It has been a roller-coaster ride, this front-line urban ministry journey. I have known both breath-taking victories and crushing disappointments. The experiences I have amassed over forty-plus years fill volumes. But one event stands out above all the rest – a vision so full of drama and excitement that it captivated the entire city. It was the conversion of an abandoned civil war era prison known as the Atlanta Stockade.
By 1900 the Stockade had become infamous for the gross inhumanity it inflicted upon its inmates, most of whom were poor and black. Growing public pressure eventually forced its closing and for most of a century the Stockade sat vacant, an ugly reminder of a darker chapter in the city’s history. Abandoned and overgrown with vines, it became a pit of debauchery, a blight on the surrounding community.
And then a most remarkable thing happened. The God who shapes history implanted a vision in the spirits of two nearby neighbors – a vision to transform this symbol of darkness into place of hope and hospitality for the poor. I was one of those neighbors.
A local priest and I became the vision-casters for this transformation. An amazing cast of players spontaneously responded. Architects, contractors, suppliers, interior designers, churches, and a dizzying array of highly talented others were drawn into the vision. The conversion process was astonishing. The back-breaking work of cutting through three-foot-thick concrete walls, the cost of installing modern electrical and heating/cooling systems in the cavernous structure, the task of converting cold prison walls into an atmosphere of warmth and home – these were no easy challenges. But people by the hundreds rose to the occasion and in eleven months converted the Stockade into GlenCastle – 67 beautifully furnished loft apartments for the working poor. With no debt and tax-abatement granted by the city, the rents became the most affordable in town. The Stockade became a “castle of hope” for families struggling to make ends meet.
That was thirty years ago. A lot can happen in thirty years. It certainly has in our community. What was once a crime-ridden, inner-city ghetto has become a gentrified, upscale, intown neighborhood. Property values have skyrocketed and the poor have moved on. Unfortunately, we learned too late about the negative impact that gentrification can have on the poor when there is no plan in place to preserve affordability in the neighborhood. Consequently, our ministry has shifted focus to a neglected adjacent community. This time our work includes a plan to insure permanent belonging for lower income residents.
So now what do we do with GlenCastle? It has become a very valuable piece of real estate sitting in the middle of an affluent section of town. After thirty years of hard use, it is in need of a major upgrade that will cost $5.5 million. Is this the best use of $5.5 million ministry dollars, dollars that we would have to raise through donations? Or should we sell the property and reinvest the proceeds to leverage the creation of many more affordable housing opportunities for neighbors in a community of need?
Certainly, there is value in historic preservation. The old Stockade is one of a handful of vanishing landmarks of a past era. It should be preserved, I am convinced of that. But just as its dark image was transformed into GlenCastle at a time when homelessness was epidemic in the city, even so can its visible presence remain an historic connection for vibrant twenty-first century urban life.
Several friends have asked me if I view GlenCastle as an important part of my legacy, if selling it would represent a significant personal loss. I appreciate the sensitivity but I guess I have more of a real estate developer’s personality than that of a romantic. One of the cardinal rules of the successful developer is: “Don’t fall in love with your development.” Turning real estate is key to growth. So, no, the sale and re-purposing of GlenCastle would not represent personal loss to me, especially since the property would continue to be an asset to the community while the proceeds are leveraged to create affordable homes for hundreds more families.
But what about the divinely authored vision? Are we not its guardians, charged with responsibility of stewarding a tangible symbol of God’s intervention in history? Are we abandoning it, yielding it to the rising tide of market forces that has no conscience, no place for the poor? This is a criticism that we will doubtless face if we decide to sell the property. It begs the question: is a vision to be preserved indefinitely or is it given for a season?
These are some of the weighty issues that our board has been wrestling through over the past several months, trying to discern our responsibility as stewards of this important asset. Finally, after many months of discussion and much deliberation, we have come to a decision. The Atlanta Stockade will be sold to a developer who will preserve its historic exterior and retrofit the interior into attractive, market-rate apartments. The proceeds of the sale will be re-invested in affordable housing and other real estate assets that will enhance the mission of FCS “to create healthy places in the city where families flourish and the Shalom of God is present.”
The vision lives on!