Drive slowly through the intersection of McDonough and Jonesboro Road. You'll feel more comfortable if you keep your car doors locked. Look at the large, graffiti-covered building that dominates the corner. Watch, as you pause at the traffic light, the steady stream of humanity flowing in and out of the liquor store which occupies much of the storefront portion of the structure. Notice the clusters of broken men clutching bottles wrapped in brown paper sacks who lean against the rusted chain-link fence that edges the gravel parking lot. In the trees and tall grass toward the back you can make out what looks like piles of clothes and trash - that's "home" where some of these men will crawl when they can no longer stay upright. See the thin woman with the matted hair who is talking to them? She sells herself to them and to anyone else who will give her their change so she can support her drug habit. And the younger men hanging on the corner? They are the entrepreneurs of the neighborhood. See the car that has stopped? Watch the exchange through the window. That's the most lucrative part of their business. But there are also drunks to roll and women to sell and houses to rob - all in a day's hustle. Welcome to the gateway of the historic neighborhood of South Atlanta. 87 year old Mozell Partridge, a lifelong resident who lives in the white frame bungalow just up the street from the liquor store, will tell you the story if you will sit a spell with her on her porch. She can recall with clarity when South Atlanta was the pride of the black community. Gammon Seminary, the Methodist theological school founded to educate black ministers, was established here in 1888. And Clark College, one of the nations premier institutions of black liberal arts education, was just around the corner. Mrs. Partridge remembers when the streets were lined with beautiful homes where staff and faculty lived. She points across to the stately house on Gammon Street, the seminary president's home, now boarded up. She used to picnic on the rolling acres of open campus land criss-crossed with magnolia-shaded walkways. A few of the ancient magnolias still tower in the vacant overgrown land beyond the liquor store. Those were days when South Atlanta abounded with vision and optimism and spiritual vitality. The churches were alive, the schools were strong, the businesses were vigorous. It was the very best community for a child to grow up in.
The liquor store building used to be a neighborhood theatre where all the children went on Saturday afternoons. Mrs. Partridge watched it being built. But in the late 50's, when the college and seminary relocated to the burgeoning Atlanta University campus on Atlanta's west side, vitality began to drain from the community. The rolling campus land was sold off and a large public housing project was constructed. The magnificent seminary edifice became a high school for the children of poverty. Homeowners moved away and properties began to deteriorate. The theatre was eventually boarded up.
Mrs. Partridge watched it all. She watched the businesses close. She watched insurance fires destroy the homes. She saw the slumlords arrive and the overcrowding begin. She witnessed the infiltration of drug dealers and other dangerous people who began to prey upon the vulnerable. And then, as if things weren't bad enough, the liquor store opened. Mrs. Partridge saw it all happening right before her eyes and she was powerless to do anything about it. So she did what many seniors do when life has slipped beyond their control - she prayed. She and several other stouthearted elders got together and talked and prayed and called the police and prayed and wrote letters to city officials and prayed. For years they did this, while their churches one by one moved away and their community disintegrated around them.
But this year, after five decades of deterioration, something remarkable is happening. A series of seemingly unrelated coincidences have begun to converge in South Atlanta. Our FCS staff somehow sensed that, after years of requests from the community, the time was right to begin a partnership with them. No sooner had our decision been made when we discovered a young ministry-minded couple had purchased the burnt-out shell of a building across the corner from the liquor store, renovated it into an attractive lofted home and were moving in. Then a family foundation, wanting to make a significant impact in the city, offered to acquire vacant land for new affordable housing. Another committed the money to buy a crack house, rehab it and establish an outreach to neighborhood children. A group of young professionals with a heart to assist seniors has started to renovate the homes of longtime residents. A faith-motivated for-profit builder has now offered to build some fine middle-income homes in the neighborhood - the first in more than 50 years! In an unrelated decision, the housing authority has begun tearing down the crime-ridden housing project to build a mixed-income development patterned after the highly successful Villages of East Lake. I do not fully understand the mystery of prayer, but I am convinced that the cries of the saints that for dark decades have risen from this forgotten community are now, in the fullness of time, effecting Divine intervention.
It remains to be seen just what specific challenges God might entrust to me in this rebirthing process. I do know that one idea keeps churning in my spirit. I have quietly searched out the ownership of the liquor store building and have secured an option on the property. The entire corner - liquor store, theatre and ¾ of an acre of land - can be purchased for $300,000. I have already started an informal visioning discussion with residents to surface what they might like to see at this gateway to their community. A youth ministry center, a quality grocery store, a historic cultural area... the dreaming has begun. An architect has volunteered to create a color rendering of what this important corner could look like. Wouldn't it be a marvelous Christmas gift to the community to redeem their most troubling and visible remaining landmark? Want to join me in it? Call me and let's take a drive by.