By Collin Kelley
The Old Fourth Ward’s main thoroughfare is simply known as Boulevard. It used to be known as “one of the most desirable residence streets” in the city, but after the devastating Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 destroyed most of the beautiful homes, Boulevard began transforming into something else. Brick apartment buildings replaced the stately homes, then devolved into crime-ridden section 8 housing. The decline continued when a planned freeway, which eventually became Freedom Parkway, destroyed more homes and businesses.
Although the Old Fourth Ward has undergone a startling transformation over the last decade with new homes and thriving businesses, not to mention the tourism brought by the Martin Luther King Historic District, Boulevard’s reputation for crime, drugs and prostitution remained. However, a project launched by Atlanta City Councilmember Kwanza Hall in 2012 has begun to show a turnaround not only in perception but given hope to the residents who call Boulevard home.
The Year of Boulevard program has worked steadily to make its presence felt along Boulevard, Hall said over breakfast at Condesa Coffee, located on the ground floor of the Tribute Lofts. The coffee shop and the lofts are just two of the success stories Hall hopes will continue to spur the renaissance of Boulevard. Hall said tackling the myriad of issues facing the street seemed, in the beginning, almost insurmountable.
“We didn’t know what the solutions were, but we knew that addressing poverty and building trust were the keys,” he said. “I knew we at least had to try and do something. You won’t make a basket unless you shoot the ball.”
The trust factor has been crucial, especially to the residents who live in the Section 8 housing known as Bedford-Pines. “The folks who live here have been made promises that were never kept, so why would they trust anyone?” Hall said. “The opportunities that were coming this way never happened.”
Year of Boulevard, or YoBoulevard as it’s become known, began simply by cleaning up the street of trash and debris. This past spring, more than 200 volunteers turned out for the “MoBoulevard!” cleanup, and another one is planned for Saturday, Oct. 19, from 9 a.m. to noon north of Freedom Parkway.
But the clean-up days were just an opening volley. Reaching out to the youth who live along Boulevard has been one of YoBoulevard’s top priorities, Hall said.
Over the summer, more than 600 children (up from 450 last year) attended summer camps sponsored by the project in partnership with Operation Peace, Truly Living Well, Beacon of Hope and the MLK Recreation Center Freedom School. Hall said he was also pleased that more than 100 senior citizens attended their own adult summer camp at Selena Solan Butler Recreation Center.
The summer camp components included Operation Peace Entrepreneurship Saturdays, with visits by celebrity entrepreneurs such as Delia Champion of Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand and Kashi Sehgal of Gigabark. Boulevard teens were awarded $1,300 in prize money for creating the best plan for their own small businesses. There were also teen career day visits to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Atlanta Hawks, Federal Reserve Bank and successful local restaurant and music venue, The SoundTable.
“Showing the kids on Boulevard that they can be successful and that there are opportunities gives them hope and helps build a stronger community,” Hall said.
Another success was a Back to School Block Party, which shut down Boulevard for an afternoon of fun. Hall said 600 backpacks with supplies were given to Boulevard kids and nine pallets worth of donated clothing and personal care items came from nonprofit Caring for Others. There were also interactive booths, a reading tent, bingo for seniors, a skateboard painting class sponsored by Museum of Design Atlanta, the ZooAtlanta mobile zoo and lunch for 1,000 provided by Panda Express.
So, what’s coming for the second Year of Boulevard?
One hurdle that has faced Boulevard for decades is that the owners of the Section 8 housing, a Boston-based company called Wingate, has shown no interest in selling the Bedford-Pines complex to make way for new development or even a redevelopment, such as those that helped clean up notorious Capital Homes and Techwood Homes in the ‘90s. However, Hall said YoBoulevard and neighborhood leaders are now in talks with Wingate about a new building for low-income seniors. “It’s something we’ve wanted to address since we came up with the concept of Year of Boulevard, and now it’s happening,” Hall said.
Also in the works is Year Up Atlanta, which will offer house and recruitment for one-year workforce development training, and new engagement with businesses and stakeholders on the northern end of Boulevard to talk about public safety and quality of life issues.
There will also be afterschool and Saturday school offerings at Hope-Hill Elementary School and Big Bethel AME Church, including a Discover Architecture program for kids that will be led by AIA Atlanta. The Old Fourth Ward will also get its first dog park when the Renaissance Park Dog Park opens later this fall. Hall said there will also be a fundraiser to build a playground at Hope-Hill, the only public elementary school in the city without one.
Hall said there is excitement about next year’s opening of the Atlanta Streetcar, which will connect the MLK Historic District to Downtown. “There will be an upswing in the economy of the Old Fourth Ward when the streetcar comes online,” Hall said. “We just want to be ready to take advantage of it.”
The councilman concedes there is still a lot of work to be done, but he sees “only blue skies” for the future of Boulevard. “I’m in this for the long haul,” he commented. “We quickly discovered that it wasn’t just going to be the Year of Boulevard, but the Years of Boulevard. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.”
For more about the Year of Boulevard project, visit yoboulevard.com.