West Side Story

Connecting communities

The neighborhoods surrounding Georgia Tech’s Atlanta campus have struggled for decades with drugs, crime and poverty. Those communities need help—and the Institute is reaching out.

As a child in the 1960s, Jacqueline Royster often rode through the streets of Atlanta’s English Avenue community as her mother commuted to Atlanta University. Later, as a student at Spelman College, Royster knew the Westside neighborhoods as loci of civil rights history and the home of friends—“very nice, working-class” places, she recalls.

In the 1940s and ’50s, after decades as a white neighborhood, English Avenue had transitioned to a mostly black population. It was home to a growing black middle class, a proud place where families prospered and kids left home for college. English Avenue raised stars like Gladys Knight and budding business leaders like onetime presidential hopeful Herman Cain. Martin Luther King Jr. raised his family nearby.

But in 2010, when Royster returned to Atlanta as dean of Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, she went on a tour of English Avenue and saw a very different place.

By the time Royster made her return, the challenges facing the once-quiet Westside were legion: crack cocaine, heroin; HIV and AIDS; struggling schools; flooding from Proctor Creek, lead-contaminated soil. Residents jobless, homeless, dropped-out or drifting after release from jail. It was a swirling nexus of poverty and crime.The intervening years had not been kind to the Westside. In the 1970s, English Avenue’s population began to decline as some families left for Atlanta’s growing suburbs. Bars and dance clubs opened along the neighborhood’s south side. English Avenue’s pool halls and restaurants began to sell liquor. And as the neighborhood became known as an entertainment hotspot, more and more families moved out, returning only for church on Sundays. Residents interviewed for a 2008 Georgia Tech architecture lab project said the change was solidified by the mid-1980s when drugs arrived and crime exploded.

Those who remain in the neighborhood fear that the city will demolish the whole place, or that housing prices will force them out.

Mere blocks away from one of the most prestigious schools in the country, home to world-changing technological advancements, how had English Avenue faltered? Royster knew of Georgia Tech’s contributions around the globe, but she wondered what the Institute was doing for its own community.

She began to dig, and her questions turned up a number of research, teaching and volunteer programs that tie Georgia Tech to Atlanta’s Westside. Tech faculty pushed for new ways to use technology to help residents. Students in an honors course designed projects to address neighborhood challenges. Student service groups went into the neighborhood every week to mentor children.

Jaqueline Royster

Some projects were little more than ideas; some had been going on for years. But organizers were rarely in touch with each other or even aware of each other’s efforts.

“We have a habit of being very innovative and entrepreneurial—you see something, you go do it,” Royster said of Georgia Tech. “You don’t necessarily take the time to build community around it.”

But now that’s all changing. Tech leaders, faculty and students are partnering with the residents of the Home Park, Vine City, Centennial Park and English Avenue neighborhoods on two partnerships.

Royster and Alan Balfour, dean of the College of Architecture, united Tech’s leaders, faculty and students with interest in the Westside communities to form the Georgia Tech Westside Task Force. Its goal is to connect efforts acrossTech, so that by partnering and sharing resources, the groups can accomplish more.

The second effort is the Westside Communities Alliance, which seeks to build or strengthen partnerships with external organizations such as businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, public schools, police and fire departments, other universities and residents. Their mission is to share Tech’s expertise and culture of service with its neighbors.

“We can pick up as much trash, do community cleanups, have job fairs … you know, change can happen from within,” said Demarcus Peters, director of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association, who works with the alliance. “But when the community is that far gone, there needs to be some structural support. … What Georgia Tech has let me know [is] there are people thinking the same way I’m thinking, that something should be done.”

Already, alliance partners have organized financial literacy workshops for Westside residents and pushed Tech’s participation in community festivals and clean-ups. There is still much to do, including a strategic assessment of the alliance’s projects and its successes, Royster said. But Tech is committed to coordinating these Westside efforts into a coherent approach that will exemplify the university’s motto of “Progress and Service.”

“Our students are learning, but they are giving their time and energy. Our faculty is researching, but it is also working with communities,” Royster said.

Still she knows it will take more than websites and workshops to make progress.

“We have to put up proof of our good intentions. We have to build trust and demonstrate commitment,” Royster said. “This is the kind of work Georgia Tech can engage in as a 21st century technological university. It is complex problem solving approached from societal and technological perspectives.”

Demarcus Peters

One week this fall, a group of six English Avenue residents carried iPhones around their neighborhood and stopped every so often to snap photos. They had an assignment: Document the neighborhood you love, the places you know, the spots others don’t see or can’t understand.

The project was guided by Christopher Le Dantec, PhD HCC 11, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media and Communication, and funded in part by the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing.

Le Dantec planned to collect residents’ images and stories for an alternative type of asset map—the views of residents themselves—to supplement more formal studies and guides to the neighborhood. More importantly, he hoped it would help the residents better understand each other and explain to the wider world why they stay in a neighborhood so many others have written off.

“There’s an internal identity that’s very different than its external identity. They see things outsiders don’t,” Le Dantec said of residents he worked with. “Some of them are here by choice. They’re not here by economic circumstance. They care about it as a place of personal history.”

Although Le Dantec is part of the Westside Communities Alliance, his first attempt to engage English Avenue residents “was shut down, in no uncertain terms,” he said. Some residents were skeptical of anybody from the campus next door. They were tired of feeling like research subjects.

“They’ve witnessed people come and go over the years,” said Peters, the neighborhood association director. “People will say ‘We’re going to help you identify what the problem is.’ It’s pretty obvious what the problems are. Let’s come with some solutions.”

Neighborhood allies helped Le Dantec redefine his project, not just in terms of academic gain, but also what it could mean for residents as “community historians.” It was presented as an opportunity for them to learn to use digital cameras and to practice documenting the neighborhood, a chance for them to understand shared points of meaning on the streets they know best.

“I’m not here to research you, and that was never the case,” he told them.

The results of an early version of the project—maps, images and short narratives—were revealed to residents during the neighborhood’s Festival of Lights in October. Le Dantec said the event was a success, with residents using computers to view their stories. And Le Dantec hoped to help residents find other ways to use their data, perhaps to document the effect football games have on the neighborhood and strengthen their arguments for how to handle the proposed new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, which is planned to be built in the area.

In a second workshop, Le Dantec planned for residents to learn to build their own digital cameras, a project he hoped would encourage them to keep using technology to document and explain their neighborhood as only they can. And it will help Le Dantec and other researchers understand what happens when communities design and use technology for their own purposes.

A run-down building in the West Side neighborhood.

“They know what their problems are,” Le Dantec said. “Once you start to play with ideas, there’s always some new solution.”

As he sifted through the data from the first workshop, he came to understand more about the neighborhood’s identity and values. He saw residents’ photos of a long-empty building that was once a hub of community activity. They captured images of tidy, decorated, lived-in homes—bright spots of stability so easily overlooked amidst all the evidence of neglect.

One photo captured just a crack in the wall of a building.

“‘It’s like the neighborhood,’” one photographer, a longtime Westside resident, told Le Dantec. “‘In some ways, it’s broken, but it’s still here, and still a solid structure. It’s worth keeping.’”

Once a year, students in the Georgia Tech Honors Program’s Semester in the City course take a transformative drive through the Westside. They board a bright yellow shuttle and take the short ride west to English Avenue. It’s only minutes from Tech’s campus, but few students have ever seen this side of Atlanta.

They record their impressions after the tour.

“Vacant lot after vacant lot … windows boarded and busted down front doors … no school, no grocery store—nothing,” one student wrote.

“It was hard for me to grasp the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. once raised his family less than a minute away,” another said.

“I was overwhelmed,” one wrote, “by the amount of work there is to be done.”

Gregory Nobles, professor in the School of History, Technology and Society and director of the Honors Program, has taught the Semester in the City class for four years now, and each year the reactions are the same.

“I tell them from the beginning—I don’t have the answers. I do not have the solution,” he said. “This is not calculus.”

Semester in the City requires Tech students to examine how one neighborhood works and how it could work better. Students then work with residents to develop plans for and, they hope, enact change in the community.

The program has faced significant challenges. Students have encountered red tape or simply run out of time; 16 weeks is rarely enough to solve complex problems that have been festering for decades. Residents have nixed students’ plans; as Le Dantec discovered, residents have been burned before by volunteers who don’t show up, or researchers who get their data and leave residents behind.

Tech Students prepare to go for a tour of the Westside neighborhoods.

But there have been successes, too. One student designed yard signs for community residents that proclaimed, “Proud member of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association.” A mentoring program designed by another student has continued for years at the local Boys and Girls Club.

A shining star of Semester in the City is the English Avenue Youth Enrichment Program, which started with one Georgia Tech student in spring 2008 and continued to evolve even after the founder graduated. Every week, Tech students visit the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club in English Avenue and share educational lessons with kids ages 8 to 12, all fresh from their own busy days at school.

About 4 p.m. on a sunny Friday this fall, chemical engineering major Akash Gulati and a small group of Georgia Tech students arrived at the Boys and Girls Club with four 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke and six rolls of Mentos mint candies.

Gulati’s lesson was a MythBusters-style science experiment. Out on the club’s one-acre lawn, he explained how carbonation in the soda and tiny air pockets in the Mentos would cause a reaction as the candy sunk into the soda. The kids dropped in one piece of candy, then two, then three. Everyone, including Gulati, shrieked when a geyser of minty Coke erupted several feet in the air.

It was over in minutes, but the lesson stuck. A group of girls announced their plans to repeat the experiment at a birthday party that weekend. One boy asked Gulati for another piece of candy for an experiment of his own. He dropped it in a bottle of Pibb soda purchased from a vending machine; it foamed up, but didn’t explode, much to the disappointment of a small crowd around him.

“When they’re here, everything goes fast. When they leave, everything goes slow again,” said 10-year-old Timya Harden, who attends school in nearby Vine City. “You forget every other place, because wherever they are is the place to be.”

Patrice Holt, program director at the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club, said most of the club’s kids live in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods and spend their after-school and summer hours in the club’s game rooms, ball fields, gyms and study labs. Fridays have been special since the Georgia Tech students started coming a few years ago—not just because they’re fun, Holt said, but because they keep the kids excited about learning, meeting new people and attending college. The Tech students do what they promise. They pay attention. Even at their busiest, they keep coming back.

Children playing with Tech students at the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club

Isabelle Recaborde, a third-year business administration student and this year’s enrichment program president, never took Nobles’ Semester in the City class. But like more and more students, she said, she wanted to be involved outside “the Georgia Tech bubble.”

“They want to be taken seriously and listened to,” Recaborde said of the Bellwood students, the youngest Westside residents. “They’re definitely still kids, but they want to be respected.”

In the last decade, some Bellwood kids have graduated and gone on to great colleges, but none have to Georgia Tech, Holt said. For years, the school “wasn’t even on their radar,” she said. Now, some kids have spent time on campus. She hears them ask what it would take to get in.

She pointed up at the wall of the club’s game room, at a series of posters the Bellwood kids drew with the Georgia Tech students. They drew their view of Atlanta’s skyline from Bellwood’s lawn, coloring just a single road among the iconic skyscrapers.

Dead-center, the kids drew two detailed buildings, the only structures rendered in three dimensions. One is labeled Bellwood, windowless and wide, the center of their English
Avenue community. The other is tall, reddish, unmistakable: Tech Tower.

In reality, the two buildings are separated not only by a mile, but decades of fraught history and complicated relationships. But in the kids’ view, there’s no distance between them at all. And that’s a vision Georgia Tech shares.

4 Responses to West Side Story

  1. Carol C. Burns says:

    If there were any easy solutions, they would have already been implemented…The most encouraging part of this article is some of the kids having an opportunity to visit Tech’s campus and spend time with students, being exposed to something other than their normal surroundings of crime, drugs and in a perpetual spiral with little ambition and a bleak future. Influencing these kids and making a positive impact on their lives, one by one, is what it’s going to take to turn it around. Kudos to Tech.

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  4. The sub-title should read: “Those communities need help—and the Institute CONTINUES TO reach out.” (instead of ‘is reaching out”.) When I was at Tech 20+ years ago we had Techwood Tutorial and other programs. This is not new – but is always a great idea – especially for the students who grew up in a suburban bubble. Helps them open their minds and understand real life.

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