During the late 1950s and early 1960s, public spaces including busses, parks, pools, and schools once prized by Atlantans came to be regarded with distrust and fear after ten years of “forced integration.” Rather than integrate, many whites chose to withdraw from public life and ultimately from the city altogether.
Between 1960 and 1990, Atlanta’s white population fell from over 300,000 to just 122,000 residents concentrated primarily on the north side of the city. Stung by the perceived betrayal of their communities and elected officials, those leaving Atlanta set out to build a new lifestyle in the suburbs, one constructed on an ethos of individuality and self-sufficiency. Public transit gave way to the car and grid neighborhoods gave way to gated communities.
At the same time, thanks in no small part to its role in the civil rights movement and renowned cluster of Historically Black Colleges, Atlanta became known throughout the nation as Harlem’s counterpart, a Black Mecca of the South. Between 1960 and 1980, Atlanta attracted upwardly mobile blacks from around the country, watching its black population swell from 186,000 to 283,000.
In his acclaimed account of this period in the city’s history, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Princeton University Professor Kevin M. Kruse chronicles the events leading to white flight and explores their cultural and political repercussions, painting a disturbingly vivid picture of 20th-century withdrawal from the city once “too busy to hate.”
As with any living history, Atlanta’s has continued beyond the scope of Mr. Kruse’s research, which left off in the 1970’s. Over the past 20 years, Atlanta has seen the emergence of a new class of white professionals who initially chose to live in the city during their 20’s and are now also opting to raise families within the city limits. Meanwhile, the suburbs have seen an influx of middle-class blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, making the once lily-white metro area home to one of the nation’s most integrated counties: Gwinnett.
In important ways, these demographic shifts reflect not only geographical movements but also an evolving system of values as many of Atlanta’s professionals and elites choose an “intown” lifestyle and suburbanites opt for integration over ethnic isolation.
However, Easy Street would be an unlikely name for the road from the 1970’s to today’s Atlanta. For a time, the city’s future looked bleak.
Crack, Lead, and Homicide
Following decades of slow and hard-fought progress, the Black Atlanta community, and more broadly Black America, was rocked in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by an alarming rise in violent crime and homicide. The U.S. murder rate among young black males aged 14 - 17 doubled from 1984 to 1994. The murder rate for black males aged 18 - 24 spiked 30%.
Fortunately, the crime wave was short lived. By the mid 1990’s violent crime began a long decline which has now brought it near record lows in Atlanta and cities throughout the country.
Scholars disagree on the factors responsible for the 1980s crime surge, but compelling cases have been made for blaming two substances: lead & crack cocaine.
In his 2000 article published by Environmental Research, economist Rick Nevin claims that 90% of the variation in America’s violent crime over the past fifty years can be explained by childhood exposure to lead (once common in gasoline and paint). With blacks more likely to live in dense neighborhoods closest to interstates and central business districts, gasoline-based lead exposure may explain a significant portion of the crime-wave experienced in the black community.
Another commonly-cited culprit is crack cocaine. In the world of recreational drugs, the development of crack cocaine was a technological breakthrough of sorts, democratizing cocaine consumption by enabling dealers to sell small, $10 “rocks” which delivered an intense, short-lived high. Strong demand for the drug and ensuing turf wars over the right to meet that demand are cited as potential causes of the crime wave.
According to research by Harvard economist Royland G. Fryer, Jr., Atlanta (along with Newark and San Francisco) was one of the three U.S. cities most dramatically affected by the crack epidemic.
The impact of crack and/or lead exposure on Atlanta’s residents can best be seen through a review of historical crime rates. In 1985, just prior to the crack outburst, Atlanta’s murder rate stood at 37 people per 100,000. It peaked in 1990 at almost double that rate—65 people per 100,000. By 2011, the rate fell to 20, approximately 70% below peak levels.
Unsurprisingly, many of the children (mostly black) raised in Atlanta during this period of upheaval became disillusioned with city life, and when it came time to establish their own families, they began to look beyond the city’s borders.
The city’s black population peaked in the 1980s, and since that time a stream of middle-class black residents have left the city, seeking the suburban promises of safety and high-quality schools. Though the movement began 20 years earlier, this trend continued into the 2000’s. As measured by children under five, relocation of the region’s youngest black families in the past decade shows a continued preference for the suburbs.
At rates of 68% and 108%, respectively, North Fulton and Gwinnett registered the highest growth of black children under five. At the same time, Atlanta saw its population of black children shrink by 19%.
Professor Kruse’s research in White Flight thoroughly illustrates how black Atlantans’ initial efforts at integration were met with swift white withdrawal, street by street in the 1950’s. Atlanta may not have gotten integration right on the first attempt, but the latest black migrants, particularly those choosing Gwinnett, have encountered a different response: many of the whites stuck around. Meanwhile, significant Asian and Hispanic communities have migrated to the metro area.
Thanks no doubt to the attraction of its lauded school system, Gwinnett County can proudly boast an integration index of 0.59, one of the highest levels for any county throughout the entire nation. The integration index reflects the probability that two residents of the same census tract, selected at random, will be of different races. When two Gwinnett residents of the same census tract are selected, there is a 59% chance that the second resident will be of a different race than the first.
Many U.S. counties have diversity rivaling Gwinnett, but often that county-level diversity is built on a collection of more segregated communities. For example, Kings County (i.e. Brooklyn, New York) is extremely diverse with no race making up more than 44% of the population; however, Brooklyn is not as integrated as Gwinnett. Instead, many central Brooklyn neighborhoods (e.g. East Flatbush, Bedford-Stuyvesant) are overwhelmingly black while neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Park Slope are overwhelmingly white. Kings County’s integration index stands at 0.42.
When compared to other Sun Belt metro areas, Gwinnett’s integration index stands tallest. Metro Charlotte’s most integrated county is Mecklenburg (0.46), metro Dallas’s most integrated county is Dallas County (0.53), and metro Houston’s most integrated county is Fort Bend (0.56).
As some Black families have chosen to settle in the suburbs, many white families are now taking a second look at life inside the city, bringing increased diversity to several intown neighborhoods once exclusively black.
Reversal of White Flight
With the proliferation of European study-abroad programs, increasing travel, liberalizing social norms, and a slew of cultural touchstones (American Beauty, Desperate Housewives, Weeds) which poke fun at the perceived uniformity/emptiness of suburban life, white college graduates have flocked to American cities. In most large cities, downtown areas saw double-digit population growth rates from 2000 to 2010. But in much of the country, the peak of urban life occurs sometime around age 27 with couples then heading to the suburbs to raise families.
While other cities contemplate whether the most recent influx of young professionals will tread this familiar path, Atlanta already has its answer, evidence of which is best reflected in the city’s white baby boom. As metro counties registered slight declines in the number of white children under five (partly driven by falling birth rates during the Great Recession), Atlanta and intown Dekalb have undergone a period of exponential growth.
Over the past 10 years, the number of white children under five living in Atlanta grew by an astounding 51%. A cluster of four southeast Atlanta neighborhoods (East Atlanta, East Lake, Edgewood, and Kirkwood) has been most dramatically impacted. In 2000, these neighborhoods were home to a combined total of just 94 white children. By 2010, that number had grown by over 500% to 592.
Providing evidence that those now choosing to raise families in the city do so by choice, the white families settling in Atlanta are disproportionately affluent. More than 16% of Atlanta’s white households earn at least $200,000, nearly twice the rate of the metro-area’s white households.
Should a return to raising families in the city eventually gain traction around the nation, Atlanta will find itself at the forefront of the movement. Fellow Sun Belt cities – Charlotte, Dallas, and Houston – have all seen young professionals move into new, high-rise condos in the city core. However, none of these cities have seen this renewed urban interest transition to family life on a scale similar to Atlanta. Instead, white families in these cities continue to show a greater preference for settling further from the city core.
While it is true that some of the city’s blacks have relocated to the suburbs and demographic data make the story of Atlanta’s intown rebirth easiest to demonstrate by changes in the white population, the movement should not be misunderstood as exclusively white. Many of the whites now settling intown claim diversity as a paramount value, and they have certainly been joined by Hispanic, Asian, black, and multiracial families.
Atlanta is also now home to several minority entrepreneurs whose ventures reflect intown values, even if a lack of hair pulling means the lives of these successful businesswomen are unlikely to be featured on Bravo or TLC. Prominent examples include Marché Sparks (Le Petit Marché), Asha Gomez (Cardamom Hill) and Alison Cross (Boxcar Grocer).
A Return to Community
If Atlanta’s white flight, as suggested by Kruse, reflected disillusionment with local government and a withdrawal from public space, the City’s intown revival in many ways reflects a return to community. This shift is evidenced by evolving attitudes towards transit and growing public engagement.
The largest public works project currently being undertaken in metro Atlanta is the Beltline, a 22-mile loop of trails, parks and trains encircling the city’s core and connecting to the existing MARTA rail network. Last fall, the Beltline’s Eastside Trail delivery was met with immediate, enthusiastic adoption. On weekends, visitors to the trail will find hundreds of neighbors jogging, walking their dogs, or biking with their children.
An effort last year to speed implementation of the Beltline (and a multitude of other transportation projects) through a one-percent sales tax failed as the metro’s suburban voters voiced their continuing opposition to public transit and a distrust of government. The vote provided a stark snapshot of the cultural gulf that has developed between suburban and intown values. Virtually all suburban precincts voted strongly against the measure, but the tax won overwhelming, broad support from the city of Atlanta’s gentrified neighborhoods. No neighborhood was more supportive than intown standard-bearer Inman Park, where 83% of voters approved the tax.
In addition to a willingness to invest in public projects, intown residents have become increasingly engaged in a dialogue around what direction their neighborhoods should take, showing a sense of community ownership and demanding developments consistent with neighborhood values.
In 2012, developer Jeff Fuqua proposed two suburban-style shopping projects which both featured large surface parking lots and big-box retail in excess of 100,000 square feet.
The first proposal was located near the Lindburg MARTA station, but Fuqua refused to incorporate the Neighborhood Planning Unit’s request that his team rework the project to be consistent with the area’s transit-oriented development plan. When the developer didn’t budge, NPU-B chair Sally Silver initiated an extensive email and phone campaign whereby residents ultimately convinced city council members to block the project.
Fuqua’s second proposal was located in Grant Park, directly adjacent to the Beltline. Ignoring the Beltline’s already-adopted guidelines for the parcel’s development as a mixed-use grid, Fuqua again proposed a big-box development with a large surface parking lot. In response, hundreds of neighbors signed a petition against the proposal and held a protest at the site. It remains to be seen whether city officials will uphold the neighborhood’s wishes and require a project in keeping with the Beltline’s master plan.
While anti-urbanist projects have been met with vocal opposition, intown communities have enthusiastically supported projects that share neighborhood values. Jamestown Properties’ Ponce City Market has drummed up growing buzz through site tours and parties at the former Sears building currently being redeveloped into a collection of offices, apartments, restaurants, and retail.
Beyond development and transit projects, intown families have also sparked innovation and renewed interest in one of the city’s most essential services: public education.
Turnaround in Public Education
It turns out the oft-repeated notion that prison planners use third grade test scores to determine how many prisons need to be built is an urban myth; however, the connection between subpar education and crime has been demonstrated thoroughly.
Unfortunately, Atlanta has a long history of falling short on K-12 education. As recently as 2004, only 15% of the four-year-olds who stepped into an Atlanta Public Schools kindergarten classroom entered a high-quality school. These kindergarteners have now entered 7th grade, and many continue to struggle with the challenges presented by starting their education on the wrong foot.
Since the time those children enrolled in kindergarten, the city has seen a remarkable community investment in struggling traditional public schools (e.g. Toomer Elementary), growth in the number of charter schools, and an improvement of existing charter schools’ quality. As a result, 33% of kindergarteners entering Atlanta Public Schools for the 2012 year began their education in a high-quality school, a significant improvement in just 8 years.
Looking forward two years, that number is likely to reach 45% as one of the city’s most successful charter networks (KIPP) adds two more primary programs and at least two traditional schools on upward trajectories (Burgess-Peterson & Parkside) jump the hurdle from slightly below the state average performance to above.
It will take several years for these developments at the elementary level to trickle through to higher graduation rates, higher test scores, lower teenage pregnancy, and lower crime, but those are the outcomes Atlanta can expect. Once this future is realized, a great deal of the credit should go to charter leaders like David Jernigan and the intown communities who have taken ownership of their schools.
Atlanta’s Path Forward
Reflection on the road Atlanta has traveled, the progress our region has made toward integration, and trends currently underway offers Atlanta’s leaders food for thought as they consider the path our city takes over the next 30 years.
For Mayor Reed and the City Council: Recognizing that a distaste for short-sighted suburban development is one of the factors contributing to a renewed interest in intown life, how can the city ensure that neighbors are equipped with the tools to hold developers responsible for building projects appropriate for their communities long term? How can the city address its infrastructure backlog and speed implementation of popular projects like the Beltline?
For Superintendent Davis and the Atlanta Board of Education: How can the Atlanta Public Schools leverage the influx of civically minded residents to move more Atlanta schools from subpar to great? How can Atlanta articulate a vision for its charters, building on the successes of programs like KIPP and extending a high-quality education to 100% of the city’s children?
As we look back on our city 30 years from now, we will undoubtedly have moved forward. The nature and extent of that progress is up to us.