City Politics

College in a City

Georgia Tech’s evolving relationship with surrounding communities
Students board a Stinger Bus on Ferst Drive behind a fence dividing Atlanta and campus // Photo by LaMenta3 on Flickr

Anyone trying to navigate between West Campus and Westside Atlanta has likely encountered a confusing network of dead ends, barbed wire fences, and narrow sidewalks along overpasses and tunnels.

Crossing between campus and Midtown is a very different experience, one designed to connect the two communities. This disparity is emblematic of Georgia Tech’s tenuous relationship with its neighboring communities. Since Georgia Tech’s founding over 100 years ago, its location in the center of Atlanta has led to both unique opportunities for community collaboration and instances of purposive exclusion.

Chris Burke, Georgia Tech’s executive director of community relations, described his experience as a student at Clark Atlanta University in the 1990s. Burke frequently used to bike to Emory University’s library—seven miles from Clark Atlanta—to study, but he never studied at Georgia Tech’s library, just two miles from his campus.

As he put it, the wall dividing Tech’s campus from North Ave to the south “really said to [him]: ‘you’re not welcome here.’”

This was no accident. For decades, the area directly to the south of Tech’s campus was an impoverished neighborhood known as Techwood Flats. By the time Burke was a Clark Atlanta student, the Flats had been replaced by the nation’s first public housing project, Techwood Homes.

As Burke explained, “you had poor Black people across the street, and certainly the fear of… ‘those people living over there’ coming onto our campus [led to] attempts to not make it inviting.”

Tech Tower as viewed from North Ave: left November 2007, and right December 2021 // Images via Google Maps

Even Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens experienced this exclusion. The first in his family to attend university, he described not even knowing where Georgia Tech was for most of his life despite growing up just miles from Tech’s campus. “That’s how distant Georgia Tech was from the lower income Black community.”

Today, Georgia Tech’s administration is trying to move the school beyond this exclusionary history and mend wounds that have divided Tech from the communities around it.

While most of the widely publicized efforts in connecting students with Atlanta focus on tech companies like Airbnb, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft opening offices in Atlanta in hopes of recruiting Tech students, Burke’s team is also actively working to better connect our campus with less resourced communities to the south and west.

Making Georgia Tech more welcoming to people from all parts of the city starts with removing spatial barriers, but it goes further as well. Of all the efforts Burke’s team is taking, the one he said he’s most proud of is a History, Technology, and Sociology class that he teaches. In this class, Georgia Tech students are paired with high school mentees at BEST Academy, an all-male, 95% Black school on the Westside.

By getting to know each other despite often coming from very different backgrounds, the mutual understanding goes both ways: Tech students learn more about the communities and people they’re studying next to, and BEST Academy students gain valuable role models. Multiple students from Westside have now attended Georgia Tech as a result of this program and others.

While neighborhood organizer and newly elected Atlanta city councilmember Byron Amos shared the perspective that the “union [between Georgia Tech and Atlanta’s city government] has only been about 10 years, 15 years in the making,” he expressed unconditional optimism with respect to the new direction Georgia Tech is taking and is looking forward to working with the university’s administration to better link the city with Tech.

“It is a good friendship that we are learning from each other and beginning to just see how best we can serve each other.’

According to Dickens, since the time he studied here, “Georgia Tech became more aware that it could not just be a university in the city and not make sure that it was a part of community building.”

In addition to the steps the university is already taking to become a more active and inclusive community member, the mayor had a number of ideas where it could go further. Dickens pointed to the shortage of affordable housing available to Georgia Tech’s staff members and urged the school to “build mixed-income housing on lands that we own around campus.” He also named various steps that the university could implement more easily. From allowing its classrooms to be used by community organizations to creating a night school to help Atlantans earn GEDs, Dickens hopes that Georgia Tech will continue to step up to serve the communities that have given Tech a home.

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