Sitting shotgun with Mary Norwood at the wheel is not for the faint of heart. In fact, her herky-jerky maneuvers made me worry that I would leave remnants of my breakfast on her dashboard.
The pint-sized Atlanta city councilwoman, who came within 715 votes of becoming Atlanta’s mayor in 2009, has the energy of a hummingbird, which is reflected in her driving style: circuitous routes, filled with shortcuts and sharp turns. All accompanied by rapid chatter in her Augusta twang.
Norwood wanted to give me her Atlanta neighborhood tour, one she has offered many times to promote the untapped potential in the city’s south and west sides. There lie communities with housing stock that mirrors those of more well-heeled areas, languishing in the aftermath of white flight.
Weeks ago, I wrote that a national magazine had ranked Atlanta as one of the nation’s most gentrifying cities. My article talked about Vine City, just west of the Georgia Dome, as a place where, according to the census, home values had shot up to an average of $138,000.
“From what I’ve seen,” I wrote, “$138,800 should buy a couple houses here and leave you with money left over for paint.”
Norwood called me after the article, saying the median home value quoted by the census was too high and would scare off prospective urban pioneers.
“We’ve got to repopulate those neighborhoods,” she said. “But if people are being told Vine City is $138,000, then they won’t look there.”
Hence, Mary’s Magical Mystery Tour.
I met Norwood outside City Hall and was disappointed she was not driving the green 1998 Buick Century made famous in her mayoral ads. Instead, we toured in her Lexus.
Her office had done an analysis of 54 sales in Vine City during the past three years. The median price was $59,804. My gut was right, you could buy two homes and still have $20,000 left over for a Home Depot shopping spree.
It turns out the census numbers came from what people say their house is worth, which is not a true gauge of value, because Americans will lie about their sex lives and home values.
As we darted through Vine City, Norwood remarked on litter lining the road. “It’s the malaise,” she said. “The litter, people need to pick it up.”
From there we headed west on MLK to the Washington Park neighborhood and then past Mozley Park.
We passed a TV crew doing a report on the impact of the Beltline, the renovated rail loop that promises to transform communities that have long stagnated. Areas near the east side trail, which were already gentrifying before the trail happened, have exploded with growth. It is hoped some of this will rub off on the other side of town.
The city is pushing a program to give low- to moderate-income families a chance to buy or renovate homes near the Beltline. Those eligible could receive up to $45,000 for a down payment.
“Look at your tree cover here,” said Norwood, in a stylish pink suit jacket, sounding like a Realtor trying to move me into a 3/2. In the back seat, interns Wendy Pike and Carman Salazar pulled up real estate comps for each neighborhood on a computer.
“Zillow says $36,00o to $38,000,” Salazar said as we drove through Dixie Hills, passing tiny bungalows. Residents gave the passing Lexus a gander, probably figuring us to be investors.
“They have new people coming to this neighborhood,” Norwood said, one eye on the passing architecture, the other vaguely on the road. “This house is in transition. This is vacant. There’s a wonderful gay couple that supports me.
“Oops, there’s a dog who wants to get hit,” she said, bringing the car to a sudden halt. “I can see the headlines: ‘Councilwoman kills dog.’”
I’ll admit, it would have changed the trajectory of the story.
“It’s amazing how much green space is on the south side,” Norwood continued. “This could be so charming.” As for the residents, in Norwood’d eyes they were “so dear,” even “precious.” From her, it all sounded perfectly normal.
In 2008, with a mayoral bid in the making, Norwood helped pull together residents from more than a dozen south and west side neighborhoods for the Atlanta Home Show. The project was called “Atlanta’s Secret Places,” and was intended to lure prospective home buyers to the “hidden gems” in areas they’d never have thought about.
“People live in their orbs; they don’t know what’s outside of their orb,” she said. “I care about our affordable housing. I don’t want people thinking everything south of City Hall is a wasteland. The story here is that there’s so many affordable homes. Remember, a rising tide floats all boats. More people move in, values go up, then more people want to move in.”
Some people did move in pre-recession, then thousands of them got caught when values cratered. Many are still bailing water or have left behind boarded-up homes.
We stopped to shoot a photo in the Capitol View Manor neighborhood a couple miles south of downtown.
“They tell me the same guy who built Capitol View Manor also did Garden Hills,” she said, referring to a neighborhood in Buckhead, near where she lives.
Zillow had nine homes for sale in Capitol View, ranging from $42,000 to $125,000. Garden Hills started at $535,000 and went up from there. Way up.
The basic housing stock may be similar, but there’s a world of difference in the “mirror neighborhoods.” It has to do with race and class and schools and safety and the perception of safety and a thousand other things.
Norwood, who said she’s not running for mayor, gave a shout-out to Kasim Reed, the guy who nipped her dream of running the city. “This administration has been very keen on this subject in looking for a solution,” she said.
There, of course, is no “solution.” There are many, many things that must be done — often agonizingly tough things — to turn around decades of neglect and public perception. Only then are others likely to find those neighborhoods, as the councilwoman might say, adorable.
Or at least populated, vibrant and thriving.