Built Environments #3: “I wish this was a…”

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Allow me to be weird for a moment. I love abandoned buildings. I’m not talking about a lovely rotting Victorian in Inman Park. It’s easy to love the old, grand buildings. Tarnished gold, stained carvings, weathered bricks, and walls overgrown with ivy only get better with age. I love buildings that people just walk away from. Crappy old hotels, cheaply built, with narrow hallways set my imagination aflutter. Shutdown schools, with their fluorescent lights and dingy tile look like scores of cool things waiting to happen.

When I walk through the Old Fourth Ward, I play “What Would I Do To This Old Building?”. My go-to answer used to be a school. I got the opportunity to work at a school in DC that had once been a church. It was custom-designed and it was a super cool space to learn in. But, I’ve been reading more about the Old Fourth Ward, the destruction of the housing projects in Atlanta, and about cities in general and I’ve been able to come up with some fancier suggestions. Just a fair warning, 7/10 my suggestion will be a neighborhood owned, not-for-profit, charter school.

In 1923 the David T Howard building, named after a wealthy African American businessman and philanthropist was opened as a grammar school, taking the place of three grammar schools, two of which had opened in 1866 to educate the children of freed, black men and women. From 1947-1976 the David T Howard building in the Old Fourth Ward was a high school. When the school closed in 1976 for the most part it became just another huge empty building. (Except for a brief and mysterious stint as the Atlanta Public Schools Museum.)

Big empty buildings are magnets for bad stuff. That’s why everyone hates them. In 1982 “the broken window theory” was introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in their paper “The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows”. Now the article is largely about police presence in neighborhoods and how deterioration of police/ citizen relations contributes to the downfall of a neighborhood. But a big theme is the idea that if things are left uncared for, more things will become uncared for, then gradually light vandalism will occur and then light crime, and then intense vandalism and heavier crime. Driving people out and increasing the abandonment.

“Second, at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)”

Basically, if there is one abandoned building in your neighborhood, the neighborhood is going to hell. The Old Fourth Ward has a lot of abandoned buildings. The David T Howard building is one of the largest. Its doors are chained, the low windows are boarded up and in recent years they built a giant chain link fence around the school that encases the school and its grounds. That doesn’t stop people though. On some nights the doors hang open eerily, or lights are on in random classrooms, or men walk purposefully (to unknown destinations) behind the locked gates. The Howard building is a big fat broken window.

I too like breaking windows. But I don’t break them. It’s fun to see them crash and sparkle, but the pleasure is fleeting. Broken windows look bad. The windows stay broken, because no one feels ownership over them. But the pleasure of fixing broken windows is much easier to maintain. So, what do I think should become of this giant, brick building? I’ve got a few ideas actually. Let’s pretend I’ve got the $30 million dollars it would cost to restore David T Howard to its original historical quality on the exterior, and make it “green” on the inside.

The Howard building sits right next to the Helene S. Mills multipurpose senior center. The multipurpose center is free to Fulton County residents over age 55 houses fitness classes, a cafeteria, a therapeutic pool, and provides adult daycare services. It’s well-maintained and busy.  Next to it is the bustling Boulevard on one side and the looming Howard building. As more and more people grow older so grows the number of people who lack access to assisted living facilities. Within the group of seniors who are face financial hardship as they age, there is a subgroup that is even more vulnerable. Low-income grandparents raising grandchildren have a rough go of it. They lack financial support. Sometimes they lack community support. And in many cases they lack the very basic support of a safe neighborhood and an adequate living space. What if the Dwight T Howard building was converted into a sliding scale apartment building for grandparents raising grandchildren? Grandparents could age with their peers, have the support of a community, be right next to a facility made especially for senior citizen, and their grandkids could grow up right on the Beltline.

Plenty of old buildings in Atlanta have been converted into living spaces successfully (usually pricey lofts for young worker bees, artists, inheritors, and entrepreneurs). In my imagination the building is still fenced, but with something less institutional than steel chain links and barbed wire. The front doors have a swipe keys, and then each floor requires an additional swipe to insure safety. There is live-in staff, like a resident’s assistant, a nurse, a security officer, and a building director. Since the housing is on a sliding scale most of the residents would be low income families, some of whom have lived in the metro-Atlanta area for decades. Social services could be provided more efficiently. A community garden could be started and shared between the Howard building and the Mills senior center. That tiny side street that stands between the two buildings could be closed every weekend of the growing season for a farmers market that accepts food stamps ( food stamps recipients can double their dollars at the farmer’s market thanks to the Wholesome Wave Foundation). The giant green space out back could continue to be used by local soccer clubs.

That’s what I would do with the $30 million dollars. That’s what I would do with the money that Atlanta is investing in shiny new stadium. That’s what I would do if I wanted to help keep low income families in Atlanta. It’s a game that I play. I don’t this is an impossible reality though.

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One Response to Built Environments #3: “I wish this was a…”

  1. Pingback: Built Environments #24: “I wish this was a…” | Will Stamp'd

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