If I belonged to the family of Dr. James P. Brawley, I’d ask the city of Atlanta to remove his name from the stretch of urban rot that bears it.
Sure, the closed road cutting through the Atlanta University Center is a tribute befitting the former Clark College president. But head north on Brawley Drive, especially past Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, and you’ll see some of the city’s most depressing desolation — all within a short walk of the Georgia Aquarium.
The thoroughfare cutting through the heart of the English Avenue neighborhood came up last week in code enforcement court during the trial of real estate investor Rick Warren. A solicitor announced that the next proceeding against Warren concerned his property at 479 Brawley Drive, a house with some loud blue paint, tall weeds and trash out front and part of the roof caved in.
Warren has been identified in stories written by my colleague Willoughby Mariano as the guy who owns or controls perhaps 100 properties, many of them near the $1.4 billion stadium the Falcons are building. Mayor Kasim Reed has been showing up for Warren’s trial as a public message that the city really, really wants to get this guy.
Hizzoner said the city wants to show residents and investors it can “move the needle” in the Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods just west of downtown. Usually, the terms “needle” and “English Avenue” have to do with the endemic heroin traffic in the ‘hood, not something aspirational.
At Warren’s code violation hearing last week, a prosecutor noted the incongruity of someone gobbling up charred, caved-in wrecks. “Who in his right mind would want that?” she asked regarding one property.
I’ve thought the same thing.
The common narrative is that Arthur Blank and the city want some amenities near the new Dome in Vine City, and that Georgia Tech wants to expand. In addition, gentrification just north of the English Avenue area makes that long troubled community (infamously known as The Bluff) look like a Fourth Ward in the making. Good things are inevitable. It’s just too close to downtown not to happen, right?
But while the intersection of Brawley and Boone is less than a mile from the Aquarium and the Dome, it might as well be fifty. Reed said $110 million was spent trying to boost these neighborhoods after the old Dome was built in the early 1990s. But drive around, there’s not much to show for it all.
Jim Brown has developed properties in Atlanta for 40 years and approached the Atlanta Police Foundation a few years back with the bright idea of fixing up some homes on the fringe of English Avenue and donating the homes to cops so they could live there. He figures with an area like that you must nibble around the edges. Show some progress and then move in a bit further with more regeneration. Win it block by block, house by house.
Putting officers in a troubled community would provide some much needed stability. Kids would see positive role models. And more people might behave. Mind you, these are tough, street-forged officers with guns, Tasers, judo holds and arrest powers. But when it came down to it, none wanted to live there, even for free. So Brown dropped the idea.
Brawley Drive resident Howard Joiner, who drove MARTA buses for a couple decades, knows why the cops wanted no part of free homes around here. Friday afternoon, Joiner sat with his mother on the porch of the home the family has owned since 1968. It is next to Warren’s home at 479.
“It’s depressing to live here, to watch these young people destroying themselves,” he said. “Drugs, no school, they don’t work, don’t try to learn anything. They probably think that Obama is white.”
He laughed at his own absurdity, and then became somber again. “I live here, but I’m not a part of it. I like to go other places for a change of scenery sometimes. I call it civilization.”
“We wish they’d come through and revitalize this area and give us an offer. We’re ready to move.”
Across the street, Josie Myrick, a resident since 1984, has a couple of surveillance cameras and a chain link fence. She echoes her neighbor: “I think they could come in and buy everything and I’d gladly move.”
Folks have been moving away for years. And dying off. A drive on Brawley for the half mile north of Boone reveals about 80 structures. More than two-thirds are empty — many of them very obviously so. And there are maybe 20 vacant lots where homes once stood.
Joiner’s block is better than most. There are just three vacant houses, six occupied, two empty lots and a long-vacant stone church that looks like the ruins of an ancient fort. On the corner, a convenience store has “(Expletive) the police” scrawled in paint on the wall.
County records show that the house next to Joiner, 479, has been the subject of 11 real estate transactions in 15 years, with Warren buying it for $3,200 in 2011, three years after it sold for $126,000, and apparently after the fire.
Leroy Hodo, who lives across the street, was painting his house when I stopped by. He said he helped renovate 479 a few years ago. He pointed to two other houses on the block, saying, “That’s a Rick house. That’s a Rick house.”
County records do not indicate that those houses belong to Warren. One, a burned-out hulk camouflaged by 12-foot overgrowth has recorded 13 real estate transactions in 12 years, the highest for a price of $150,000 in 2006. Mortgage fraud was rampant here in the past decade.
In 2013, the overgrown hulk changed hands for the princely sum of $1.
Mayor Reed vows to double the size of the city’s code enforcement section and wants to “clean, clear and close” 500 properties next year.
“Will English Avenue get redeveloped? Yeah, no doubt, it’s too close not to,” said Brown, the real estate guy. “But I don’t think it will be five years. But twenty?”
“If you get the city behind you and you have money behind you and eminent domain and you buy one block at a time,” he said. Get all that, and maybe there’s a chance.
The mayor said things will be different this time, because in past revitalization efforts there was “no quarterback for the long term.” His tone left little doubt that he would be the man calling the plays this time.