The butterfly of Atlanta

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After decades of neglect, Inman Park is being painted, polished, swept, and sanded back into the kind of neighborhood where people want to live. Developed in the 1880s just outside Atlanta's city limits, two miles from downtown, Inman PArk attracted wealthy families who built large Victorian homes. Smaller homes were built later as the development expanded.

But as more distant suburbs attracted the wealthy, Inman Park began a long decline. By the 1950s, many of the big old homes had been bought by absentee landlords -- "slumlords," according to today's residents. Many homes were divided into as many apartments as the owner could squeeze in; upkeep was minimal.

Inman Park's recovery is a tale of people eager enough for clean, comfortable , in-town living to fight the city hall, the statehouse, and Washington to get it. And its metamorphosis --be traced in part to a soggy, could November day in 1968.

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Robert Griggs was in Inman Park that day to appraise stained glass in the home of a local judge fighting condemnation of his stately old house for a highway that was to split the neigborhood. One of the houses caught his eye.

"It was very decayed, but still be very proud. It was just romantic beyond hope," he says. And like most of the old homes in the neighborhood, it was also a wreck.

The big oak doors of the three-story, Queen Anne-style house were nailed open. The hallway was "like a public street," Mr. Griggs recalls. Kids were playing basketball in it; derelicts wandered through it.

The 15-room house had been divided into eight apartments, some with five people in them. Rent was paid weekly.

The front yard was a sea of red mud. Broken glass, three abandoned cars, and great piles of garbage littered the backyard.

But Griggs saw hints of a beauty that defied the ravages of neglect: a handsome, curving main stairway; oak and mahogany floors; flowers carved in some of the woodwork.

"I fell instantly in love with the house," he says. He told a real estate friend he wanted to buy it. His friend told him he was crazy. But he bought it anyway.

Gradually others followed his example. A wave of renovation -- in its final stages today -- began.

The first banner used by this group of urban "pioneers" -- a red flag with a white stripe -- was later replaced by the butterfly. Almost unnoticed in the butterfly are the silhouettes of two faces: one looking backward at the neighborhood's past, the other looking ahead to its future.

Today, butterfly banners hang from windows or flutter from porches throughout the roughly three-by-eight-block neighborhood.

Many of the early renovators were far from rich. When they arrived in the early 1970s, they had no assurances thier investment would ever pay off. What they sought was in-town living in homes they liked enough to overhaul.

But Inman PArk's restoration during the 1970s involved more than just fixing up houses.

"The fabric of the community had disintegrated," Griggs says. People were just not working together, he remembers.

Besides the threat of the proposed highway, the neighborhood was beset by zoning regulations that discouraged families owning homes, a high crime rate, rubbish everywhere, rats, and the refusal of many local financial institutions to make loans at normal rates to Inman Park property owners.

"It was a slum -- any way you cut it," Bill McMurry, a longtime resident of the area, says.

"Virtually every problem that can face a neighborhood was faced by that neighborhood," Joe Drolet, an assistant district attorney in Atlanta and past president of Inman Park Restoration, says.

IPR, which Griggs helped form in 1970, is the neigborhood improvement organization that became the focal point for volunteer resident action to reclaim Inman Park as a decent place to live.

The IPR, kind of spirit shows up in a new Gallup poll, taken in 1977.

Since 1977, according to the poll, there has been a "significant" increase in the willingness of urban residents to participate in crime watches, help the elderly and youth, organize block parties, and assist in cleanups. The only decline in interest was in working with employment centers.

The percentage saying they would like to belong to a neighborhood group also climbed, from 28 percent to 35 percent.

In both polls, respondents rated their neighborhood better than their city. And in both polls, slightly more than a third said they would like to move from their city.

Assessing one of the major Inman Park victories -- getting the city to zone the neighborhood for less density -- IPR activist Holly Mull says: "Looking back , I can't believe we did it. It was crazy, but it worked -- and other neighborhoods followed suit."

She and others organized meetings with hundreds of property owners to develop a land-use plan. This was presented to the city council along with the signatures of many homeowners endorsing the plan. The "slumlords" opposed it, she says. After heavy lobbying by the neighborhood organization, the Atlanta City Council in 1973 endorsed the plan.Inman Park zoning was changed from primarily low- and high-rise apartments and industrial to low-rise apartments and single-family or duplex homes.

That same year, much of the oldest part of Inman Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places, again after hard work by local residents.

Also in 1973, Maynard Jackson, the city's first black mayor, was elected with strong support from neighborhood groups, including Inman Park's.

One of the key issues at that time was the proposal for an Interstate highway (I-485) to run north from downtown, passing through a number of neighborhoods in Atlanta. Inman Park residents joined opponents of the project.

The neighborhood groups finally persuaded the US Department of Transportation to withdraw funding after a federal court ruled the state had not prepared an adequate environmental-impact statement.

Immediate plans for another east-west highway were shelved after vocal opposition from various neighborhoods led to formation of a commission by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. The commission concluded the highway was not needed at that time.

In Inman Park and several other neighborhoods, hundreds of homes in the path of the proposed highways were destroyed before the Inman Park revival began. Today the land remains a huge green swath, and its future use continues to be debated.

Some of the plans being considered still include at least a four-lane road on at least part of the vacant land.

On another front, IPR persuaded city hall to initiate annual spring and fall cleanups on request, picking up even large pieces of trash.

Today, the neighborhood is home to about 1,700 people, according to preliminary US Census figures.

Ten years ago, the census showed 3,148 persons living in the area in 1,276 homes or apartments. But that may have been an undercount, says a census questions is difficult in crammed, inner-city neighborhoods such as Inman Park was, the official said.

The number of homes and apartments in Inman Park dropped by about 400 between 1970 and 1980, often because homes once divided up, were restored to one-family dwellings.

Some of the more than 1,400 people no longer in Inman Park moved out by choice. But many more were forced out by the renovations -- some to better housing, others to similar. A big question remains: Are those who were displaced better or worse off because of Inman Park's rehabilitation?

There is no clear answer. The people who bought and renovated the old homes did so without government help, so no records had to be kept of who was displaced and where they went. Though many tenants were part of a large transient population here, others were longtime tenants uprooted by the renovating new homeowners.

"Some of the urban pioneers have kind of canonized themselves and don't like to admit people were bumped on [forced out]," Gary Moss says. Mr. Moss, an educational filmmaker at Georgia State University in Atlanta, recently completed a film on Candler Park, an adjacent neighborhood now undergoing renovations.

Interviews with longtime residents, church workers who helped the now-displaced, and others indicate:

* Many of those who were forced out were living in small, two-room apartments , meagerly furnished and rented by the week. The tenants were low-income families, often with three or four children.

* Newcomers to Atlanta often settled temporarily here. As they found jobs they moved out, often into better housing in other parts of the Atlanta area.

These short-term residents, in all likelihood, would have moved on before long, even without renovation.

* Some long-term tenants still live in the neighborhood, in the remaining apartments or boardinghouses. Others were forced to leave by the renovations.

* Some elderly homeowners remain. For the most part, their homes were not divided up into rental apartments. When they sold to renovators, some moved in with their children. Others went to nursing homes.

Where did those who were forced out go?

There is no pattern. Some apparently moved on to other poor neighborhoods in Atlanta where they rented again. Others moved to surrounding counties, even to rural areas of the state where they had family.

There was an informal relocation effort by some renovators. Trucks were used to haul personal belongings of the departing tenants to other rental apartments.

Many of the families were "pretty ragged," recalls Thomas Rivers, whose wife served among them as a volunteer for the Inman Park methodist Church in prerenovation times. Most were on relief. They lived as many as seven to eight in a room. Rent "cost them more than if they had gotten a decent place to begin with," he says.

When they moved, he adds, some were better off because they found cheaper but better-quality housing.

What would have happened to Inman Park if the renovation vogue had not taken hold here?

Atlanta City Councilman John Sweet, a former VISTA volunteer who bought a home here in 1971, says the area would probably have continued to deteriorate.

Once land values exceeded house values significantly, houses probably would have been demolished, he suggests. The highway would probably have been built here. Commercial zoning would have prevailed along access roads and along the highway itself, he says.

In other words, Bill McMurry suggests, "the displacement [of people] was as destined by demolition as by re-capturing the market [by renovations]."

Absentee landlords were not fixing places up; many houses were getting worse, according to longtime residents and early renovators.

"We don't have adequate housing for the poor," Mr. McMurry says. Today orm then, he explains.

Are there ways of renovating an old neighborhood and still helping displaced persons?

Carleton Knight III, editor of Preservation News (a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States), suggests two ways:

1. Tax speculators who buy into an old neighborhood, then sell within a year or two for a big profit without improving the property. This "windfall tax" could be used for public housing or other housing improvements for the poor.

2. Use some of the increased revenue from increased property values in the renovated area to help the poor.

Mr. Knight praises the Inman Park renovation, noting that it was done privately. After a visit here in 1977 he was impressed by the "spirit" of cooperation he saw in the neighborhood.

Inman Park has not progressed in isolation. It has benefited greatly from the Bass Organization for Neighborhood Development (BOND). Begun before IPR was organized, but later drawing additional talent from its members, BOND organized a much-needed credit union, day-care center, and other programs.

And activists from several neighborhoods, including Inman Park, are working to continue the already much-evident revitalization of the main neighborhood commercial section, Little Five Points.

The variety of professional services and shops (including an electric car company) gives area residents a high degree of self-sufficiency, a "small-town downtown," as some here call it.

The struggles "have brought the neighborhood together," another Inman Park resident. Cathy Bradshaw, says. She and her husband live in a home they are renovating. Pointing to another room they are working on, she says: "We'll never be through."

But many families are buying already-renovated homes here, some for more than

"Back in those days it was real social," says Councilman Sweet, as he pitches kindling onto a fire in his temporary living room (he and his wife have "at least" five more years of renovation ahead). Newcomers would help each other plant grass and paint, he says.

Today he fears the gentrification of Inman Park will diminish the spirit of cooperation that rebuilt the neighborhood.

The veterans wonder if the newer, richer residents will appreciate the past battles -- and join in the new ones.

"They're not the hungry social reformers of the late '60s,IPR's current president, Bob Bodimer, says. But, he points out, they are pitching in. Inman Park voluntarism is on the rise, he says.

And there are signs that the flame of cooperation still burns brightly. When Pat and Richard Westrick were racing to finish their latest renovations in time to open their home for the neighborhood tour of homes last April, the McMurrys and other neighbors showed up to pitch in, without being asked.

"Feeling a common purpose and caring for each other" is part of what makes life in Inman Park enjoyable today, Mrs. Westrick says. Some here say the annual festival, with its tour of homes, which started as a lobbying effort to attract city help and new residents, merely helps inflate housing prices. This, it is argued, makes the place less stable by tempting homeowners to sell.

But the tour and other festival events brought in some $25,000 in 1980, money used for various neighborhood improvement projects.

And, Mrs. Westrick says, the festival means an evening street dance you can dress up for after so many weekends in renovation work clothes; it is the fun of an arts and crafts exhibit, Peter and the Wolf performed on a street corner, and a funky parade.

But Inman Park faces more challenges today: There is still the question of how the land cleared for the highway will be used; the number of household break-ins are rising with property values; the local grade school is inadequate, some parents say.

And despite the many elegantly restored houses, the future of Inman Park is "fragile," 1981 festival chairman McMurry says. Even today, bankers find it easier to make loans on suburban homes with which they are more familiar. he says.

If Inman Park lets up the pressure on city hall (for continued good police, sanitation, and other services), if vacant lots are allowed to pile up with junk , if people begin to take things for granted, the neighborhood could begin to slip again, McMurry warns.

But once again, there is evidence of a willingness to face challenges:

* On the issue of crime, Mrs. Bradshaw says: "The community is rallying; we will tackle it." Citizen crime watches have begun and IPR is working closely with the police on cases as they come up.

* Some of IPR's money goes to the local school, and some parents are beginning to ask what they can do to help improve instruction.

* IPR remains at the vanguard of citizen efforts to plan for use of what once would have been a highway through their backyard.

IPR's membership has climbed from about 170 families in 1978 to about 235 today (though the nucleus of active members has not grown, one veteran member says).

While that may not seem like big numbers, much has been accomplished here in the past with fewer numbers.

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