Summerhill: ‘We just threw people out … it was my job’

Leon Eplan talks about the bad old days — and a chance to make things right

I walked along Georgia Avenue with Leon Eplan on a recent sunny day, past the long boarded-up storefronts that generations of Braves fans have passed on their way to games.

Eplan, now 87, knows the Summerhill neighborhood well. His grandfather, a Jewish peddler from Russia, lived where Turner Field’s third base is. And his father was born there.

In the early 1960s, Eplan, a young urban planner, returned with a mission from the new mayor, Ivan Allen: resuscitate the area. Federal money to rebuild slums was flowing and city officials wanted their share.

The story has been told so often through the years that it has become Gospel: Atlanta’s city fathers tore asunder a black community to build a ballpark and snag a Major League Baseball team. Residents were promised that good things would follow, the story goes, but those promises were repeatedly broken.

That’s the story. But it’s not how it went down, Eplan says. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was an afterthought, he said. It was just something to do with land that had been already cleared.

And promises? There were none. That’s not how it worked back then.

“We just threw people out,” Eplan told me. “It’s regrettable. We did some terrible things. It was my job.”

The Braves next year will leave the part of town the team has occupied for 50 years, and Georgia State University and a real estate developer are set to ink a deal with the city and Fulton County to revamp the area. The new owners are promising to create the thriving neighborhood that residents have anticipated for years. Eplan is upfront about it: Lots of people got screwed long ago.

And now, he said, is the time to fix it. Not for those who got run off. Most of them are now long gone. But their descendants — Atlanta’s poor, who are now, according to a Brookings Institution/Harvard study, the nation’s most rooted in poverty.

As Eplan recalls it, Atlanta of the early 1960s had an infrastructure largely unchanged since the 1920s because of the Great Depression and World War II.

“We had to rebuild the city,” he said. “It was worn out.”

And Uncle Sam had an answer, Eplan said: “If you want to clear your slums, we’ll give you money to rebuild your area.”

“The federal government was spending millions,” he recalled. “Were we going to stand back and say ‘No’?”

Heck no. The city got in line. The Downtown Connector was built and bulldozers kept busy after that.

“We pushed those people aside. At the time there wasn’t a federal requirement that you had to replace housing,” he said.

Eplan said the urban renewal wasn’t necessarily racially biased. “It was based on clearing out slums.”

But “poor” generally also meant black. Summerhill area wasn’t the only community demolished. To the north, the Buttermilk Bottoms neighborhood was razed to make way for the Civic Center. Atlanta was on the move, and those without means got moved.

Eplan figures 65,000 residents were uprooted through urban renewal. Summerhill was just the most visible. The upheaval “pushed people into the surrounding neighborhoods. People overwhelmed the neighborhoods in the central (city) area.”

Some of those neighborhoods in the long-segregated city were white, which caused a domino effect.

There were jobs and nice, spacious homes out in the suburbs, with yards and trees and new schools. And mortgage loans were easy to get, Eplan said, unlike those in the city.

The only question was, why not move?

“We lost our middle class, mostly white, and that damaged the tax base,” he said.

But there’s more to the story, an otherwise little-remembered fact about Summerhill.

“We laid it out for white apartments; there was no integration then,” he said. “Black leadership marched in and said, ‘That’s wrong.’ ”

But there was little political will to build housing for displaced blacks, so nothing happened. Besides, there was increasingly available housing that white people were leaving.

From 1960 to 1990, Atlanta went from a city of 487,000 that was nearly two-thirds white to one that had 394,000 residents, two-thirds black.

It all sounds cold-hearted now, but everything is relative. Eplan noted that Ivan Allen was the only mayor from a Southern City to testify for the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

“He was from a prominent family in the business community and he lost a lot of friends over that,” Eplan said.

But then, there was a large hole left in the midst of Atlanta. Enter Mills Lane, president of C&S Bank, who helped shepherd development of the site to steal away Milwaukee’s baseball team.

“I did the feasibility study,” said Eplan. “Of course, my study was very positive.

“Do you know what we built it for?” he asked, before answering his own question. “Fifteen million!”

Later, Allen remembered, “We built a stadium on ground we didn’t own with money we didn’t have for a team we hadn’t signed.”

The Braves started playing there 1966. Eplan was hired to the city as head of Budget and Planning when Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, came to office in 1974.

The area surrounding the stadium has largely languished since the 1960s, with a little splash of paint and rebuild coming as the 1996 Olympics came and went. But the millions of dollars, visitors and international recognition that came with the Olympics have been a factor in a transformation of Atlanta. And large projects like the Beltline are making Atlanta a different city again.

“Developers, for the first time in my career, are working to build in the city,” Eplan said. “We no longer have to go out with our hands out. This is our opportunity.”

He added, “If you’re spending $300 million next to the poorest neighborhoods in America what are you going to do? You need to leverage that area to raise the standard of living. This neighborhood has been like that since I was commissioner in 1974. What are we doing? Is there any planning with what we are doing there? We are not building housing for those people there.”

Mayor Kasim Reed has vowed to make the area “one of the largest developments for middle-class.” The $300 million GSU/Carter plan calls for student housing, apartments, retail and the conversion of Turner Field into a football stadium.

Nearby residents are understandably wary.

Once again, Atlanta has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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