The city of Atlanta on Friday will break ground on a park in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz Stadium that community leaders hope will help trigger a rebirth of Vine City and surrounding neighborhoods that nurtured the Civil Rights Movement.
Officials tout Rodney Cook Sr. Park for its potential to foster revitalization in much the same way as its mirror project, Historic Fourth Ward Park, which hugs the Beltline east of downtown. Development of the Beltline’s Eastside Trail and Historic Fourth Ward Park set off a wave of redevelopment, including the popular Ponce City Market, which has turned the Old Fourth Ward community into a bustling hub of apartments, offices, restaurants and nightlife.
Cook Park holds some of the same promises to transform a downtrodden community. It is part of an effort among government leaders, nonprofits and the business community to rebuild neighborhoods that coincides with construction of the $1.5 billion new Falcons stadium.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Mayor Kasim Reed have committed to spending tens of millions of dollars in neighborhoods surrounding the new stadium to stimulate jobs, reinvest and improve infrastructure in neighborhoods that were once home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and top lieutenants in the struggle for equal rights.
The 16-acre park, scheduled to open next summer, will serve a number of key roles — community gathering place; a monument to peace and Georgia’s and city’s place in the Civil Rights Movement; and a fix to vexing flooding issues that have plagued Vine City for years. The park will also become a part of a network of parks and trails connected to the Beltline.
“There’s a very concerted effort to protect the fabric of this community,” said Kishia Powell, the city’s commissioner of watershed management. “We’re working to make sure there’s not just investment, but investment that’s meaningful to the people who live there.”
The new park will include 18 monuments to civil rights leaders and peacemakers and the library of civil rights leader C.T. Vivian. It will also be home to a 110-foot peace column.
The park is named for Cook, the late former Atlanta alderman and state representative, who was one of the few white elected officials who voted to seat Julian Bond in the chamber in 1966. At the time, Bond was a controversial figure as a civil rights leader and opponent of the Vietnam War. Cook also championed a number of anti-discrimination causes during his time in and out of elected office. He died in 2013.
Partners in the project include the city, the Trust for Public Land, the National Monuments Foundation and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
A daunting task to rebuild
In recent years, the city started efforts to build homes for cops and install cameras to cut down on crime. The newly created Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit organization that will act as a quarterback for redevelopment, has commissioned a master plan for land-use and community improvements.
Blank’s foundation, joined by other groups, have invested in job training, efforts by the Atlanta Police Foundation to prevent crime and work with at-risk kids and new green space programs such as Cook Park.
But the task to rebuild the city’s westside has always been a daunting one. More than $100 million was spent in communities such as Vine City and English Avenue leading up to and after the 1996 Summer Olympic Games with little to show for it.
Many of the neighborhoods west of the new stadium lost half their population or more since the peak of the late 1950s and 1960s. Poverty, unemployment and crime are high, and the implosion of the housing market last decade — after a run up of real estate speculation — set back the communities even further.
Leaders such as Reed have said the power of the city and its partners dwarfs anything like past efforts to revive westside neighborhoods.
George Dusenberry, a former Atlanta parks commissioner who now serves as state director of the Trust for Public Land, called Cook Park “a very early win” for westside redevelopment.
Fixing the floods
Cook Park, like Historic Fourth Ward Park, will not only be a public green space, but a beautiful and environmentally-friendly flood control project. In 2002, about 150 homes were flooded after a storm, and the effects linger today.
The project will cost at least $45 million, and possibly as much as $50 million, with about half of the funding from non-government sources.
“If you build a great park, people will want to live there,” said Dusenbury, whose group is investing $12.7 million. “If you get rid of flooding, people will want to live there.”
Like in the Old Fourth Ward, the park’s centerpiece will be a retention pond that can hold a 100-year flood. The project will also separate the storm water system from the sewage system, reducing the threat of floods mixed with sewage.
The city will also spend about $3 million to remediate polluted dirt on the site.
Another key step in revitalizing the area, officials said, is ensuring longtime residents are not pushed out by rising rents and property taxes.
In April, the city unveiled an Anti-Displacement Tax Fund, a privately-funded program to help prevent displacement of longtime westside residents. About nine-in-10 residents in Vine City and English Avenue are renters, the easiest people to displace.
Frank Fernandez, vice president for community development with the Blank foundation, said the partners in westside redevelopment “believe in the power of parks for development and [community] connections.”
Civil Rights legacy
Cook Park will honor of civil rights leaders and peacemakers, including King and his family, Bond and Andrew Young.
The park’s monuments “touch on every century with a strong emphasis on what [Vine City] gave the world since the Civil Rights Movement was based there,” said Rodney Cook Jr., the son of the park’s namesake, and president of the National Monuments Foundation.
Cook Jr.’s organization, which also developed the Millennium Gate Museum at Atlantic Station, plans to spend $12 million on monuments and exhibits within the park.
The park was inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela, Cook said, and will tell a story of the 300-year arc of civil rights in Georgia, starting with a monument in honor of Chief Tomochichi, the Yamacraw leader who brokered peace with English settlers in the 18th century.
The park will replace what was once known as Mims Park, in honor of former Atlanta Mayor Livingston Mims of whom Cook is descended. That park was lost to the construction of Bethune Elementary School decades ago.
The park was to carry the Mims name, but a controversy erupted last year with some objecting to Mims’ history as a Confederate soldier.
But a compromise was forged to honor Cook’s father, a Republican politician who endured harassment and cross burnings in his yard for his support of efforts to eliminate racial discrimination.
“There’s nothing like this in the world,” Cook said. “It’s our story, we own it and they’re building it.”