In the past decade, Robert and Bertha Darden have had numerous knocks on the door of their Peoplestown home by city officials. It usually meant bad news.
But a recent knock at the door by one city official proved fruitful.
It was Mayor Andre Dickens.
He came alone. No entourage. No gaggle of media. Dickens spent two hours listening to the Dardens recall their 10-year ordeal with the city’s effort to evict them from the rapidly gentrifying southeast Atlanta neighborhood.
The meeting opened with a prayer, after which the couple explained their protracted fight with the two previous administrations: How the city sued them and attempted to take their home using eminent domain — the government right to seize property without owners’ consent as long as they are given, “just compensation,” and the property is needed for public use. They told him the city continues to withhold key documents that would help their case, and that some of the remaining families recently received eviction notices. (The Dardens have not received an eviction notice.) Despite all of the legal wrangling, the Dardens want to stay in their home.
“We are senior citizens. We want to live out our days here under the memory of what we have built here,” Bertha Darden said. The Darden matriarch is a retired bank worker and educator who has lived in Peoplestown with her husband, a retired city worker, since 1989. They raised their four children in the neighborhood.
“For someone to come in and say, ‘I want your house. I want you gone,’ for no justifiable reason and can’t prove it? Wouldn’t you want your parents to stay?” she implored.
Dickens told the family, “he was going to look into everything and then come to a conclusion about what he can do,” Darden said.
Before leaving, Dickens told the group he would resolve the matter in the first 100 days of his administration, according to Darden. After getting assurances that everyone was vaccinated, the mayor hugged the family, including two of the Dardens’ sons and a daughter-in-law who came to show support.
“It was very, very hopeful,” Darden said of the meeting that took place on Jan. 25. “We felt confident that what he was saying was honest and sincere. After sitting and talking with him, I do believe he’s a man of his word.”
In July 2012, the Dardens’ lives, along with those of their neighbors, were turned upside down. Severe flooding left the Dardens with several feet of water in their basement. The flood prompted city officials to clear the families from the affected area to fix the problem. That, in turn, led to the thorny legal entanglement the Dardens and several other remaining families still face today. All the while, the neighborhood noticeably began to change.
The decadelong impasse that brought Dickens to the Dardens’ doorstep has cost the couple and the owners of three other Peoplestown homes — Tanya Washington Hicks, Dwayne Adgar and the children of the late Mattie Jackson — an estimated $1 million in legal and engineering fees, and other costs. The group has stood steadfast against two administrations and countless court hearings. They watched as neighbors’ homes were demolished and other families took city settlements and left. When the city removed their names from the deeds in 2016, the families continued to pay their mortgages.
Dickens did not return Capital B’s requests for comment. It’s unclear whether he will meet with the remaining families.
At a recent media roundtable, the mayor said he met with the city’s engineers about the Peoplestown cases. “It’s in the courts now. This is a difficult thing to manage. I want those families whole and resolved soon,” he said. “They’ve gone through a long enough process. I want to see this come to an end soon.”
Dickens is the third mayor that the Dardens and the other remaining Peoplestown families have dealt with. While Dickens made a home visit, the past two mayors met with them at City Hall. Some political observers say Darden’s emotional confrontation with former Mayor Kasim Reed about the issue at a mayoral debate just before last year’s election may have been the catalyst that helped Dickens become mayor.
“I believe this is going to be the last mayor we have to deal with for this situation,” Darden said. “I believe he’s going to do what he said he was going to do.
‘I never thought I’d be living through this experience’
Today, the once mostly black working-class neighborhood with low-slung bungalows has given way to million-dollar homes. A park, pond and a nearby Publix are slated for the neighborhood.
The intricate brick that lines Atlanta Avenue mysteriously stops short of Washington Hicks’ and Darden’s homes, and picks up again further down the street where new and renovated homes have sprouted.
Eleven houses once stood between Washington Hicks’ and Darden’s homes. They’ve since been demolished.
“Now, we’re next-door neighbors,” Washington Hicks said. “I can see her house from my dining-room window.”
Like many of the homes, much of the working-class flavor of the 137-year-old Peoplestown neighborhood is being stripped away.
Peoplestown is bordered by Ormond Street and the Summerhill neighborhood on the north, Hill Street and Grant Park neighborhood on the east. Its southern border is the Beltline and Chosewood Park neighborhood. The Downtown Connector, Interstate 75, Interstate 85, and a railroad track serves as the western border.
The area has always had a Black presence, but it became predominantly Black about a century ago as whites moved to northside neighborhoods. Atlanta officials began gradually carving out pieces of the neighborhood to accommodate the city’s burgeoning progress. Large swaths of the community were sacrificed to make way for the Downtown Connector and a stadium. Homes were torn down, people displaced.
Like many other cities facing gentrification, Atlanta is reckoning with how to navigate race, income inequality, and ultimately who gets to live where.
Community activist and former state Sen. Vincent Fort has closely watched the Peoplestown’s fight.
“That neighborhood has been, in many ways, ground zero for the gentrification of Atlanta,” Fort said. “I think 2022 is going to tell the story about how this goes one way or the other.”
Washington Hicks moved to Peoplestown with her young son in July 2011. She’s a Georgia State University law professor and is very familiar with the inner workings of eminent domain. It was a big part of her race and law class for years. (Washington Hicks has never mentioned the Peoplestown ordeal in her classes.)
“When we talked about residential neighborhoods and the history of redlining and the history of racial covenants and all those sorts of things, that leads to the most current iteration and that is gentrification,” Washington Hicks said. “I would teach about the predatory and racial use of eminent domain throughout U.S. history. I never thought I’d be living through this experience.”
In August 2011, The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a briefing to discuss eminent domain abuses. The briefing looked at claims that using, “eminent domain for economic development unfairly and disproportionately harms racial and ethnic minorities,” according to a report that grew from the meeting.
Meanwhile, Washington Hicks was settling into her new home. The instant connection to the century-old cottage-style home and neighborhood was like “a hot knife through butter,” she recalled.
“I was a single parent,” she said. “My son and I had been living in a condo. He was growing and he needed more space. He wanted a dog and we wanted a yard, and when I bought it, it literally had a white picket fence.”
The neighborhood brought together people such as Washington Hicks, a Harvard-educated attorney, retirees like the Dardens, and a community icon, the late Mattie Jackson. Jackson’s family first saw the wrecking balls come for her neighborhood during the construction of the former Fulton County Stadium. Jackson’s children took up her fight after her death in 2020.
“People who moved in knew they were moving into a neighborhood, they weren’t just moving into a house,” Washington Hicks said. “It was a place [that] Toni Morrison talks about in a lot of her stories. This was a real place. Not just a space, but a place with a history and an energy and a culture and a character.”
Yoga studios, coffee shops, and bistros have supplanted corner stores and the little neighborhood supermarkets. Streets that once held block parties are now relatively silent, save for young joggers and people walking their dogs. The din of home renovation is constant as contractors buy and flip homes that now fetch more than a million dollars.
Washington Hicks’ home was never impacted by the 2012 flood, but she was nevertheless swept up in the fight to keep her home from becoming an eminent domain statistic. The fight between the remaining families and the city has exacted an emotional toll and yielded animosity from newer neighbors — one of whom taunted Washington Hicks recently by stenciling the hashtag, “#ByeTanya,” on a city sign touting the storage vault and park slated on land where Washington Hicks’ home now sits. The city removed the sign.
Washington Hicks said some of the newer neighbors feel the remaining families are obstacles to having the flooding problem resolved. But more importantly, some of these new neighbors feel that having the park and pond would increase the values of their homes.
Washington Hicks says it’s a classic case of gentrification; she’s just on the other side of it now.
“When you’re in it, you’re like, ‘I wish I could believe this was being done for the current residents.’ But it feels like a warning. It feels ominous,” she said. “You know they’re preparing for the incoming neighbors.”
Living in a question mark
The last offer the city made to the Dardens for their home was about $138,000. Washington Hicks said she was last offered about $385,000 for her four-bedroom home.
“The house is worth over half a million. “You’re taking my kids’ inheritance,” she said.
The Dardens’ home is valued at $243,400 and Washington Hicks’property is up to $517,000, according to Zillow.com.
Meanwhile, a home across the street from Washington Hicks carries a $1.5 million price tag.
Housing prices have skyrocketed. In December 2021, for example, the median listing home price in Atlanta was $389,000, up 11.4% from the same time the year before.The median home sold for about $360,000, according to realtor.com.
“You’re not just putting me out of my house,” Washington Hicks said. “You’re not just putting me out of my neighborhood. You put me out of the city of Atlanta. It’s incredibly stressful living in a question mark.”
Meanwhile, the families continue to wait for city documents that will help their case but have yet to be turned over to them — despite recent orders by a judge. The families say they’ve been asking for this information since 2016 when they were first sued. They’re not convinced the documents actually exist.
Washington Hicks said the city could resolve the issue by letting families stay put, paying off their legal fees, and instituting a policy that prevents a similar fate from happening to other residents across the city. For now, she’s encouraged by Dickens’ visit with the Dardens.
“The mayor has an opportunity to communicate to other communities like Peoplestown and other legacy residents like the Dardens that we’re going to usher in a new Atlanta way that prioritizes people,” she said. “The people make Atlanta what it is, not the profits. That’s an opportunity for (Dickens) and a way for him to distinguish himself from the most recent mayors.”
Atlanta Civic Circle partnered with Capital B Atlanta to produce this story. Journalist Maria Saporta, founder of The Saporta Report, contributed to this article.