For those who live in the path of Atlanta’s rampant development, uncertainty is the closest neighbor.
Atlanta Magazine | 1986
Betty’s cat sits on the windowsill between curtains and looks down toward our street, waiting for someone to come home. She’s there every day, as if the dampness of late winter has barometrically drawn her up from prowling the day-dark living room.
Pressing to the glass, she stares at squirrels picking through acorns in the front yard. Whenever I go out for the mail her silky head turns to follow me down the drive and halfway back, then stops when I stop to look up at my gutters, clogged with leaves and sweet gum burrs. Sometimes I’ll toss a stick or pebble into the bushes. The cat flicks her tail and blinks but otherwise is staid, almost false, hollow with the standstill of winter.
We’ve been living here since last spring. At that time my wife was freshly pregnant and, full of the instinct, had searched the classified ads to find us an affordable rental house with room for a nursery. The rent here was well below average for two-bedroom properties, the house less than a mile from Interstate 75. And because of the neighborhood’s uncertain future—it is smack in the path of Atlanta’s amoebic northside redevelopment—we occupy on a monthly basis.
The subdivision, along with a gridwork of nearly identical residences flanking the north Powers Ferry corridor, was built on pasture land about 35 years ago, with Lockheed employees in mind. The houses are rectangular brick or clapboard bungalows, with a door in the middle, windows on either side. In the ’50s they must have been quite the tidy and functional antecedents of modern suburbia. I can imagine two Buicks in every drive, fescue on all the lots, men with lunch pails and punch cards, a golden retriever in each back yard. Paint didn’t flake off the houses. Roofs had not peeled. All the cars ran. No gutter rot. No one had yet enclosed the carport to make a sunken den with a fireplace burning ceramic logs. There were no yellow placards proclaiming: Rezoning.
In July 1985, current homeowners received a joint letter from an investor and a real estate broker. They were interested in buying out the neighborhood. They asked for a meeting with residents to discuss organizing an assemblage, a combined sale of the properties, stating that unified marketing could result in thousands of extra dollars above the homes’ individual potentials. The meeting was held at a hotel in August; there was enthusiasm. Option contracts were mailed or hand-delivered and by early October 102 of the 154 owners had signed, allowing the optionee 18 months to obtain 100 percent agreement from homeowners, have surveys done, complete rezoning procedures and seek a developer for the land. The investor then set a deadline of November 8, saying that if all property holders had not signed by then the project’s feasibility would have to be re-evaluated.
November came and went and finally, in January 1986, there was a letter explaining that approximately 95 percent had agreed to the contract’s terms. There was no mention of the previous deadline, only that the investor would be supportive of making available a list of those who still had not signed, and that the deal was progressing.
We moved here nearly a year after the assemblage process began, a project solely responsible for our lease terms being so agreeable. The contract stated that we would give 30-days’ notice before leaving and that the owner could cancel our lease with 60, should a sale seem imminent. Since we planned to leave Atlanta not long after the baby was born, but didn’t know exactly when, the month-by-month arrangement was ideal.
The house was solid but dirty, seemingly unlived in for a while. Wallpaper sagged from the top corners. The former tenants had cooked a lot of greasy food. A painting crew splashed their way before us without regard for the hardwood floors or brown trim on white walls. We had an animal patrolling the enclosed back porch, nightly chewing its way into the Alpo bag or boxes of laundry detergent, stealing silverware and, once, a whole loaf of bread from the kitchen. Our front yard is a small square of red dirt. pocked by seasons of rain, sprigs of fescue and weeds growing on the harder, uneroded clumps.
I borrowed a lawn mower and ran it over the ground a few times. In the back I planted a patch of tomatoes and, within draw of a garden hose, they grew firm and red. Paint mist got scraped from the windows, trees pruned and the mailbox renailed. In time we began to fashion ourselves to this place and its better aspects to us.
There are mature apple and pear trees in the back yard, which is fenced and overgrown with muscadine, morning glory and young mimosa, and has ample room for our dog. We have a pecan tree and a tremendous black cherry back there, and in the front a magnolia and an old, dying post oak where some squirrels live. Wild tulip survives along the fence between our driveway and Betty’s. A big window overlooks the street and in June I liked to watch people strolling baby carriages or walking dogs as the rainless evenings grew hotter toward July and into August.
Acquaintances came slowly, without the inevitability of subdivided and fenced-lot living. They have been tentative meetings, dashed with an uncertainty connected, in individual ways, to resignation and the possible loss of place. Perhaps it is because I only rent here, remaining uncommitted and not truly involved in their speculations, the investment in strangers with contracts. Yet things seem detached, like the whole place is drifting and, once in a while, shrinking itself to fit people together.
Outside our bedroom window, just beyond the sessile old Charger on Darrell’s carport, there echoes a vigorous, cabinet-slamming quarrel in his kitchen. The next night when it’s late, maybe they listen to our fight with the same blank expressions. A man’s face appears under the hood of my dented 1949 pickup. He asks, “What’s wrong?” because he likes engines. Betty and her daughters have a cookout for some boyfriends and, over the fence, hand me half a watermelon they couldn’t finish. Andrew, the 10-year-old boy with a shaved summer head, sees me loading a dresser up the red stoop to my door. He pedals into the yard, throws down his bicycle with the wheels spinning and comes off at a trot. In a moment he says, “You’re going to have a baby. When?” and thereafter comes over several times a week to see what I’m doing. One day he stands in my living room and I ask if he knows anything about the houses maybe selling.
“Um, no, but they’re worth a lot of money,” Andrew says. “A thousand, wait, probably three thousand dollars.” I don’t tell him the option price is being figured at $450,000 per acre.
Summer blankets us with heat and routine, and we become somewhat natural to this mix of 30-year residents, recent homeowners and rental transients. Occasionally, there is talk of someone buying the neighborhood. No one is sure.
For a time there was no striking evidence of a tide—these fresh outer waves of an old city—and what it pushes ahead or may drown. I guess there still isn’t. This subdivision is tired, steady in its function and existence. So I could see the unraked yards and dead cars, the haphazard repairs to porticoes and general decline as normal, though now it appears as neglect.
Garage sales during the first cool weeks of autumn did foreshadow an ending of things, or something coming. But the card tables and life trinkets, women chatting in lawn chairs and kids changing the money in green safe boxes, all had about them the rouge of festivity and gain, making difficult any accurate distinction between people’s wants and needs, obscuring the woman sitting and watching, the boy counting quarters, or the man selling tools and broken radios exhumed from his attic. Still, it is always there, this confusing paradox of an instinct toward self-betterment in a finite world, the drive for a bigger house on a higher hill, the compaction of coal to diamonds and eventually to dust.
I have lived in metropolitan Atlanta nearly all my life. Finally, selfishly, from within the brain folds and kinks of a Southern self-righteousness comes my wish to do something, really to do it all, and finally know if my neighborhood should be razed or if we actually can have more people with more for each person. But this city’s progress is neither one man’s doing nor another’s charge. The ungainly spread may be a symptom of the Manifest Destiny the multitudes called for long ago, those who relinquished or hid the controls so we might fidget away our time in the final decomplication of living, in stacking box upon neat box and arranging the perfect ratio of trees to shrubs, resolute as ants in a line.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that for 15 months Betty couldn’t decide whether to paint her kitchen, or Lou to finish his deck.
We have essentially the same motive as the 17. 5 million Americans who from 1940 to 1960 comprised our largest historical migration by leaving the farms and coming to build our cities, in search of something better. Their children and grandchildren now forsake that move by scampering back toward the other extreme to found a specious middle ground of low-rise office parks and drafty model homes, the popular misconception being that we can have the best of rural and urban life by dragging one geographically closer to the other.
It is doubtful the public would miss this neighborhood or any sections of the area similarly eyed for redevelopment. The houses aren’t pretty and sheltered no one famous. “Yard of the Month” has been replaced by “For Rent.” Lifestyles are subtle apparitions of women pulling groceries out of the trunk, dogs with no collars, prowling cats, a man raking leaves. There are painters, carpenters, schoolteachers, kids (and yellow buses), work trucks, repainted Camaros, station wagons, wet streets with no curbs, mist.
It is not significant that this may be the largest assemblage attempted to date. Such projects constitute only a minor portion of Atlanta’s commercial and residential glut. Whether this venture succeeds or fails is irrelevant. Laws may be passed to block assemblages but there are lawyers to make them legally something else. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that for 15 months Betty couldn’t decide whether to paint her kitchen, or Lou, down the street, to finish his deck. I can even live with the fact that last fall, with winter coming, the owner of our home didn’t want to replace an $800 floor furnace because the house might soon be torn down. But it is still here and so are we, warm enough with the one good heater and plastic over our windows.
Trying to get a better idea of the assemblage’s progress, I speak with the real estate broker working between residents and the optionee.
He has the calm voice and temperament I wish I had, saying, “I tell the homeowners to live there as if the deal won’t go through, you know, go ahead and do things they normally would, keep the yard up or whatever.”
“But it’s been more than a year with nothing definite. What’s holding things up?”
“Primarily it concerns the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which may eliminate many of the benefits found in commercial real estate. So developers are now more carefully reviewing the economics of possible projects and many are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Plus we still have to have 100 percent cooperation from homeowners. That’s a tremendous task, very complex. I tell you, you need 18 degrees in psychology and then you’re still only going to be right about half the time.”
I tell him I have copies of the contract and all the letters to homeowners; but I don’t say I think some of the phrasing is coercive and the agreement to the subtle but strong advantage of the optionee. I could be wrong, prey to cynicism. Besides, I don’t even own this house and I’m not a lawyer. So I just ask if it’s been difficult.
“It’s been a strain, on me and particularly those people with the most time invested in the neighborhood. They’re anxious to sell. Just like anyone else, they’d like to have the money for a better lifestyle.”
Theoretically, human advancement would prevail. Developers slice their big piece and promise to widen roads and dig sewers. Homeowners get three or four times what their houses are worth and the ultimate commodity, land, flows in a natural succession to its highest and best use.
But this means only that someone was willing to invest money in a project because they’d studied the likelihood of wringing out a great deal more.
In the average citizen’s futile but unavoidable struggle to keep pace, making a living succeeds to making a bundle, Atlanta as a place of life to one of congested laboring. And Betty sells her house for a lot of money yet isn’t sure if afterwards she can afford to live in the same area, which she would like to do. If she doesn’t sell, she keeps the $10 option money for her two-year patience.
I sit in her living room one night, the cat winding its way between my shins, and ask if she and the other homeowners are being treated fairly.
“I guess so,” she says. “Most everyone wants to sell and that’s what they’re trying to help us do.”
“Had you thought about selling before that first meeting?”
“Not really. I don’t think I could have gotten anything for the house. You know, if the deal goes through, we get to keep the houses if we want to move them. I heard they might even have some man who might want to buy them all for $5,000 apiece. That’s just what I heard.”
“So you don’t feel pressured to sign?”
“Well, I guess the worst thing was that list of holdouts they were going to circulate. But I don’t think it ever went around. Anyway, I had already signed. They seem like nice men, gave us their home numbers and everything. You know, I like it here, but if everyone wants to sell I’d do it. I just wish we knew something,” she says.
Many people would like to know the same thing, about our city, what we’re making of it and what we are not. The confusion is well illustrated by a phrase popular to the north metro area. Driving by, we look up at the latest frigid block of glass and steel, glance aside at the plaster facade of a shopping strip or at a new and half-empty tract development and wonder, “When’d they put that up?” Somewhere we’ve lost the idea that ”they”—developers working with a city and its government—are supposed to be “us.”
If present trends continue, by 1990 our downtown will have been surpassed in square feet of office space by both the Perimeter Center and Cumberland/Galleria areas, with others on the rise. Such suburban hot spots are coming to be known as “urban villages.” In a recent nationwide analysis, which included Atlanta, writers for The Atlantic Monthly stated that these villages—cited as low-density, heavily landcaped and visually blending into the suburban environment—were gaining their own distinct identities.
I see the names, So-and-So Brook or Park Something-or-Other. But where are the identities, the distinction that even our first city once had?
Say it is a cop-out, and to some extent I will agree, but I don’t want to live here anymore. I figure if leaving would make my family happy, give us some room to breathe and relieve the suburbs of three more bodies to accommodate, walk around, and crawl over, then I’ve done as much good as anyone. Since the baby is now here, it’s no longer a question of finding out about a neighborhood sale as a matter of a place to live. We’re just curious if any possible construction or termination of the lease would coincide with our schedule.
The last letter any of the homeowners received stated that if a sale hadn’t looked likely by December 31, 1986, again the optionee would have to consider terminating the project with time left on the contract. On the 30th I take a walk around the block, a routine lingering from my bouts with pre-fatherhood anxiety. It is pleasant.
I go down the side of the street with Monk, my dog, and in a few places kick up pine straw matted to the edges of asphalt. The day is cold and clear. A tandem of fighter jets from nearby Dobbins Air Force Base flies overhead and the air whistles and slaps itself back together. There is an old ski boat under canvas tarpaulin in one yard and a green station wagon at the side of another. A stray cat crouches next to the wheel and chews on a bird. Halfway around the block I can hear cars on 1-75 and 120, the Marietta Loop. The Mobil gas sign towers above the tree buffer between houses and the highway. Somewhere around here is where Andrew says that boy shot himself. I remember the ambulances.
I can see the intersection with my street and here comes Andrew himself, wearing his scouting shirt. Monk puts a red claw mark down the boy’s britches.
“What are you, a Cub Scout?” I ask.
“Heck no. I’m a Webelo. See, I just got my first badge.”
I get to the end of the street, turn left, walk on toward my house and see Lou, in his front yard, breaking up limbs. He still teaches electronics at my old high school and has lived in that same house for 32 years. We talk about the neighborhood.
“I’ll tell ya,” he says, “I don’t think it will go through. If I don’t hear something by tomorrow I’m going to write ’em a letter and say they can just count me out. I’d just as soon it didn’t go through, anyway. I was one of the last ones to sign.”
“I wanted some changes in the agreement. I got it, too. But I still don’t think it was that great a deal for everyone. I mean, sure, they get what sounds like a lot of money but they’re not that much better off when trying to buy another house around here.”
Lou’s son hobbles out the front door and goes to his car for something. He’s on crutches with a cast all the way up one leg. I look at Lou, who shakes his head. “His truck got run over by a tractor-trailer,” he says. “Nearly killed him.” He ties together a bundle of sticks and sets them in his wheelbarrow, then continues. “Anyway, I don’t like the way things were handled. This guy’s sitting in my living room one night and says, ‘Hey, if you don’t sign, you’re going to wake up one morning with a hotel in your back yard.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. You gotta leave me a way in and out. You come one inch over my property and I’ll sue.’ And once the options were signed there were all these real estate people coming to the front door, wanting to sell you some land or a house. I tell ya, people go stark raving mad at the sound of money.
“You know, some of these people went out and bought new cars and things. I know one guy who bought some land and is building a big house. What’s going to happen if the deal folds? People … anyway, it’s all going to go in a few years. I’d just as soon wait. We’ll be able to get more for it by then.”
“Well, let me know if you hear anything.”
I jog to my front door, swing it open and get inside. My wife is feeding the baby. She eats for a while and looks at me. I reach over, pull the bottle from her lips and pester her for a smile. She drools and says, “Uk. Ahhh.”
I want her to always be this size, but at the same time wish she could talk to me. Since she is bound to grow, and someday grow away, I can only hope that in the process she learns to speak intelligibly. ✦