A Gentrification Battle Brews In An Atlanta Suburb
Blanca Niño is worried about money.
She’s a single mother and works a minimum-wage job as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. The restaurant is within walking distance of her home on Franklin Road in Marietta, Georgia, and the walk helps to cut down on transportation costs. But that might change soon.
Two years ago, voters in Marietta narrowly passed a $68 million bond that would allow the city to buy and demolish a number of apartment complexes along the mile-and-half street and replace them with new commercial developments.
Local officials applaud the decision as a necessary move to reduce crime along Franklin Road and surrounding areas and bring money into an impoverished neighborhood. A quick Google search of Franklin Road elicits results of crime reports in the local paper and message boards that warn people to stay away. But it wasn’t always this way.
Marietta mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin remembers when his wife used to live there more than 30 years ago. He says it was a popular place for young working professionals because of the area’s low rent and proximity to two major highways.
“They were great. They had no children. They didn’t need police. They would earn the money in Atlanta and come back to Marietta and spend it,” Tumlin said with a laugh.
But things changed when poor families began to move into the area. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 made it illegal for apartments to ban children; so apartments intended for a single resident became overcrowded, and the working young moved out. Soon after, Franklin Road began to earn its reputation of being a crime-ridden and neglected community.
But it always had potential given Franklin Road’s prime location, says Tumlin. The new Atlanta Braves stadium will be less than ten miles away, bringing tourists and fans from all over the country to Marietta. With a population of almost 60,000 residents, Marietta is one of the largest suburbs in Atlanta.
“Franklin Road was synonymous with ‘I don’t even want to go on that road’ and ‘I don’t want to move there,’” says Tumlin. “I had complaints from other residents about why you didn’t do it in my blighted neighborhood and that’s because Franklin Road had such an upside.”
So he came up with an idea. Even though people would be displaced, Tumlin says that’s better than having to stay in apartments with management that had committed a number of violations over the years. Tumlin believes the people of Franklin Road would be better served with new businesses than crumbling structures.
The city has even gone so far to change the name of Franklin Road to Gateway Boulevard to raise the area’s profile.
More than 1,300 units have been demolished so far. Some residents have moved into other areas, but many of them moved into other apartment units along Franklin Road. This influx of people has led to a significant rent increase, which affects people like Blanca Niño.
Franklin Road has been Niño’s home for the past ten years. She moved to the area because the rent was cheap and the top-rated school district offered education opportunities for her young daughter. But she’s seen her rent skyrocket in the past two years.
“The price of this area is ridiculous expensive. Like it doesn’t make sense. They know a lot of people have to move from those apartments. I paid $500, but right now they want us to pay like $900,” Niño said.
It’s this type of displacement that’s raising concerns for Marietta residents like Marty Heller. He doesn’t live on Franklin Road and admits he first became interested when he learned the bond would increase his taxes. But after speaking with residents on Franklin Road, taxes became less of an issue.
“I spent over $2,500 on advertising with the Marietta Daily Journal to fight against this campaign. That’s ten years worth of taxes,” he said. “It wasn’t about taxes, it was about principle. The principle was discrimination, and the city won.”
Franklin Road is home to a significant African-American and Hispanic population. The poverty rate in the area has increased 28% in the past forty years, and the average household income is about 25% below the national average.
Tumlin says this is not about race but economic opportunity. The Marietta Housing Authority will work with residents to find new housing. No monetary assistance will be provided, but current residents are allowed to finish out their leases.
There are mixed reactions among businesses in the area. Juan Carlos Vasquez is the manager of Mercado Real De La Villa, a local grocery on Franklin Road. His family has owned the store for more than ten years and says it’s become a staple for the Hispanic community. His customers have voiced concerns about how they’ll afford to live in the area in the future. When asked if he’s concerned how that will affect business, he says he’s hopeful that his loyal customers will keep shopping there, even after they move away from the area.
Yeti Ezeanii is a pharmacist and owner of Peachview Drugs who can attest to the positive effects redevelopment on Franklin Road has had. She says she’s seen a decrease in crime, and the project has attracted new customers.
“We’ve been here for some time now and in the past Franklin Road had a kind of bad reputation,” Ezeanii says. “It kind of had this seedy type of look and feel to it. But in the recent years, it’s certainly improved. The infrastructure is improved, police presence has improved and business has started to pick up.”
Crime was a big factor in mayor Tumlin’s decision to revitalize Franklin Road. From 2013 to 2014, crime decreased by 21%. Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn attributes some of this to the redevelopment effort, but most of it comes from various policing programs already in the area.
“There were a lot of residents who objected to Franklin Road as being categorized as a high crime, dangerous area,” Flynn says. “Because it wasn’t as bad as the news would have it or as the people advancing the CID [redevelopment effort] would tell you it was. I mean, there were problems but it was not off the chart problems.”
The Marietta City Council took a vote in early August to finalize its fourth apartment complex purchase. The Council voted 5–1 to purchase a 400-unit complex on 26.8 acres for $17.3 million.
As for Blanca Niño, she’s already started to look at other places to live, focusing her search far away from Franklin Road.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Do you think of gentrification as a symptom of city or urban life? Or have you seen similar signs of neighborhood change in your suburban community? Leave a comment here on our blog or tweet us your experience with redevelopment in the suburbs @OSTtalk.
LISTEN: Press play to hear Georgia Public Broadcasting producer Linda Chen join “On Second Thought” host Celeste Headlee for a discussion about Marietta’s redevelopment project and later in the program, Georgia State University sociologist Diedre Oakley weighs in on what is — and isn’t — gentrification.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda Chen is a radio producer with Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can follow her on Twitter @ChenLindaH.