Gammon Street Closure Escalates Racial Tensions in Gentrifying South Atlanta
The closure appears to have been prompted by the complaints of White residents, who do not care for Carver High School students traversing through their neighborhoods.
One woman, Kristi Wood, has led a multi-pronged campaign to close the students’ direct access point from Carver High to Gammon Street.
Project South and the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger–two organizations with offices on Gammon–say the closure has interfered with their work and has served to further criminalize young people of color at nearby Carver High School.
“The street closure… impacts multiple organizations’ staff and members’ entry and exit to the building, our mail delivery, our youth programs in the South Atlanta park, and visitors’ access to our building and offices,” Stephanie Guilloud and Emery Wright, Project South co-directors, wrote in a letter to Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington (District 5) on May 11, 2015.
“We are concerned there is an attempt to criminalize parts of the community that access the community services and programs… as well as the young people,” they wrote, adding that police presence has “tripled in recent weeks.”
Gammon is a small neighborhood street whose east end starts at Jonesboro Rd., and whose west end runs into the driveway encircling Carver High School. Gammon includes what appears to be a campus road.
There is a gate at the point where Gammon Street and Carver High’s driveway meet. Until recently, that gate was always open.
“Our clients come through that gate to have their basic necessities met,” Carolyn Pittman, Director of the Coalition on Hunger, told Atlanta Progressive News.
The Coalition on Hunger provides emergency food, clothing, and other supplies to people in need. It also holds community meetings and helps direct people to other needed services
“Now they got to walk all the way around. We have a lot of people dealing with health issues, so by having that gate closed, they are not able to access us,” Pittman said.
Gammon is a well-traversed route. It is the quickest way to get from a MARTA bus stop on Jonesboro to Project South and the Coalition on Hunger.
It is also the most direct route home for many Carver students, as well as a thoroughfare for students coming and going to and from campus throughout the day.
Recently, that has drawn the ire of some Gammon St. homeowners.
The most vocal among them is Kristi Wood, Secretary of NPU-Y. In recent months, Wood has photographed and videod students on multiple occasions, posting the images to her Facebook page.
Wood, who is White, regularly refers to Black, male students as “gang members” in her posts and on different occasions, she wrote that she had sent the photos to police, called for a police car to patrol the street when school lets out, and used the hashtag #closethegates.
[Searching this hashtag does not turn up any other South Atlanta residents using it to call for the Gammon gate to be closed; the hashtag is most consistently used by xenophobic Britons who want to end immigration.]
In a written statement to APN, Wood said that truancy has been “an escalating problem over the past few years.”
On May 07, 2015 Major Jeffrey Glazier, Atlanta Police Department (APD) Zone 3 Commander, made the unilateral decision to not only close the gate, but to chain it with a padlock.
Glazier then erected an orange plastic barricade and placed a sign reading “Carver Entrance Closed. Use McDonough Blvd. Entrance,” halfway down Gammon.
“That’s what young people of color have always been faced with. Locks and chains,” Ash Helm-Hernandez, youth coordinator at Project South, told APN.
Some of the students photographed by Wood are members of Project South’s Youth Community Action Program (YCAP).
“They’re dehumanizing our young people. They are being heavily criminalized. There are young people who skip school all over this nation and they don’t need to be handcuffed,” Helm-Hernandez said.
In an email forwarded to APN by an APD spokesperson, Glazier said the road closure was his response to an incident in which two stolen cars were driven through the gate and a gun was discharged.
APN requested a copy of a police report regarding the alleged incident, but was told that because no injuries occurred, no report was filed.
“This is only a short-term solution until the end of the school year. After that we will be sitting down with all stakeholders to come up with a permanent solution,” Glazier wrote.
But in an email exchange between Glazier and Wood, obtained by APN, Glazier wrote, “My goal is to keep this entrance and exit closed all summer and throughout the next school year.”
Several people were copied on the emails between Wood and Glazier, including the principal of Carver’s School of Health Sciences and Research; Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith (District 1); Zone 2 Fulton County Prosecutor Claire Farley; State Rep. Margaret Kaiser (D-Atlanta), an announced candidate for Mayor of Atlanta; Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education Member Leslie Grant (District 1); South Atlanta Civic League president Josh Noblitt, an announced candidate for Kaiser’s House seat and a minister; and NPU-Y Chairperson Russell Hopson.
Councilwoman Smith told APN that several of those individuals, including Wood, were part of a “truancy task force” that met several times at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.
Together they came up with a document titled “Truancy Comprehensive Response Procedures,” endorsed by Atlanta Public Schools (APS), which instructs members of the public on what to do if they see a school-aged child in the community during schools hours: Dial 911.
That is the only instruction offered in the document.
The rest of the two pages includes a chart outlining the different possible outcomes (from “Student returned to school” to “Student transported to detention”); bulleted lists detailing APD’s and APS’s approach to truancy; and relevant Georgia and City of Atlanta laws.
At the time of writing, an APS spokesperson had not responded to the following question: In light of the growing national awareness of the ways in which youth of color are systematically criminalized, why does APS see fit to instruct the public to dial 911 when they see someone who may be a truant student?
“They only see the young people as truant. They only name them as truant. They don’t give them the dignity of maybe they don’t want to be in school and what can we do to change that? They don’t want to talk about what’s making them want to leave school. Teenage pregnancy, learning disabilities, young people are facing all kinds of issues in the home,” Helm-Hernandez said.
Wood had a hand in crafting the truancy task force document.
In her written statement she expressed concern for the safety and well-being of students and said she had the support of “more than a dozen” neighbors.
“While closing the gate only addresses certain aspects of a much larger systemic problem, it has been the most sought after solution we have come to,” she wrote.
Wood’s concern may also extend to South Atlanta’s image and whether outsiders perceive it as a good place to live.
According to Fulton County property records, Wood and her husband, who moved to their home on Gammon St. in 2006, bought three more houses in the neighborhood during the first two years of the Great Recession, when foreclosures racked Atlanta’s low-income communities. Wood and her husband were able to buy homes for under 20,000 dollars that only a few years before had sold for over 200,000.
Now property values are rising again, and South Atlanta is among the neighborhoods considered “up-and-coming.”
Wood did not respond to APN’s question as to whether they are renting, planning to sell the houses, or using them for some other purpose.
In South Atlanta, gentrification is not an accident.
A Christian organization called FCS Urban Ministries has focused on the neighborhood in its mission to “reweave the fabric of urban community” by “attracting ‘strategic neighbors,’” to come live there, according to its website.
Founded by Bob Lupton, author of several books and essays, including “Gentrification with Justice,” and “Return Flight,” (as in the opposite of White Flight), one of FCS’s offshoots is a program called Charis Community Housing, which buys, rents, and sells houses in South Atlanta. [no connection to the Charis feminist bookstore or foundation]
According to property records, Charis Community Housing, Charis Financial Group, and Charis South Atlanta LLC together own 32 properties in the area, one of which is on Gammon.
Lupton’s son, who owns a building company and sits on the board of Charis Community Housing, also lives on Gammon.
Their mission, according to the website, is to “develop wholesome, viable, self-sustaining mixed-income neighborhoods where God’s peace is present and where lives and communities are transformed.”
FCS also operates Community Grounds Cafe and the South Atlanta Bike Shop.
As well-meaning as all of this may be, one consequence of wealthier, White people moving to South Atlanta has been heightened racial tensions.
“Having fun and being rambunctious is being equated with criminal activity,” Helm-Hernandez says of the way some White neighbors perceive Black youth.
Helm-Hernandez doesn’t downplay real violence that has happened.
A fight involving a large number of Carver students, in which the victim was targeted because of their sexual orientation, recently drew media attention.
“Instead of coming up with more creative solutions, they chain the fence and that’s creating so many underlying tensions that it’s going to explode if we don’t get the situation handled,” Helm-Hernandez explained.
Noblitt agrees it feels like there is an “adversarial” relationship between some neighbors and youth in the community.
“These are students, they are not our enemies. The Civic League is concerned about creating positive relationships with the students,” he said.
Noblitt has proposed to hire a mediator to work out a solution between people who want Gammon St. to remain closed and those who want it open.
Councilwoman Smith said that police have the authority to close roads when there is an emergency.
When asked whether there has been an ongoing emergency on Gammon for more than a month, Smith said she was unaware that the gate had remained closed that entire time.
APD spokesperson Greg Lyon also provided factual assertions that differed from reality. On two occasions, he indicated that Glazier and his captain had said that the gate was no longer closed. Each time, Atlanta Progressive News visited Gammon and saw that, in fact, it was still closed.
As of this writing, Lyon had not responded to a request for the section, if it exists, of APD’s policy manual that deals with road closure protocol.
“We need to have some solution and then go after that solution. Whether it be to leave the street completely open or to close it completely or somewhere between,” Smith told APN.
She brought up a legal process called “street abandonment” that is used to permanently close a street.
But it’s clear to those who rely on Gammon to access food, school, their homes, the park, and other essential services, that anyone who pushes for permanent closure is abandoning a lot more than a street.