Change the Neighborhood, Change the World

Developer follows his conscience and makes a difference for many

By Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Syndicated Columnist

ATLANTA — The consensus was that Tom Cousins was either crooked or crazy.

The former opinion was held by residents of the gritty East Lake Meadows housing project who didn’t believe him when he said he wanted to tear down East Lake and erect a mixed-income apartment complex in its place. The latter opinion was held by observers who did.

The residents thought it was just a land grab. They thought Cousins, a wealthy developer and philanthropist, was lying when he said they would be able to move back into nice apartments at subsidized rates and that the drug gangs that had held East Lake in thrall would be banished.

The observers thought it was nuts, this idea that you could effect change by tearing down a crime factory and building an apartment complex where the poor and the middle class would be neighbors. Charles Knapp, then president of the University of Georgia, told Cousins it was a bad idea. “He looked at me and said, ‘Professor’ — which he always called me when he was trying to make a point — ‘I have wasted a lot of money on other people’s bad ideas, including some of yours. And now I’m going to waste some on one of mine.’ ”

Fifteen years later, Cousins’ “bad idea” has produced miracles. As detailed in my last column, crime is way down, income is way up, children’s test scores have exploded. Knapp is now board chairman of the East Lake Foundation.

This is a What Works column, my series on programs that are successfully attacking dysfunctions that plague black children. The success of East Lake suggests you can win that battle by not isolating poverty.

At East Lake, says Executive Director Carol Naughton, a child sees examples he might not see in places where poverty is concentrated. “You see people going to work. You see people going to school, working on whatever plan they have for their life.”

“What did we do differently?” says Cousins. “We built in role models. Every other apartment is a middle-income family.”

Also, middle-income communities tend to attract better services, says Naughton, pointing out the new grocery store and bank that recently opened nearby and the increased police patrols. You didn’t see that when everyone here was poor. Nor, she says, is the benefit one-sided. East Lake, with its spacious apartments, pre-K learning center, excellent charter school and mentoring programs, is just a good, safe place to live, income notwithstanding.

Cousins has been seeking to solve poverty for years. He built low-income housing under the old urban-renewal program that razed the slums. That didn’t work. “We go out three or four years later and they’re slums again. We hadn’t changed the environment.”

Hence, this approach. Change the housing, change the schools, change the services, change the expectations, change everything.

Because Cousins was morally offended by East Lake. “A child has no control over where he or she is born,” he says. Yet for children there, the “future was set and hopeless. To grow up in that environment, which was just drugs and crime and illiteracy and poverty … I had two very strict parents and I still got in a little trouble. I can’t imagine what I would have done had I been in that environment.”

As Naughton sees it, “The unfairness of it all and the lack of a relatively even playing field just sat in his craw.”

Cousins believed in his heart, she says, that “had he been born in East Lake Meadows, he wasn’t special enough to have made it out. And shame on us for allowing a community to have developed and continued where the average guy or the average girl didn’t have a shot.”

There’s a word for that. It’s not crazy and it’s not crooked. It is, rather, conscience.