Renovation Brings Area Up to Par

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By David A. Markiewicz

When Theresa Cartwright left East Lake in the mid-1980s, moving out of her parents’ home after college, it seemed unlikely she would consider a return.

So infested with violent crime that part of it became known as “Little Vietnam,” the Atlanta/DeKalb County neighborhood had a meager supply of good housing, an underperforming school, and not much in the way of shopping or services.

Told this week that new single-family homes are being considered for the area, Cartwright’s reaction reflected her changed attitude.

“I’ll buy one,” she said eagerly. “I love the neighborhood.”

Cartwright knows well the transformation East Lake has undergone. Although she now lives three miles away in Decatur, she works at the Charles R. Drew Charter School, one of the linchpins of the neighborhood’s massive renovation project, which was undertaken by the East Lake Foundation and public and private partners beginning in 1995.

Every day to and from work, Cartwright drives by the Villages of East Lake, a thriving, 98 percent-occupied mixed-income housing community of 542 rental apartments. Her son, Collin Wilson, a seventh-grader, attends Drew, whose pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students have posted impressive reading and math scores.

She also passes by the East Lake Family YMCA, the Sheltering Arms early childhood development center, a new Publix grocery and Wachovia Bank branch, and the venerable Charlie Yates Golf Course.

“It used to be dilapidated,” Cartwright said. “Now, it’s pretty and peaceful.”

East Lake receives its annual moment in the public eye this week as the Professional Golfers Association holds its Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club. Some of the net proceeds from the tournament benefit the foundation. The event also offers a chance to bring wider attention to a neighborhood that has already gained national praise for its redevelopment model.

“A lot of people will come out to see a fabulous golf tournament. While they’re here, they might look around and say, ‘Hey, look at all the cool stuff going on,” said Carol Naughton, executive director of the East Lake Foundation. “The media attention is great!”

To show off the changes, Naughton points to a “Then and Now” comparison of the neighborhood, citing data compiled and provided by the East Lake Foundation. Some highlights:

In 1995, East Lake had the run-down East Lake Meadows public housing project. Today, it has the Villages. The Meadows is gone, torn down.

Back then, the crime rate was 18 times the national average and there was a $35 million a year neighborhood drug trade. Since 1995, violent crime in the area has been reduced 95 percent.

A dozen years ago, only 4 percent of families in the area had incomes above the poverty line, and 59 percent relied on welfare. Now, all adults who receive government housing assistance are working or in a job training program, and only 5 percent of adults are on welfare.

In the neighborhood’s desperate days, less than one-third of students there graduated from high school, and only 5 percent of the fifth-grade students at the local elementary school met or exceeded state standards for math. Now, 88 percent of Drew students meeet or exceed state reading standards and 74 percent meet or exceed state math standards.

Atlanta developer and East Lake Foundation founder Tom Cousins said, “We set out to change this with a holistic approach.”

That meant not just building housing, but creating a neighborhood of people with varying incomes, and providing them quality education, recreation and commercial options.

“It needs to be done in every city,” Cousins said.

Naughton said several other communities across the country are working on neighborhood revitalization projects patterned after East Lake. Meanwhile, East Lake itself continues to develop. Naughton said the original 175-acre site is “pretty much built up,” but that the foundation controls the land for future development, including possible new homes.

One reason to build houses, she said, is the soaring popularity of the area. That has dramatically driven up home prices.

“That’s wonderful,” Naughton said, “but the downside is that it makes it harder for working people to live here. We’re looking for a range of housing options.”

That’s the kind of talk that has Theresa Cartwright taking a new look at her old neighborhood.

East Lake, she said, “is coming back.”