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New life for Atlanta's English Avenue

One of the city's most troubled neighborhoods is starting to rebound thanks to an unusual coalition that hasn't lost hope.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 11, 2008

Rough neighborhood: Bertha Hayes feeds stray dogs in Atlanta's English Avenue neighborhood, where half the 4,000 residents live at or below the poverty level.

mary knox merrill/Staff

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Businessman John Gordon admits that, until the shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston by rogue Atlanta drug agents two years ago, he had never heard of the English Avenue neighborhood – or "The Bluff," as it's often called.

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Not so for the Rev. Anthony Motley, who has spent more than 20 years in Atlanta's roughest 'hood – dumping ground for old furniture, haven of rabbit-size rats, and scene of broad-daylight drug dealing and pimping – trying and failing to rein in lawlessness in a forgotten corner of a city more known for its glitzy black middle class, Coca-Cola, and hip-hop impresarios.

Today, the two men from opposite ends of Atlanta's social sphere are part of a black-white coalition determined to find "angel investors" and bring together local businesses, neighboring Georgia Tech, and church leaders to inspire not just city and private investment, but also to light a spark of hope among law-abiding residents – many of them older people fearful of the streets outside their front doors.

Already, their unusual friendship has helped inspire two massive clean-up efforts, a small but significant drop in crime, and glimmers of fresh paint and clean-swept front walks.

"Don't underestimate the power of this tragedy," says Mr. Motley, pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church.

Nationally, Ms. Johnston's death in a hail of 39 police bullets exemplified to many civil libertarians the futility and danger of SWAT-style drug raids. Based on a dubious tip and a fabricated search warrant, officers broke into Johnston's home in November 2006. They found the scared and fragile woman seated in a chair with a rusted revolver in her hand. Believing the armed, black-clad officers were intruders, she fired one shot. The officers fired back.

Since then, the Atlanta Police Department has rebuilt the drug unit with new officers, and the City Council formed a civilian police review board to investigate complaints. Three of the officers have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing.

Mr. Gordon, who lives in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood, says what he saw in the Johnston tragedy matched his own observations of police behavior and tactics. "I didn't feel like this was just an attack on the black community, but ... an affront to everybody who lives in Atlanta and believes in freedom," says Gordon.

But for the 4,000 residents of this deflated neighborhood of burned-out houses, hulks of wrecked churches, and empty school buildings, the shooting presented a paradox, says Tracy Bates, director of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association. Yes, she says, the drug unit made a horrible mistake. But its intent was to do what's proved impossible so far: rid the neighborhood of its drug culture and dismantle what has essentially become a sort of impromptu technical college for young criminals.