Atlanta Project Aims to Revive The Inner City

`Cluster' residents and local donors pitch in to end urban blight from the grass roots up

FROM one corner to another, Victoria Durant-Gonzalez's "cluster" in Atlanta is diverse. About 35,000 people - poor, affluent, homeless, blacks, whites, and a rainbow of other individuals - live in the neighborhood. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace stands on a historic street. Not far away is a funky area of shops that cater to tie-dye types. There are 13 schools and scores of churches.

This is the Grady Cluster, and Ms. Durant-Gonzalez is the cluster coordinator. She and coordinators in 19 other Atlanta neighborhoods have the task of helping to solve some of the city's most daunting problems: crime, homelessness, drug abuse, substandard housing, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, and high numbers of school dropouts.

They are part of the Atlanta Project, former President Jimmy Carter's initiative to end poverty and improve life in Atlanta's inner city. The mammoth project, which Mr. Carter proposed in October 1991, taps the talent and time of thousands of community residents and volunteers, plus corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.

But unlike many other initiatives to help inner cities around the country, the project's objective is to enable community residents themselves, not experts, to find solutions to their problems.

"The Atlanta Project is about empowerment," Durant-Gonzalez says. "We listen to people. The sky's the limit on what we can do with it."

The project targets an area where about 500,000 people live, many in extreme poverty. In 1990, the United States Census Bureau ranked Atlanta the ninth poorest city in the US. Violent crime has increased by nearly 300 percent over the last five years, and an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people are homeless. The project has critics

Despite its grand plans, however, the Atlanta Project has its critics. Many are black leaders or officials with nonprofit organizations who charge that the project has failed to include them in the planning process, is inefficient, is taking away their funding sources, and has not appointed enough blacks to its top levels.

"I see it basically as a mainstream kind of white-bread effort that doesn't have a great deal of texture to it," says Richard McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children. "The Atlanta Project looks like the `war on poverty' warmed over."

The Atlanta Project's organizational structure is a traditional pyramid, but the most important ideas and efforts are supposed to come from the bottom - at the community level.

At the top, coordinator Dan Sweat directs six full-time professionals on the secretariat. Each professional is a volunteer on loan from an area company and has expertise in one of six areas: community development, economic development, criminal justice, health, education, and housing.

From their donated office space in Atlanta's old Sears building, these people oversee the project and assist cluster coordinators (such as Durant-Gonzalez and her assistant) in linking the communities with existing programs. The cluster coordinators work directly with the residents, listening to their concerns, motivating them to solve problems, and matching them with volunteers and resources.

The Atlanta Project had aimed to achieve its goals on a five-year, $26.5 million budget. But in just 18 months, $18 million and $14 million in services have poured in, mostly from corporations and foundations. The money will not be funneled directly to the poor or to programs that help the poor, however. Most funds will be used to pay for the Atlanta Project's staff and support operations.

"Right off the bat I had every consultant and every nonprofit and everybody else in town come and say, `Here's the answer to the problem ... you give us $426,000 and we'll come in and we'll do this,' " Mr. Sweat says. "We say no. We will work as a group to try to connect resources, but we're not going to be a hand-out-money machine to anybody."

The Atlanta Project has spent most of its early months getting its wheels turning. That has included putting personnel in place, raising funds, and generating thousands of community and in-house meetings. More than 100,000 volunteers have pledged time and services. Residents develop goals

So far, its biggest venture has been a month-long immunization drive in which volunteers went door-to-door locating children who hadn't been inoculated for various diseases. But most activity is generated by neighborhood residents who are responsible for developing their own goals.

"We're all dealing with the same big issues," says Ben Marsh, who supervises the 20 clusters. But "each has tried to come up with a vision." Although some clusters are still unorganized, he adds, others are making progress.

One cluster, nicknamed "Little Vietnam" because the crime problem is particularly bad, plans to rehabilitate public housing with a $33 million grant the Atlanta Project helped acquire from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Parents are also volunteering to escort children to and from school in a crime-ridden area.

Residents in Durant-Gonzalez's cluster so far have identified several needs. These include preschool programs, youth programs, and a center for homeless people that will be open during the day as well as at night.

For Durant-Gonzalez, the past several months have been a whirlwind of meetings with residents as well as with organizations that already provide services in the community. Many times the people she meets with know little about the Atlanta Project and are skeptical about its mission.

On a sunny morning, she and an assistant are en route to a church where SCLC Women, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, runs a program that helps women earn their high school diplomas and learn computer and other job skills.

Waiting for the Atlanta Project workers to arrive, Evelyn Lowery, the head of SCLC Women, explains that she didn't understand much about the project. She also says it has made her own hunt for funding more difficult - a concern echoed by many of the city's nonprofit groups. Now "when we call a corporation, they say they have already given to the Atlanta Project," Ms. Lowery says. "That doesn't help us."

Mr. McDevitt of the Georgia Alliance for Children is concerned about how the millions of dollars raised by the Atlanta Project will be spent. "They've got an agenda that wants to provide services like prenatal care and immunization, and there's no question that's lacking in the state," he says. "But who will sustain those gains over time? If they're capable of leveraging millions of dollars from corporations, I would think they would use their influence in getting those corporations to invest in the sout h side of Atlanta that has been completely neglected in terms of commerce and economic development."

"We're taking some heat from those who think we haven't done anything," Sweat acknowledges. "I've got big churches calling who say, `When are you going to let us in?' And I say it's not a matter of us letting you in. We have to be invited into the neighborhoods ...." If the neighborhood doesn't take ownership and responsibility for seeing the program go forward, he says, it won't succeed.

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