Working together to build communities

Moderated by Rick Badie

South Downtown, arguably the heart of Atlanta, has had a rich history you may not be aware of, given the current grit of the area. These days a resurgence is afoot, thanks in part to today’s lead column writer, an architect who has formed a community improvement organization to address issues. The companion column continues our theme, this time for immigrant-infused neighborhoods off Buford Highway. The third column deals with attempts at racial healing in LaGrange.

Fix South Downtown

By Kyle Kessler

Maybe you don’t know this area by that name, but you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the part of downtown that’s south of Five Points — home to Atlanta City Hall and the state Capitol but also diverse businesses, residents and churches. Many voices have shaped its history, and many more are needed today to realize its potential.

South Downtown tells stories of Atlanta’s past. Underneath the viaducts that created Underground Atlanta, you’ll find the Zero Mile Post, literally the center of our city when the railroad first arrived. Nearby buildings, some of the oldest in Atlanta, speak to what was happening just after the Civil War. Others still show evidence of segregated lunch counters that speak to what was happening during the civil rights movement.

South Downtown also tells stories of Atlanta’s future. Many of these old buildings have new life in them. For instance, C4 Atlanta opened an arts entrepreneurship center in a small portion of the historic M. Rich Building that was home to Rich’s department store until 1924. Since this pioneering move in 2012, the building has filled with a variety of tenants, including journalists at Creative Loafing, social entrepreneurs at the Center for Civic Innovation and students at The Iron Yard coding school.

Just a few blocks away, Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery is repurposing five vacated storefronts, Mammal Gallery occupies an abandoned nightclub, and Murmur Media has moved into an empty convenience store. The Goat Farm is venturing beyond its West Midtown complex to launch the BEACONS project to help other creative entrepreneurs fill gaps among the businesses that call South Downtown home. Miller’s Rexall Drugs is celebrating its 50th year in business; Friedman’s Shoes has been open since 1929.

South Downtown’s streets and public spaces are also being used to tell stories today. This is where crowds gather to make their voices heard both in protest and celebration. The city’s annual Elevate public art exhibition has brought installations and performances to the area since 2011, and you’ve likely seen one of the dozens of movies and television shows filmed here recently. On Sept. 25, the area will host a block party to celebrate the best Atlanta has to offer.

In recent years, conversations have started among various stakeholders — from political officials, property owners and developers to small business owners, residents and people with no place to call home. These conversations have not focused on front-page news like sports stadiums, commuter rail stations or casinos. Instead, they have focused on neighbors getting to know each other and figuring out how to work together to make improvements after decades of disinvestment.

That is why the Center for Civic Innovation is leading an initiative to bring together groups and individuals already working to boost business, solve social challenges and improve everyone’s quality of life. Change is happening. We want to ensure the community is engaged in shaping its own future.

We have hosted public discussions on the proposed redevelopment of Underground Atlanta with the developers under contract to purchase it. We also have input from individuals via an online and door-to-door survey on what they think about South Downtown right now and what they want it to be. We are sharing the community’s voice with the general public, the city’s new planning commissioner and other decisionmakers.

Though many people have written off South Downtown, we know the stories continue. We need to tell those stories by being mindful of successes and failures of the past, focused on realities of the present and open to a range of future possibilities. The stories should be shaped by as many people as possible.

So let’s keep talking about South Downtown.

Kyle Kessler, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, leads the South Downtown Initiative at the Center for Civic Innovation.

Reshaping Cross Keys

By Sarah Brechin

When Cross Keys Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative members have their monthly meetings, it’s guaranteed there will be avid discussion about pressing issues in the community, from economic development to education. Members come from a variety of backgrounds: long-time residents who have witnessed two or three decades of changes, newer residents becoming involved in their community, community leaders who help residents, and so on.

Members have different issues they hold close to their hearts, such as improving education for youth, quality affordable housing and growing small businesses. One thing members do have in common is their drive to revitalize their neighborhood.

The Cross Keys area is geographically defined by the Cross Keys High School district, a stretch of Buford Highway that includes Doraville, Brookhaven, Chamblee and unincorporated DeKalb County. The initiative takes pride in the rich culture of the neighborhood’s immigrant communities, with many thriving, small, Asian and Hispanic businesses; diverse residents, and countless cultural experiences.

The area has not always been this way. Asian and then Hispanic immigrants only began moving to the area in the last 30 years. The population change shifted community needs and resources. This shift has shaped focuses of the Cross Keys initiative.

The organization first convened in 2012 under the guidance of the DeKalb Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative, then a pilot program. It seeks to foster a collaborative, community-based approach to improving the quality of life in local neighborhoods. Members include residents, city and county officials, faith leaders, leaders from the Asian American and Pacific Islander and Latino communities, and school administrators.

With the help of the Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative, the group developed a quality of life plan with strategies that align with its overall mission and vision.

The Cross Keys initiative promotes awareness and increases access to community assets that support human, economic and community development. After three years, it is starting to see changes.

Last year, the group hosted a soccer tournament at Honeysuckle Park in Doraville. More than 400 people came out to support the event. The event influenced Doraville’s decision to install a mini-pitch soccer field at the park and start the park’s youth soccer league, affordable to residents. The Cross Keys initiative is proud of these additions to the Doraville Parks and Recreation Department.

Moreover, the initiative created opportunities for the community to disburse funds for projects that focused on youth and adult education, beautification, public space utilization and the creation of interactive community events. For example, the Doraville Unity Garden expanded a community garden to create an area for the neighborhood to congregate.

The Buford Highway corridor is experiencing rapid changes. With the influence of community groups like the Cross Keys initiative, residents have opportunities to take action. Cross Keys seeks expand its membership and resources to create more opportunities for stakeholders to interact and support the revitalization of the corridor. An increase in active residents and unification of the area will lead to a more prosperous and thriving neighborhood.

For more information about the Cross Keys Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative, contact Victoria Huynh at 770-936-0969 or For the DeKalb Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative, contact Rodney Reese at 404-371-2576 or

Sarah Brechin is the AmeriCorps VISTA program coordinator for the Center for Pan Asian Community Services Inc.

Seeking racial healing in LaGrange

By Jim Thornton

To say we have racial issues in LaGrange is not newsworthy. The same could be said of thousands of cities across the United States. We have watched long-standing racial issues erupt in Ferguson, Baltimore and now Charleston.

But in LaGrange and Troup County, we are trying to do something about it.

More than a year ago, the mayors of LaGrange, West Point and Hogansville and the chairman of the Troup County Commission met for lunch. We often do. The subject of race relations was raised, and we agreed racial issues plague our community. It was time to face and deal with them.

We identified Atlanta-based Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR) and Hope in the Cities (HIC) of Richmond, Va., as racial reconciliation experts, and we enlisted their help.

The theme of this work is “trust building.” The initial goal: Get the community working together to overcome our past struggles and speak a new language that is not poisoned by the past, but eager to explore our common history and seek new solutions to our ongoing challenges. If we succeed, our culture will change in ways that will benefit all of us.

We need to work on issues of public education and crime, think about our economic development strategies to make sure no one is left out, and make sure our historically black and white areas have comparable infrastructure.Most importantly, we desperately need our conversations (and our genuine debates) to be based on trust rather than suspicion across racial lines. We need to find a new way forward that is inclusive, trusting and friendly.

In March, 30 Troup community leaders gathered at a two-day forum hosted by LaGrange College and facilitated by STAR and HIC to begin the conversation. We talked openly about our history of racial division and the terrible effects it has on us even today. We agreed to work together to create a new community vision.

The discussion was honest and sincere, lifting issues without assigning blame. Conversation was real, but not always pleasant. Things were said that needed to be said. We left inspired to share this work and experience throughout our community.

Working with the consultants, co-chairs Carl Von Epps (recently retired after 22 years in the state Legislature) and Ricky Wolfe (recently retired Troup County Commission chair) developed an 18-month training program that will expand the original 30 participants to 200 people from all walks of life.

I’m a realist. I know we will not fix all our racial issues with this initial work. The problem took centuries to create and will take many more years to solve. But when faced with a problem that has kept us divided and impoverished spiritually and economically for centuries, we are not willing to ignore it. Instead, we are working toward creative solutions. We intend to improve race relations in our community.

I look forward to 18 months from now, when I can give a report on the work. I am hopeful we will have built a more trusting community where our history of racial division is not ignored, but simply less relevant to our daily lives.

Jim Thornton is mayor of LaGrange.

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