published Monday, March 12th, 2012

Cook: Facing reality in the projects

David Cook

"You've got to ask yourself. What is reality?"

This is John Hayes talking, and no, we're not listening to Grateful Dead bootlegs. We're discussing Purpose Built communities and the promise -- or threat -- their influence holds over two public housing neighborhoods in Chattanooga: College Hill Courts and Harriet Tubman.

Hayes, a man with decades of urban development experience, believes reality is this: Our city's housing crisis is only going to get worse, and Purpose Built could help orchestrate turning low-income neighborhoods into mixed-income communities with businesses, grocery stores and good schools.

"We cannot afford to sit back and wait," he said.

For some, reality hurts. Nearly 2,000 people in Chattanooga are on the waiting list for public housing while apartments needing repair sit unused and empty in College Hill right now, boarded up with plywood.

Families across Chattanooga have no place to stay, forced to sleep in their parked cars behind Walmart or doubled up on couches or floors in apartments owned by friends and family.

I wish someone would organize a tour of homes in their honor.

Since 1999, more than 700 units of public housing have been demolished. Since 2000, Congress has cut the budget for Chattanooga Housing Authority by 50 percent.

Mayor Ron Littlefield has initiated conversations with Purpose Built, and the question on which all of this hinges: What's the motivation?

"They've already made the decision to demolish the Westside," said Roxann Larson, president of Dogwood Manor Resident Association.

Her reality: College Hill Courts is prime property, and downtown development is on the creep in the

guise of Purpose Built developers who, like some twisted David Copperfield trick, cover over their community with a gentrifying blanket and -- voila! -- everything disappears.

"I'm afraid for people over here," said Gloria Griffith, a longtime Westside resident. "This is the last stand for public housing in our city."

If residents are displaced in order to renovate -- or demolish -- the projects, CHA is required to guarantee them another place to live. But where?

With access to a bus line? Or sidewalks for the wheelchair-bound? Near family, friends, doctors and dentists? What are the odds they'll be the ones moving back to their old neighborhood once it's developed into mixed-income housing?

In Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood, Purpose Built helped transform public housing into mixed-income residences.

"Only a portion of residents that were relocated ever got a chance to come back," said Deirdre Oakley, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University. "About 17 percent."

She said East Lake has become a great place to live: charter school, community centers, a YMCA.

"In that sense, it's a good thing," she said. "The down side is not everybody that's relocated out of public housing ever had the chance to come back."

Think about our city's recent history. Why can we revitalize the riverfront, appear on covers of magazines as one of the best places to live, have foundation money coming out our ears, yet we have to go to Atlanta to find people to create a redevelopment plan for housing projects?

For me, reality starts and stops with three people I met during a recent visit to College Hill Courts. One was a child, skipping down the sidewalk, headed to church to do her homework. To do her "numbers."

The second was an elderly woman, sitting on a bench, talking with a friend.

The third was a disabled man, standing outside his front door. He had trouble speaking, and would often pause -- for long spells -- between words, as if something was submerging his thoughts. He'd stare off into the distance, as if seeing something no one else did.

The trio represents the most vulnerable of our city. We ought to be fierce like lions in our loyalty to them. Like bruised reeds we shall neither bend nor break.

"Jesus was right when he said, 'The poor you will always have with you,'" said the Rev. Leroy Griffith of Renaissance Presbyterian Church in the Westside. "Then he told his disciples: 'Now go do something for them.'"

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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Lr103 said...

Of all the tenants dispersed from Alton Park Public Housing with the promise of being given first choice to return, only about 30 were actually allowed back when the newer Alton Park Village was built. Of that 30, many were elderly and not expected to live much longer anyway. It is also easier for tenants to have their lease terminated for minor infractions or none, for that matter.

Driving through Alton Park Village a couple of weeks ago the area looks more like one of those fabricated communities where no one really lives. No children outside playing. No neighbors standing outside talking to one another. You know, going about those natural human that actually unites and cement neighbors. I hear it's like constantly walking on eggshells there. Where neighbors don't really trust one another. For fear someone may make a false claim agains them that could cost them a place to stay. It's allege if a piece of paper is seen in your yard you can be fined for it even if you didn't place it there. Everyone's suspicious of oen another. Don't trust one another. That's a recipe for an explosive situation where tensions are bound to spill over, eventually. This not a positive environment where people can peacefully work, live and play.

March 12, 2012 at 10:38 a.m.
talkthetalk911 said...

Lr103, why would you even talk about something that you seem to know nothing about. First, i dont know if you facts are even right about the "30" people who were allowed to come back. Second, if priority was given to the elderly/disabled people over young able bodied people then whats the issue. I spend alot of time in the villages. I see kids out playing all the time.I see people standing out talking. I see people walking around exercising. Matter of fact, just got out and played foot ball with three little boys the other day for a few minutes. It is not true about being fined over a piece of paper in a yard. I know the entire staff. They work hard to make sure the Villages are kept clean, lanscaped, and work even harder to try to keep the criminal element out. Most of the residents also work hard to keep their neighborhood clean and safe. So maybe next time you "drive thru" go a little slower. See the ones who have their yards fixed up with flowers and other things that show they take pride in where they live. Thank God that i have been blessed enough in my life that i do not need assistance of sorts. I keep in mind that you never know what could happen one day that could change all of that. For the ones who are on assistance for what ever the reason may be, they too deserve a place to live that is clean and with out fear of being able to sit outside due to criminal activity. Are there rules to go by? There sure are. Sorry if that bothers some but the staff at The Villages of Alton Park work hard to make sure the property is clean and as safe as possible. I could go on but my point is that every neighborhood has its issues but do this. Go try to pull crime statistics when McCallie Homes was there and look at the area now. Pull the crime statistics in College Hill Courts and Harriet Tubman. It would seem to me that if there is a way to make life a little better then you would be for it.

March 18, 2012 at 9:08 a.m.
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