October 2013 wasn’t the first time the Decatur, Ga., City Commission heard pleas from residents of the gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood to halt the disintegration of their community. In February 2003 another group of Oakhurst residents asked the City Commission to “have their backs.”
On January 9, 2003, the Decatur Planning Commission heard testimony in a case for a proposed Oakhurst rezoning. The meeting minutes captured this resident’s concerns:
… spoke in opposition to the application. She stated that she had lived in her house for the last ten years and that she initially rented it until she had the opportunity to buy it. She stated that she was opposed to the current proposal and that the current structure was an eyesore and a problem. She stated that the current non-conforming use was being used as the precedent for this application. She stated that she attended the roundtable meetings and that she feels that the city is trying to maintain the quality of life and that it is a community that tries to maintain the quality of the neighborhoods. She stated that the higher density proposed for the site was in conflict with those goals. She stated that there were other properties nearby that also needed to be renovated and that this rezoning could possibly be a precedent for those.
Another resident told the Planning Commission:
Our neighborhood is a rich blend of residents that reflects diversity in color, age, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, marital and familial status, and length of residence. We are committed to maintaining diversity. We are concerned about the impact 18 townhomes with an average selling price of $275,000 will have on the ability of certain residents, especially older African-American residents, to afford to stay in their homes through their “golden” years.
The Planning Commission voted to recommend denial for the rezoning request. The following month, the Decatur City Commission reviewed the same testimony presented to the Planning Commission and voted to approve the rezoning despite the Planning Commission’s recommendation. Sitting on the Decatur City Commission at that time were Bill Floyd (Mayor), Jim Baskett (Mayor Pro Tem), Fred Boykin, Kecia Cunningham, and Mary Alice Kemp. (The names in bold indicate commissioners still serving.)
More than 10 years later, at the October 2013 hearing, Decatur resident Veronica Edwards (who has lived in Oakhurst for nearly 50 years) asked the Decatur City Commission to enact the moratorium on single-family home teardowns that the body was considering that evening:
If we continue with the growth and development as fast as we are going, there will no longer be any diversity in the city of Decatur. It’s already little or none …
Of course when we came to the Decatur neighborhood, it was called the “white flight.” They took off. You all took off and went away. We endured. We stayed. Now it’s time for you all to have our back.
On March 11, 2014 I did a program on the gentrification in Oakhurst that featured the public premiere of my documentary video, Tearing Down Oakurst: An Oral History of Gentrification, and a discussion of gentrification and some of the tools available to reverse and prevent it. Edwards is featured in the video and she was one of the several Decatur residents who attended and who participated in the discussion. After the video I introduced Edwards and she received a rousing round of applause from the 50 people in the room.
After hearing more testimony, the Decatur City Commission voted 3-2 against enacting the moratorium. Both of Oakhurst’s commissioners, Patti Garrett and Kecia Cunningham, voted against the proposed ordinance.
This video clip from the October 2013 City Commission meeting captures Edwards’ comments and those by Cunningham and Garrett prior to the moratorium vote. At the March 11 program, audience members gasped upon seeing that Cunningham and Garrett voted against the moratorium
Cunningham’s comments before the vote, on their face, seem disingenuous in light of her participation in the 2003 zoning case. Cunningham not only helped hold the gentrification “gate” open, as a city commissioner she provided the key to unlock it.
As for Oakhurst’s other commissioner, Garrett, here is a Feb. 2012 email exchange we had about teardowns, gentrification, etc. Unlike Garrett, while I was her constituent (Aug. 2011-June 2012), I never received a response to emails sent to Commissioner Cunningham nor did she ever comment on this exchange with her colleague, Garrett:
Note: This post is derived from an earlier version posted at the History Sidebar blog.
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein