A Community Approach Helps Transform Atlanta Neighborhood
East Lake went from ‘war zone’ to a national model
By Alexandra Rice
Residents of Atlanta’s redeveloped East Lake community say the history of their neighborhood is a real-life Cinderella story.
East Lake, once known as “Little Vietnam” to the local police because of its sky-high crime rates, is now a paradigm of community revitalization that serves as a national model for Purpose Built Communities, a consulting group on neighborhood turnarounds that is gaining traction, primarily across the Southeast. Now in East Lake, mixed-income housing is woven between shops, local eateries, schools, a family center, a YMCA, and two golf courses.
Purpose Built Communities, based in Atlanta, grew organically out of the undertaking of East Lake’s revitalization. The nonprofit organization, now officially in its third year, is financed by three philanthropists: Tom Cousins, an Atlanta real estate developer; Julian Robertson, founder of the now-defunct Wall Street hedge fund Tiger Management Corp.; and Warren Buffett, the well-known chairman and chief executive officer of the Berkshire Hathaway corporate holding company.
The group targets communities seemingly locked in a cycle of endless poverty and works with local leaders to reverse a tradition of welfare, joblessness, and nominal education. Now established in six states, the group keeps the advancement of education at the core of its mission with each community it enters and stresses the involvement of local partners, such as universities, banks, and community centers, to help improve local housing, transportation, education, and employment options in its turnaround efforts.
Though the group is not as well known as the Harlem Children’s Zone project, which attempts to transform communities by enveloping families in a net of social and educational services, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited the Purpose Built Communities model in a 2009 keynote speech. He said East Lake and the Harlem Children’s Zone are “crafting similar solutions to the problems of concentrated poverty.”
Golf and Guidance
For many of Purpose Built Communities’ initiatives, there is a sort of catalyst that sparks the turnaround in the area. For East Lake, it was the redevelopment of the East Lake Golf Course, a private course that today serves as a cash cow for the community. All proceeds from the course go back into East Lake through its foundation. Across the street from the course sits another course that was built in conjunction with the community’s redevelopment. This course, the Charlie Yates Golf Course, serves as an outdoor classroom for the students of nearby Charles R. Drew Charter School as well as a functioning public golf facility.
At the Yates course, the students, mostly minority and underserved children, learn the principles and techniques of a game traditionally associated with middle- and upper-class communities from volunteer mentors, many of whom are former golf professionals.
The seeds for East Lake’s transformation were planted in 1993, when Mr. Cousins was deeply disturbed by a statistic about the demographics of New York state prisoners that he read in a New York Times opinionpiece . In the piece, the author, a Rutgers University professor, wrote that 70 percent of the prisoners came from just eight neighborhoods. Mr. Cousins, intrigued, then looked at his own state and found out the number of neighborhoods was even fewer there, with a majority of prisoners coming from East Lake.
Back then, East Lake, or East Lake Meadows as it was called, was a 650-unit public-housing project characterized by its widespread crime, thriving drug trade, and gang presence. In Mr. Duncan’s speech the secretary noted that from 1993 to 1997, the early years of the community’s redevelopment, East Lake’s violent crime dropped by 96 percent.
It wasn’t just the violence plaguing East Lake that alarmed Mr. Cousins; it was the extremely low employment and high school graduation rates. In the area, which was also known as “Atlanta’s war zone,” fewer than one-third of students graduated from high school.
Mr. Cousins decided to step in. He established the East Lake Foundation and developed public and private partnerships to help him transform the community. Eva Davis, a resident of the former housing project, has often said area residents were skeptical of Mr. Cousins’ plan at first, having been promised the same thing before by other affluent businessmen with no results. This time was different, though, Ms. Davis said. Mr. Cousins kept his word, and he did it with the help of those already living in East Lake.
“We look for people who have a track record of solving complicated problems in the business or civic worlds in which they operate,” said Cynthia Naughton, the vice president of Purpose Built Communities. “We’re looking for business leaders who are ready to roll up their sleeves.”
One place the community shows off the success of its partnership model is the Drew Charter School, which was founded by Mr. Cousins’ East Lake Foundation, the Atlanta board of education, and community members.
Charter schools serve as a fundamental part of Purpose Built Communities’ methodology. While staff members say it’s important to them to work with the regular public neighborhood schools as well, they contend the charter school model gives them the autonomy they are looking for when educating students from “cradle to college education.”
“It is the quality of education that sustains revitalization and provides the tools for breaking the cycle of poverty,” Ms. Naughton said. “There is nothing more important than the education pipeline.”
The Drew school first opened its doors in August 2000 with 240 students spanning six grades. Today, the school serves more than 850 students in prekindergarten through 8th grade. The school’s chosen curriculum is focused around the STEAM principles—science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics—and ultimately grounds itself in the school’s guiding goal of high literacy achievement.
The privately run Atlanta Speech School, one of Drew’s partners, provides preschool children with the language and literacy skills necessary for success in kindergarten.
In addition to dozens of other local partnerships, the Drew school boasts test scores above the district average, an extended school day and year, and before- and after-school programs.
“I’ve been in Atlanta a long time, and I’ve seen different programs throw money at certain communities for revitalization, and at the end of the day most of them were not effective,” said Drew’s principal, Don Doran, now in his third year at the school. “Observing this one from a distance, I saw how effective it was.”
A Family’s Decision
After Dennis Thomas and his wife, Luana Nissan, moved their family to Atlanta three years ago, they had to decide where their three daughters would go to school. The couple easily settled on the neighborhood school for their two older daughters, but they had trouble deciding where to send their youngest daughter, who was entering prekindergarten.
When the family heard about Drew, they thought it sounded like the perfect fit. That daughter, who had speech-articulation difficulties, thrived at the school with its emphasis on language and literacy.
“For us, my daughter now has blossomed as a 1st grader,” Mr. Thomas said. “She’s starting to read, even maybe ahead of her grade level now, and that’s a very common experience for all of the parents [at Drew].”
The East Lake community has also offered opportunities for the family’s other two daughters, who take part in the First Tee of East Lake program. Local students, including all 2nd through 8th graders at Drew, can participate in the flagship golf and mentoring program held on the Yates Golf Course.
“It’s a two-tier program, really, where the kids learn life skills and golf skills. They learn through the game that self-respect and self-confidence go hand in hand,” Mr. Thomas said. Next year, the couple’s middle daughter will be in middle school, which means choosing a new school. Drew, Mr. Thomas said, is on her list.
Principal Doran says he and his family have really settled into the school and the East Lake community. After watching the community transformation for several years, he said he was persuaded to sell a home in the suburbs and move the family to East Lake.
“It’s like you get to a certain tipping point in these communities,” he said. “People will look at these communities for a few years before they’ll gamble their children’s education on it.”
But it took years before community members could say they lived in a safe neighborhood with good schools and marketable property values. Today, the state department of education reports 94.5 percent of Drew 8th graders meeting or exceeding state reading standards, but local officials put the number closer to 99 percent.
Purpose Built Communities, which looks for defined circumstances before going into a community, says it is now receiving more invitations than it has the capacity to handle. The group reaches as far north as Indiana and has considered proposals for communities as far west as California. In addition to Georgia and Indiana, it currently has programs in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina. It plans to establish 25 such large-scale communities during the next five years.
“We’re expanding, but we want to be very careful about where we make a commitment,” said Ms. Naughton, the group’s vice president.