The Transformation of East Lake
By Carly Felton
90: The approximate percentage of East Lake Meadows’ residents who were victims of a felony in the early 1990s.
$46,000: The average value of an East Lake home in 1996.
12-14: The percent of East Lake Meadows residents who were employed – not unemployed, but employed – in 1995.
$35 million: The income East Lake drug trade brought to the area that same year.
6: The number of miles East Lake stands from the heart of Downtown Atlanta.
1993: The year a New York Times editorial provided the impetus to change it all.
This now-acclaimed piece stated that 74 percent of all prisoners in the entire State of New York prison system came from just eight neighborhoods – a statistic that shocked local philanthropist and real estate developer Tom Cousins, and spurred him to embark on what may very well be the riskiest and most successful charitable endeavor ever undertaken by a private citizen.
Cousins asked then-Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell if the staggering statistic held true for Atlanta, and was disturbed to discover that not only was this a reality, but Atlanta had only two or three of these neighborhoods, the worst being East Lake – a community so crime-ridden it was known as “Little Vietnam,” and even police were often hesitant to drive through.
The East Lake Meadows housing project had a crime rate 18 times the national average, and on average its resident families brought in only $4,000 a year. Approximately 75 percent of youths that grew up here would never graduate from high school.
Life in East Lake was “very unpredictable, scary and uncertain,” said resident Pamela Releford, who raised her son Jamal by herself in the area. It could be “very tough,” added Jeffrey Johnson, 18, who was also raised there.
What struck Cousins, however, was that these youths never really had a chance. From the moment they were brought into the world in East Lake’s violent neighborhood, they were surrounded by environmental factors setting them up for a life of failure—or crime, drugs and poverty. Cousins is often quoted as saying that had he been born in East Lake, he likely would’ve fallen into the same illegal practices.
Something had to be done to break the cycle.
Cousins purchased the East Lake Golf Club – where golf legend Bobby Jones learned to play in the 1920s before the area fell into disrepair – from a partnership of existing members in 1993. He wanted to restore its former glory and revitalize the neighborhood, said Charles Harrison, who assisted with the project and has worked on the greens in the area in some capacity ever since.
Working with the Atlanta Housing Authority and Eva Davis, head of East Lake Meadows’ tenant association, and existing residents, Cousins also established the East Lake Foundation to spearhead the $120 million revitalization of the community. The existing housing project was torn down and a 542-unit apartment complex, called The Villages of East Lake, was built on the site. Former residents were invited to move back in—with some caveats: They had to either work or be enrolled in school, 30 percent of their wages must go toward rent, and they must pass a criminal background check. Half of the units are reserved for households eligible for affordable housing, while the other half are open to middle-income families who pay market rate.
With the idea that three elements are essential to true community renovation, affordable housing, community wellness and quality education, the Foundation also tore down the old windowless school and in its place built Atlanta’s first public charter school, the Charles R. Drew Charter School, where students attend classes 1.5 hours longer each day than in traditional public schools. Reading is a primary focus, and students benefit from a wide array of enrichment programs, including violin, foreign language, golf and swimming lessons.
Drew students now meet or surpass Georgia academic standards. According to East Lake Foundation Executive Director Madelyn R. Adams, 90 percent of Drew students are reading at grade level or above, and 92 percent of the eighth-graders meet or exceed Georgia writing standards, compared to the state average of 75 percent.
“Had it not been for Drew Charter, the last four years might not have been as bright as they seem today,” Releford said.
Programs like CREW Teens – an academic program that helps high-schoolers plan for college and beyond – and The First Tee of East Lake – a program that uses golf to teach life skills – were created to guide East Lake youths through the challenges of growing up. Neighborhood children have opportunities they would have never gotten just 15 years earlier. “It was because of CREW Teens that I was able to travel to Mexico last summer … to participate in a community service project refurbishing a home for homeless boys,” Johnson said. “This experience had such a profound effect on me … Instead of thinking of just my local community, I now have a larger, global vision of what I hope for all people throughout the world.”
East Lake is now a desirable community where people of all income levels choose to live, thanks to an excellent YMCA, the Charlie Yates public golf course, the Sheltering Arms Early Education and Family Center, expanding retail choices and more. “Fifteen years ago, no child from the East Lake Meadows housing project had gone to college,” states Harrison. “Our first-grade class of Drew Charter School 12 years later had 38 major college scholarships.”
“The East Lake transformation was nothing short of miraculous!” exclaimed Johnson, who is on a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he aspires to study the economic growth patterns of underdeveloped countries.
The new numbers agree.
97: The percent of CREW Teens participants who will be the first in their families to attend college.
95: The percentage decrease in violent crime.
5: Percentage of Villages residents who receive welfare – and all of these are either elderly or disabled.
100: The percent of CREW Teens participants who are on track to graduate from high school.
81: The percentage of Drew students who met or exceeded state standards in math in 2008.