduate thesis that transformed into a community grassroots movement and eventually a major city project. The Beltline is often seen as a story of success, but other people see it as a physical manifestation of gentrification of the Atlanta Area.
Gentrification has become a buzzword in national conversations about equity, often conjuring up images of wealthy white hipsters moving into a predominantly black area until they eventually take it over. But, this popular image isn’t the full story.
Simply put, gentrification is the process of refurbishing a lower-class area to appeal to the middle class, often pushing out its original residents. But, there are many layers to the process of gentrification and displacement.
Gentrification causes change in the economics, culture, and politics of an area, and can be categorized by the primary type of change it causes.
“Economic is probably the type [of gentrification] that gets the most traction and that’s really visible too,” Ted Ward, educational director at the Center for Civil and Human Rights said. Economic gentrification usually leads to cultural and political gentrification as well.
Although racial change in an area often seems to be the most obvious indicator of displacement, Ward mentions that it is tied to economic gentrification. “Race and economics are intertwined in the south,” he said, “It becomes easier to see through a racial lens.”
So what exactly causes gentrification? Often, an area gains a large amount of public or private investment, sometimes as a result of a grassroots community movement such as the Beltline, or a larger city-wide event such as the 1996 Olympics
“Naturally, investment is gentrification because you’re taking an area and repurposing it,” Ward said.
As an area gains public investment through gentrification, costs of living in that particular area often rise dramatically, and many of the lower-class original residents are no longer able to afford their homes.
“The people who have waited decades for public investment in their area, once they finally get it, it’s actually a driver of their displacement and removal. That to me is the underlying tragedy of all of this. They’ve been paying taxes longer than all of us in these neighborhoods, waiting for this type of investment, and once it comes, they can’t afford to stay around to enjoy it,” Ward said.
And, even if a resident is able to afford their home despite rising property taxes, Ward mentions that they may run into other troubles, “Even if you can afford to live there, the area doesn’t fit your needs anymore”.
Although the image of wide-scale cultural displacement may seem sudden and dismal, gentrification is not a recently-developed phenomenon.
Some people connect gentrification back to the founding of the United States, citing displacement of indigenous people as the original act of gentrification.
More locally, a major shift in the culture of Atlanta as a result of gentrification took place shortly before the 1996 Olympics.
In preparation for the Olympics, the city of Atlanta systematically eliminated poverty in the areas surrounding the Olympic stadium.
They accomplished this goal by implementing anti-homeless architecture and elminating public housing in midtown. The Techwood homes, the first public housing project in the United States and a Georgia Tech Alum’s project, was among the homes demolished and replaced with a mixed-income apartment community before the Olympics. Centennial Place, the apartment complex that replaced the Techwood homes, is still standing and sits slightly behind the North Avenue Apartments.
According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, the city of Atlanta spent over $5 billion ($1 billion of which was public money) to fund improvements to the areas surrounding the games. The government of Georgia describes the renovations as an “impressive new face”. New hotels and chain restaurants were also erected in Downtown and Midtown to house visitors, and the city spent most of the public funds on improving sidewalks and streets.
As a result of the influx of investment in Atlanta, costs of living rose. Historic residents were forced to move to more suburban areas, and homeless people were pushed out of the center of the city.
While the olympics were a monumental and obvious cause of gentrification, many neighborhoods have continued to change since then.
One of the most obvious recent areas of change is the Old Fourth Ward Neighborhood, which is home to Ponce City Market and the east side of the Beltline trail. The Beltline is largely blamed for the gentrification of Old Fourth Ward.
“It’s physical thing, it’s a tangible thing, so it’s easier to point fingers to blame at that than to actually try to follow a very complex situation,” Beltline creator Ryan Gravel said about the popular blame of the project.
However, Gravel is happy that the Beltline has sparked conversation about gentrification. “As long as it doesn’t stop the project, if that kind of finger pointing and blaming does generate the conversation about the Beltline and other infrastructures, then have at it,” he said.
Gravel is an advocate for affordable housing and equity, and has publicly stated that he will consider the Beltline Project a failure if it does not provide affordable housing. Additionally, he left the Beltline Project over frustration from affordable housing. “It was clear that the beltline partnership was not going to advocate sufficiently for housing affordability,” he said.
Another key aspect of the Beltline project is creation of a light-rail transportation system, which has not yet been implemented. Gravel considers this as an important equalizer in communities, because it provides access to transportation around the city. “Let’s talk about transportation in terms of equity- not just mobility, because it matters,” he said.
It is also important to remember that the Beltline is not yet a completed project. “We’re still in the early stages of the project, and I think we’re in the process of course-correcting there. I do feel strongly that the answer is not to not build. The answer is to build it, but to be intentional about who we’re building for,” Gravel stated.
Still, Gravel warns about the potential dangers of urban sprawl, particularly how it will disproportionately affect power people. “The people who can’t afford it are stuck inheriting the sprawl,” he continues, “If you think about urban poverty in the past century- maybe these people were stuck in some terrible conditions in a ghetto, but at least they were downtown where they could get to jobs and stuff. Now they’re going to be stuck at the end of some cul-de-sac, invisible to the world.”
“Just imagine this dystopian kind-of outcome. It’s not hard,” he said.
While having these types of conversations about gentrification, a fundamental question often comes up: Should housing be a human right or a commodity?
Average monthly rent for an apartment in Old Fourth Ward
Average monthly rent for an apartment in the West End Community
Amount of private and public investment in the Atlanta Beltline Project
The United States generally views housing as a commodity. When a person goes to buy a home, they are expected to pay for it, often through a series of home loans from a bank. That person is also expected to pay property tax on their home, and if they are unable to afford those taxes or their payments, they are evicted from their home.
If housing were to be seen as a human right, everyone would have access to housing in some form whether they could afford property tax or not.
Sharah Hutson, a resident of Atlanta and college student, “feel[s] pretty strongly that it should be a human right.”
“Everyone deserves housing. That shouldn’t be something that we are arguing” they said.
Sharah currently lives in a majority black community, and although they do not feel that their neighborhood is currently under threat of gentrification, they are mindful of other communities facing this issue.
“I live about 5 minutes away from the West End community. Right before you get to the Mercedes Benz Stadium, I saw that the Beltline was over there, and that was concerning,” they said.
Hutson also states that they are “nervous for the West End community.” The West End is currently undergoing the process of gentrification, as many new restaurants and apartment complexes are popping up, potentially as a result of new investment in the area from Mercedes Benz Stadium. The historically black area has also seen an influx of white citizens in recent years.
“Are people moving to these neighborhoods and not realizing they’re committing an act of gentrification?” Hutson said.
They also worry about the cultural displacement of the West End. “I see anti-blackness as a global commodity,” they said, “If these white folks have intention of moving into a black community, are they actually going to get along?”
Defenders of this change often refer to it as “reverse white flight”, arguing that integrating neighborhoods is a positive development.
However, Hutson, has their doubts. “Can you really ever reach a neighborhood that has a good mix of people and everyone is getting along and appropriately understanding each other?” they said.
As rising property taxes push people out of their homes, it is natural to wonder where the displaced people go to live. “I haven’t seen anything that can directly point to where these people are moving,” Hutson said.
It is difficult to track exactly where displaced families tend to move when they are no longer able to afford their homes in gentrified areas. Common theories point to the suburbs, where housing prices tend to be cheaper.
Although the houses may be cheaper, moving to suburbs comes at a heavy price for many impoverished families: less access. MARTA does not extend far into the suburbs especially the southern suburbs, making it harder for working adults to find a way into the city for their job. Public green space is often a driver of gentrification, as it has many mental health benefits, and often it is scarce in poorer suburbs of Atlanta. Additionally, the public greenspace within the city is often overtaken by upper class people using it.
As dismal gentrification can often seem, the city of Atlanta has begun to recognize the issue.
“I think the city definitely is learning from its mistakes,” Ward said, “You were seeing a lot of issues with affordable housing because they weren’t being proactive. Now, I think they’re doing a better job of being reactive to it and proactive in areas where they know the beltl
Some of the reactions from the city to counteract rising housing prices include expanding inclusionary zoning, which is currently being implemented on the Westside. “Any new construction over 10 units needs to include 10% at 60% AMI (average median income) or 15% at 80% AMI”, Ward said, “It is not an incentive; it is a mandate.”
The city of Atlanta also created the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund, more commonly known as Anti-displacement zones, where property taxes are frozen at a certain rate for historic residents, in order to counteract economic and cultural displacement.
However, displacement continues to be a chronic issue because of new developments. “We are still at a point where our policies are too favorable for developers,” Ward said.
“If people cared more, like really cared, such that it affected who they voted for, and what kind of things they demanded of their elected officials, we would have better outcomes,” Gravel said.
Ward mentions that the most effective way to pressure officials is to be involved in the conversation about gentrification by attending city council meetings, and speaking up during the public input section.
Gravel agrees with this statement, also recommending that investors be held accountable to their promises of equity in the same manner the Beltline was. “We had this rag-tag group of people who wanted the best for their community, and there were housing advocates there, so we embedded those aspects as part of the vision, which is what makes it so easy to point at a project and hold it accountable to what we’ve been saying all of these years. We should have a similar plan to holding all of these other investors accountable with outcomes,” he said.
Overall, it is important to remember that continued advocacy in pressure will make a difference. “Democracy is continued participation in our civic institutions,” Ward said.