Street Level Provides a Different View of Atlanta Gentrification

houses across the street in SW, one an abandoned Vision Property Management home, the other a newly gentrified home

Atlanta   Visiting families involved with contract for deed agreements with big companies like Harbour Portfolio Advisers, Vision Property Management, and SG Capital in Atlanta turns out to be a much, much different experience than similar doors I’ve hit in recent months in Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, and Detroit. The song is still basically the same, but the verses are different.

Yes, the contracts are “as is” with the burden of repairs, taxes, insurance, and everything else in the usual package on the buyer without any of the guarantees or protections of conventional home buying, but in Atlanta at least the “as is” is more than we have found elsewhere. There were roofs to fix, some with trees still protruding through, and sewer lines to wrangle and HVAC problems common in the South, but fewer homes where families were “camping” in homes stripped bare of wiring, plumbing and the works. In the outer reaches of Fulton County, my team had visited with families with home prices in the $20s and low $30s, but in southwest Atlanta where I spent most of my time yesterday the numbers tended to be high $30s and up to $50 and $60,000. Other teams in DeKalb and Clayton County were spread out with a wide range of prices.

barb wire protecting a vision house

Southwest Atlanta was a surprise to me. I’d been on the doors in Atlanta before, but when I started adding up the dates as I navigated BatchGeo from home to home on my visit list, it had been in the twenty to twenty-five year range. I used to tease people in New Orleans who moved to the suburbs of Jefferson Parish that if they were going to do that, they might as well live in Atlanta. On the doors though I found myself in the city, not 8 miles from the Capitol, in hills green with trees and huge quarter-acre home lots, where I sometimes thought I was in the country. I also found blocks where five or six houses might be abandoned, boarded, and collapsing, and a couple of blocks over areas that were knocking on the door and opening it to gentrification. For the first time I was talking to contract buyers who were debating whether or not to try and figure out a way to sell their houses after the four or five years they had been in Vision or Harbour properties because appraisals had doubled and tripled the valuations, and in the words of one, he might be able to do better farther out in the country.

a Harbour house

In one area, I was within walking distance of a MARTA stop, the Belt Line, a huge urban renewal project on an old rail line, and a big park. One Vision house I hit was abandoned across the street from a home so recently redone that the squares of newly laid lawn were still visible from the planting. Dumpsters were dotted here and there.

I hit one Vision property on my list that looked abandoned on its hillside double lot. As I was parking a man was opening a padlock on the door, but he turned out not to be the owner. He was a burgeoning landlord who had just closed on the house. He had bought it from New Western Investment which had bought a package of homes from Vision. He was originally from Rwanda but in the country for many decades and had just gone into real estate full time over the last year with 20 properties now. His plan was fix and flip. He pointed down the hill to the neighborhood I had just left, as already having gone past the tipping point of his price range from gentrification pressure, but he was betting on this area to be next.

The census track says this area is 89% African-American and has stayed that way even as home evaluations have leaped forward by several factors in recent years. I was navigating streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, the Atlanta-based SCLC civil rights icons.

No matter what the color, the gentrification class is the same. Families our teams were seeing in the far reaches of Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton had roots on the blocks I was walking now, but the time even under a rent-to-own contract that they could imagine owning a house here was fading fast.


Street Art

Torino  Somehow we had discovered the Museo d’Arte Urbano (MAU) or Urban Art Museum, the first of its kind in Italy, and a fascinating demonstration of the use of art and street artists to focus on the rejuvenation of a working class neighborhood in Turin. Their own description of their project indicates that 70 some artists and neighborhood volunteers participated in a self-funded project that produced 147 different works on buildings and walls throughout the community that they describe as “Borgo Campidoglio, which was born in 1853 like a working-class neighborhood. This area still maintains its original structure, made by low houses and narrow winding streets.”

There is no building or office. No tickets or museum shop and cafe. We caught the #9 tram and got off at the border of the neighborhood according to Google Maps and started walking down a main street of sorts past multi-story apartment buildings and churches, until we saw a low slung set of cobbled streets and figured we were close. Then almost magically we saw walls with designs here and there, and windows painted over colorfully, or with whimsy, a design, or sometimes a message.

We cut into the neighborhood near a small park with benches indicating that they had been part of the MAU project, some mimicking other artists like Mondrian and others original. There was no overarching direction or collaboration in the theme or placement of the murals that we could tell. We walked from block to block often in surprise at seeing something painted behind us after we had walked by or in an area we didn’t expect. Some of the murals were signed, but most were not.

We were actually somewhat surprised that most of the works seemed apolitical. Under the influence of Bristol’s Banksy and most street artists in communities in the United States, we expected more of the works to have a message or some critical content. Of course we didn’t see all of the pieces in our random walk, but did see more than one-third. We probably could go back again and tackle another part of the neighborhood and see a completely different set of works. The UAM website says that they regularly renew the art, which may mean that the content changes over time as well. Perhaps the neighborhood itself wanted the work to to be brighter, more colorful, and less critical, since the works are on someone’s house, so it would be right for them to have a voice. It’s hard to tell.

What is easy to tell is what a difference it makes to a community. I think of the murals that have enlivened our own neighborhoods in New Orleans from the fence of our building and the wall of St. Claude Fair Grinds Coffeehouse to others throughout the Bywater and even the Marigny. Some hardly survive a season, while others seem permanent. For the most part, similar to Torino, they are free of graffiti, as if through there is an unspoken street artist code at work.

It would seem that similar self-generating and regenerating “museums” of urban art could be cobbled together in many cities bringing excitement and liveliness to lower income and working neighborhoods. Doing so might also help protect them and assure their survival and identity in the face of gentrification and other assaults for the future.

The benefits seem obvious, and what could be the harm?


De Jure versus De Facto Racism

Torino As we move forward on the Home Savers Campaign we are finding victims of predatory practices among all communities black, white, and brown, but more often than not since these are lower income communities, there seems to be a significant tilt towards residential segregation. Lawsuits in some cities and research reports are starting to argue that this is blatant discrimination.

Reading an excellent, recently published, book, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, marshals the evidence that the impact on our communities was not accidental. He makes the case overwhelmingly that, contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions, this is not de facto racism, meaning just the fact that that people are prejudiced and don’t care to live near each other, but is de jure racism, a matter of longstanding public policy. Rothstein sums up the argument of his book early, writing,

The Color of Law demonstrates that racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools. The core argument of this book is that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.

Rothstein demonstrates how de jure segregation worked most effectively in general housing and housing finance policy, but also in the areas of school location by local communities and tax assessment policies that over assessed lower income areas and under-assessed largely while middle income areas. The situation around redlining and the failure of the Federal Housing Authority to guarantee mortgages in non-white areas until the mid-1970s is well known, but Rothstein moves the clock back as well, citing a 1910 Baltimore “ordinance prohibiting African-Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa.” He notes that similar zoning restrictions were passed in Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and Richmond among other cities.

De jure segregation was not just a Southern and border state phenomena. Taking the segregation and siting of public housing projects as an example, he notes that a dozen states passed laws in the 1950s requiring a popular vote before approval of a location. That dirty dozen included California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, hardly Southern strongholds. He tells the story of the committed segregationist city fathers of Boston, Massachusetts who built the Mission Hill housing project, where I hit the doors as a young organizer, and then built a Mission Hill Extension, so that the first was black, and the second was white. The fight to keep Detroit a haven for white homeowners propelled neighborhood segregationist into the mayor’s office there. Rothstein also effectively argues that suburbanization was a governmental supported and enabled segregation project.

And, of course he revives the argument that rent-to-own and installment land purchases in urban areas, forced by the inability to acquire home ownership by minorities in any other way, created ghettos and exploited African-Americans. As we know from hitting the doors in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Detroit, Akron, and so many other cities with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign, that’s still the case.

Finishing the book or walking the streets of urban America, there’s never a doubt that governmental fiat blocked natural integration and mandated segregation. When will justice be served and a remedy be offered?


On the Espresso Trail in Torino

Torino It was a good day at the main location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon Street in New Orleans. Largely due to the inspiration of Cafe Degas across the street from the coffeehouse the Saturday evening after Bastille Day for something of a block party celebration. We do our small part by waving French flags from the balcony and see who wants a cup of coffee before they head home. There’s good spirit, and it’s not one of the military parades that President Trump greets with such relish, since it’s much more of a family affair.

In solidarity, my companera and I walked the streets of the city from dawn until dusk in Italy in the fascinating city of Turin, as English maps call it, and Torino, as the city calls itself. In a full disclosure, I’m a Fair Grinds blend coffee-and-chicory guy. I squirrel away a pound for an over two-week trip like this and try to ratio it so that I can have one or two cups of home brew every day on the road. Mi companera though has become an espresso girl in recent years. She was a stove topper in the manner that we learned in Buenos Aires for a while. Then she went with an Italian brand made somewhere around Milan. I got her an espresso maker for her birthday last year, and recently she got it working to her satisfaction.

recycling in Torino

But, as they say, “when in Rome,” and in this case we were in Torino, and though I was hoarding Fair Grinds coffee-and-chicory, it only make sense and good company to join my companera for an espresso in a bit of field research for our coffeehouses. Howard Schultz, the billionaire behind Starbucks, famously claimed that his experience drinking espresso in Italy drove him to evangelize for coffee and propelled his chain forward. In truth Starbucks did a lot of things but not as much for coffee as it did for milk, by creating a fetish for all manner of drinks that were not simple shots of espresso.

super recycling station

I’ve had some good espressos with perfect crema, the layer of foam on top, but what has amazed me more is the wide variety in pricing. We had a near perfect cup this morning on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II for one euro a cup and I spent another euro on a delightful nut and confection bar called a “torinocino.” That might not be exactly the right name, so I’ll obviously have to go back and have another and write it down this time to see if we can get someone to make them at Fair Grinds. Darned this field research is hard work. Elsewhere it has been a euro thirty, a euro twenty, and a euro fifty. In France sometimes it was two euros. One euro seems right, since that’s more than a dollar in the States, and no matter how good, there are only a couple of sips to it.

Mi conpanera thought she should help out and wanting something cold she spotted some women at the coffee bar in the marketplace near the River Po spooning a white substance out of their glasses from a machine with Eraclea labeled on it. Turned out this was a granita, and Eraclea makes a bunch of them with different mixes. Hers had a lemon flavor, I thought, and pineapple she felt, so maybe it was both or neither.

one of many public water fountains in Torino

Of course one of the reasons she swears by espresso is that the machines require filtered water to work well, and of course that means no lead to the head. Fair Grinds uses filtered water on all of our machines, and we assume the same goes for the espresso makers of Torino.

There are worse ways to spend your time that trying to figure out the city and stand at a coffee bar and take a couple of quick sips to down an espresso shot.

park bench along the River Po

A glass espresso on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II

Eraclea granita machine

An espresso along the River Po


Fake Voter Fraud Commission Gets Real Pushback

Paris  On the eve of Independence Day in the United States, President Trump and his Kansas pistolero, Kris Kobach, who is ramrodding his fake voting commission, are getting a course in good old, American civics. Part of the lesson is about voting rights and the scrutiny of the ballot box, but the other part is that politics is not a zero-sum game: if Trump and Kobach win, then hundreds of local elected officials who administered voting lose.

States throughout the country have been pooh-poohing the Trump gang claim that there is voting fraud of any kind on their watch, much less that millions upon millions of undocumented folks swarmed the polls and skewed the results. One after another when contacted by authorities, reporters, and researchers have flatly stated, no, way.

The Commission acting from the bully pulpit, sent out a request for all the election officials for a ton of information, including social security numbers and other very private and privileged information. In ironic resistance, almost half of the states simply ignored the request and refused to send the information along. Some didn’t just ignore the letter, but scoffed at it in open rebellion, and this wasn’t just the usual bi-coastal suspects either. Arkansas and Louisiana haven’t figured out how they are going to handle what everyone sees as an overreach, but Mississippi was even more forthright. The top election official there said the commission could jump “into the Gulf of Mexico,” and furthermore that his state, lying along the Gulf, was a perfect place to jump from.

Of course rather than President Trump keeping quiet about the fact that he and Kobach’s snipe hunt has been exposed as just that, instead unleashes some of his terrible tweets, even in the midst of a media war with some morning show hosts for some inexplicable reason, conjuring up the charges of misogyny that roiled his campaign regularly. His tweets, predictably asked the resisters, “what did they have to hide.”

Earlier I mentioned that this was a good civics lesson about how politics really works when you are the ox trying to gore smaller oxen on the local field. I should clarify that saying this is a lesson, does not mean that Trump and Kobach will learn anything or pass the test, but as all of us who made it through public school know, just being taught the lesson does not guarantee a passing grade. Sometimes we ace it. Sometimes we flunk.

There is a last bit of irony here though. Kris Kobach, serving as Secretary of State in Kansas, and promulgating this mischief as clerk of the works for this Commission, is also not providing the records requested for voters from Kansas either. State law in Kansas forbids sending this kind of personal information to anyone. Other states do as well.

Pay attention in class, Donald and Kris, this is going to be a question on the test.


Wow, We are So Tech-Vulnerable!

New York  I’m going to keep saying it over and over again. I’m not paranoid. Never have been. I am definitely NOT paranoid. And, that’s always been true, but recently I’m saying it over and over again, I guess, hoping that I believe it.

You know how these things work. First a small seed or association gets planted in your mind where it can grow in the dark corners and jump out and surprise you later. For me that was an article I read in the magazine, Wired, about how hackers, likely state-supported from Russia, were messing with Ukraine full-time and big-time. The last two winters in the throes of December, they have proven that they can sneak in and turn the electrical power grid there upside down and twelve ways from Sunday. The detail in the piece was the upset in the Ukraine, but the bottom line warning was that Ukraine was a practice field for the main contest, and that was hitting the main grids that power Europe and the United States.

In New Orleans last week, Entergy, the multi-state electrical and nuclear power conglomerate that provides service, sent out a message that the entire Central Business District would be without power for some hours in the middle of the day. As a public company they had to provide some minimal details, and so they did. They claimed there had been vandalism to one of their substations in the CBD.

Damn, I wanted to believe that, even as odd as it sounds. Having read the Wired story though, I was worried. They ended up claiming that someone had stolen 50 pounds of copper welding wire. Case solved, they said. I’m still scratching my head though. How would the theft of some copper wire force the company to shut the city’s throbbing commercial heart down for hours?

And, then at about 1:30 PM one afternoon last week I couldn’t send an email out or access our server. I was getting ready to text our server guy to complain, but stopped when everyone in the office said Cox Cable, our internet provider had gone down citywide. Cox is a private company. They were saying nothing at all. Word was that they would be down until 8:00 PM that night, but they came back on about 5:30 or so. Cox never provided an explanation. I absolutely know they were hacked!

Nothing much it seems we can do, but it does make you realize how much we depend on these common utilities like electricity and internet, and how totally vulnerable we – and all of the systems we depend on – really are. We feel like sitting ducks!

Then we read about all of these computer bugs lifted from our own National Security Agency that are being used for billions of dollars of so-called ransomware attacks, where you have to pay someone, somewhere to unlock your own computer. I’m flying within hours to Budapest to do some workshops for activists and organizers, because Hungary is undergoing an undemocratic assault on nonprofits, activists, and any government opponents. Do I dare use my computer without connecting to a VPN or virtual something network? Would I be risking surveillance and attacks on our organizations and members?

Is this the way we are all going to have to live and work? One eye over our shoulder, tapping away on our essential work and communications devices and wondering any minute whether they could go rogue?