“There used to be an alley right here, running behind two houses standing there. No, wait, right about here,” says Columbus Ward, as he strains to position the landmarks of his youth: the storefront church, the grocery, the ice cream parlor. Even the old two-story duplex, which once shook with the commotion of his eight brothers and sisters, has been reduced to a mute uprising in the kudzu, a visual echo on a vacant lot. So much backfill for the interstate.
In the ’50s, Peoplestown, like many of the other neighborhoods south of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, was an economically stratified, equal but separate community of mostly whites, blacks and Jews. There was a barbershop, a theater, and a record store that sold 45’s. People walked to work at the box factory or the brick factory. They said hello on the streets.
Since then Peoplestown has lost more than 60 percent of its population, leaving behind a mostly renter community of about 2,500 people. According to the 1990 census, 93 percent are black; 67 percent of the households earn below $9,999 annually. There are 286 vacant lots, and there is no commerce to speak of. Residents here are much likelier than other Atlantans to be robbed, raped, murdered or assaulted.
Wherever Columbus Ward stops in this neighborhood, children gather. Or maybe it’s wherever children gather Columbus Ward stops. In any case, he presently greets a boy on the sidewalk.
“Yo, Uni. What’s up?”
Thursdays have been rough for Uni lately. He keeps getting shot at. The first time, Uni and his cousin were trying to crank a go-cart in his front yard when some dudes drove up, got out, and boxed his cousin on the ear. They made Uni lie facedown in the yard, then shot a bullet into the ground beside his head. He has no idea why.
The next Thursday, some different dudes, waving two pistols and a “pump,” forced Uni into the woods. They took his wallet and said they were going to kill him for not having any money or weed in his gym bag. They gave him five seconds to run, and then shot.
Be careful, Uni, Columbus says, and then heads up the street, past some boarded up apartments, around another corner, past yet another vacant building crumbling in a wreath of weeds, rats, broken glass and car parts. In late August, Peoplestown resounds with dog-day quietude, a kind of heat hum that is easily displaced by music thumping from a passing car, yet so immutable as to soon retake the streets and absorb some child’s playful summer shrill.
“Yeah. I know it can’t be like it was,” he says, and the heat refills the silence.
GRUDGINGLY, AT LEAST, Columbus Ward accepts the fact that all things do change. At the same time, it sometimes seems to him that nothing ever does.
Nonetheless, Ward believes that he has a mandate. He grew up in Peoplestown and for more than two decades has mentored the youth of this neighborhood. He has served the elderly, the poor, the indigent, and whoever else has sought anything from a loaf of bread to someone to read their eviction notice. And over the years, a fiery advocacy has grown out of that work.
While others apply to the conundrum of urban decay everything from philanthropy to social theory, from corporate dogoodery to individual responsibility, Ward’s method is pretty straightforward: He protests. Says one associate, “There are people here who are very angry and very poor, and people who are bright and looking for an opportunity, people who are philosophical and people who are emotional. As a neighborhood representative, Columbus has to balance all that. And when you balance all that and you come up with nothing, what do you do? You protest.”
Despite his reserved demeanor, and indeed a certain shyness, Columbus Ward is 6 feet, 260 pounds of equal opportunity hell-raiser, a grassroots agitator quick to confront mayors, governors, police, social workers, thugs, parents, well-meaning volunteers, corporations—in short, anybody who threatens his community, and especially anyone who dares to ignore it.
Ward’s influence, in varying degrees, extends from the darker recesses of southside streets to City Hall, from the spartan planning rooms of neighborhood activism to Capitol Hill.
Some call Columbus Ward “the real thing,” a community leader who came up cheek to jowl with those who have now nudged him to the forefront. Others call him a picket-happy anachronism, a reactionary. A fraud even.
“What I want to know is how do people get qualified to speak for their community around here? A lot of times it’s just whoever raises the most hell,” says one man.
Columbus Ward is square in the center of a clash of moments and movements. For all its private auspices, Atlanta’s Olympic moment is essentially a massive public works project that is imposing real and lasting impact on southside neighborhoods. A fear of being steamrollered by Olympic development, along with a wider disillusionment with the civil-rights era’s church-based leadership, has created a palpable longing for new representation in neighborhoods like Peoplestown, Summerhill, Mechanicsville and others.
“I sense a new kind of activist in areas traditionally viewed as low-income black communities,” says Fulton County Commissioner Michael Lomax. “One not so much asking, but saying, ‘This is where we are going’… very assertive and commanding about what they expect.”
But within that scramble for leadership there is also a renewed sense of anger. The challenge is to harness it. “I share with Columbus the same concerns that motivate his decisions: that low-income people are taken advantage of and left out of the process,” says Jon Abercrombie, executive director of FCS Urban Ministries. “But there are some who share Columbus’ positions whose anger has prevented them from remaining civil. Misdirected anger and the inability to compromise have worked against some of the folks in that struggle.”
Indeed, sparked by the development opportunities that the Olympics represent, the movement even turns on itself at times, with interneighborhood squabbles over who’s getting what, who deserves the credit, who is selling out, and who the real leaders are, often making it difficult to determine who represent their community and who represent themselves.
Few, however, doubt that Columbus Ward stands heart, soul and bullhorn with his community. In fact, says Summerhill Neighborhood Inc.’s Doug Dean, a former state representative who is generally viewed as Ward’s tactical antithesis, a compromiser rather than a confronter, “Sometimes he overlooks the reality of the situation in view of what his neighborhood might want.”
Thus Columbus Ward faces a classic leadership dilemma, treading that fine line between uncompromising principle and self-defeat. If he holds too tightly to his ideal—which is that anything of lasting good for Peoplestown must come from Peoplestown—then he could frighten off valuable outside support from The Atlanta Project, private corporations, Olympics sponsors and whoever else dares to care. If he becomes too accommodating to the status quo, then those he most wants to help will likely view him as a sellout.
COLUMBUS WARD, JR. was born in 1954 and grew up in the heart of Peoples town, the son of a kind but booze-troubled man from Butler, Ga., who had come to Atlanta for factory work. Ward’s mother was a domestic worker from Thomaston, Ga. She had nine children. Columbus was the fourth of five brothers. Early on he developed that unique recklessness born on the streets. He pinched food from the local grocery stores. He experimented with drugs and alcohol, and by the time he was 14, he had even stolen a car.
Early on Ward was also made aware of the double standards for blacks and whites. His father, whose own father had been white, often used his light skin to “pass” for white. When Columbus’ uncles would get into the corn liquor, which was often, his father would usually end up speaking to the sheriff on their behalf.
In the summer of 1966, Columbus Ward was 11 years old, just beginning to comprehend the strangeness of why his mom always had to sit at the back of the bus or the top of the Empire Theatre.
Meanwhile, in the sweltering heat of 1966, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. was praying for rain. Racial tension had overheated a nation, erupting in violence in many major cities. Thus far, Atlanta had been spared.
The day after Labor Day, the principal of Capitol Avenue Elementary School, where Columbus was a sixth grader, came around to the classrooms. She instructed the children not to go home by way of Capitol Avenue and Ormond Street. There was bad trouble, she said. So Columbus Ward made a point of going that way.
What he found was pandemonium. Mayor Allen was standing on top of a squad car with a bullhorn, urging a crowd of 2,000 Summerhill and Peoplestown residents, who were angry with police over the wounding of a suspected car thief, to go home and think things out before anyone got hurt.
“The Black Panthers were there in their beards and hats and they said, ‘Lay down in the street, everybody lay down.’ So I lay down. It was exciting, people talking on bullhorns,” says Ward. “And for the first time I learned that if you felt you had been mistreated, you should let it be known.”
Suddenly, a man in the crowd reached up and grabbed the bullhorn.
“Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!” he shouted.
The crowd began to rock the squad car, and as Mayor Allen literally dove off the hood, bricks and bottles began to fly, and then the tear gas.
“Then I heard someone yell, ‘Run! Everybody run!’ So I ran.”
It was probably the last time Columbus Ward ever ran from anything.
THE SUMMER AFTER the riots, a young Episcopal priest named Austin Ford expatriated himself from his privileged northside parish to a converted $2-a-night flophouse on Capitol Avenue, in the middle of Peoplestown. He called it Emmaus House, and as one of the city’s most ardent supporters of integration, he began a long history of community service and social activism that continues today.
“At summer camps I was always assigned the ‘bad’ kids. And it encouraged me that I could work with the ones everybody else had lost hope in,”
Once, Columbus had ridden his bike down to Aunt Fanny’s Baking Co., when some white workers pinned him in an alley.
“They said, ‘You little nigger. We’re going to put you away for stealing.’ Actually, we had stole from there before, but this time we were going to ask if we could have the sweet rolls they were throwing away. They grabbed me so hard and scared me so bad that from then on I was determined not to go to juvenile.”
When Father Ford set up Emmaus House, he included dances, games and field trips for the neighborhood children. There were also all manner of political activities, and it was common to include neighborhood youths in social demonstrations. At age 13, Ward was attending sit-ins, rallies and protests. He estimates that he has participated in some 200 protests over the years, for which he has gone to jail six times. Most recently, he has picketed Billy Payne’s house, led a march on the offices of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and organized the militant “Tent City” at groundbreaking ceremonies for the new stadium last summer.
Despite his history of visible advocacy, most agree that Ward’s most effective work is conducted one-on-one with troubled youths. The first male in his family to graduate from high school, he moved into Emmaus House at 17 to work as a staff member and quickly found that his strongest suit was working with kids.
“At summer camps I was always assigned the ‘bad’ kids. And it encouraged me that I could work with the ones everybody else had lost hope in,” he says.
Today, in addition to being staff director at Emmaus House, he runs the Community Care Program at the Rick McDevitt Youth Center, just across the street. The center is in a former city park that was closed down under Andrew Young’s administration. Over the years, rats and derelicts had claimed the building. When the city came to tear the building down in 1986, Ward and others literally stood between the bulldozers and the sagging walls. Ward found support in Rick McDevitt, the president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, which helped secure funds and resources to reopen the park and establish a youth center.
“When I first met Columbus, he had this group of kids that he was moving from one place to another. Helping them with their homework, keeping them out of trouble. He was using old Quonset huts and dumpy little places I would equate with closets. He had no place for them, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he had those kids in tow.”
Ward now directs the youth center’s Community Care Program, a community alternative to the state juvenile detention system. In its five years of operation Community Care has worked with more than 200 youths who were facing detention. Ward claims that at least 80 percent stay out of further trouble. Furthermore, working on less than $3 per day per child, as opposed to the $102 per day it costs the state to lock up a juvenile, Ward says he has bettered the state juvenile justice system’s success rate by four to seven times.
IN 1957 THE FEDERAL urban renewal project spoke of jobs, housing, and economic development. To the southside communities, however, urban renewal brought a massive highway project that separated neighborhoods, displaced families and sparked a flight from “progress” by all but the poorest residents. As mitigation, urban renewal planners purchased approximately 600 acres for economic revitalization in the impacted area. But the new homes and businesses never materialized. Instead, several years later, the land was sold to the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, which in 1965 built a stadium.
Four years later, another federal program, called Model Cities, sought to alleviate the “overcrowded … substandard and poor-quality housing ” conditions in stadium neighborhoods by acquiring another $2 million worth of land and setting it aside for Peoplestown’s new economic core. Additionally, Model Cities aimed to build about 2,700 new housing units in the surrounding area.
But by the time Model Cities ended in 1974, much of the existing housing in Peoplestown, Summerhill and other neighborhoods had been razed, but not replaced, actually leaving a 15 percent net reduction in housing. The chunk of land intended for Peoplestown’s economic center was paved over for yet more stadium parking. Now, nearly 40 years after the first urban renewal project began, that parking lot has been ripped up to make way for Atlanta’s Olympic stadium.
So why, after four decades of failed promises, dashed hopes, and outright lies, should Columbus Ward trust anybody? Moreover, what exactly does it mean to have Columbus Ward’s trust?
LATE ON A THURSDAY afternoon last August, Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax sat on the sofa in his office. That morning’s headlines had announced Lomax’s intention to run for mayor. Two days earlier, he had invited Columbus to his office, “just to talk.” In the preceding months, Lomax had presided over the county commission’s role in the Olympic stadium contract negotiations. “Some of the most painful moments in my 20 years of local government,” he says.
Ward and others, including the 61-year-old matriarch of Atlanta’s southside activists, Ethel Mae Mathews, raised holy hell with the commission over particulars of the stadium deal.
“There were moments of real excess,” says Lomax, referring to the point at which Ethel Mathews stood and condemned Fulton Commissioner Martin Luther King III, who had initially allied with the neighborhoods. After forcing numerous concessions from Braves management, however, King voted to approve the contract. The stadium would be built, and it would be built on the edge of the neighborhoods.
“I know your daddy is turning over in his grave for what you done said,” Mathews scolded.
Lomax says, “I mean, I had to sit next to this man … whose father was murdered … ”
Ward is in many respects a protege of Mathews, of the old school that often counts victory as much in the fight as in the outcome. As elected chairperson of the Neighborhood Planning Unit-V (NPUV), an official element of the city’s planning process, Ward has the backing of six southside neighborhoods. He is also a board member of the city’s Olympic oversight committee (CODA), on the Olympic Stadium Neighborhood Task Force, a member of Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, president of the nonprofit Peoples town Revitalization Corporation (PRC), and a member of the militant Atlanta Neighborhoods United for Fairness (ANUFF).
More importantly, says McDevitt, Ward has the genuine reverence of his community, particularly the senior citizens, many of whom are dependent on Columbus and his Emmaus staff for transportation. “The seniors have long-term relationships with families in the neighborhood that are multilayered. The seniors think the sun rises and sets over Columbus, and then the parents are beholden to him for saving their children’s lives,” he says.
Regarding Ward’s meetings with Lomax and other mayoral candidates, McDevitt says, “Funny how that works. When the polls open, a lot of people around here depend on rides. And if you’re a person who supports Columbus’ candidate, then the van shows up. If you’re not, well, then the van don’t show up… So the politicians come to curry his favor.”
Indeed, anybody who wishes to involve themselves in the neighborhood in any way will eventually run into Columbus Ward. But what, exactly, does Columbus Ward want?
FERN AVENUE, on the east end of Peoplestown, is dead. A single family killed the entire street. One of the boys got involved in drugs, then started dealing, and the crack and dope trade spread like cancer from street corner to street corner. After years of police and neighborhood efforts to subdue the seedy tyranny, the 20 or so cinder block duplexes along this street now stand empty and gutted, and the only evidence of life are two men sitting stonefaced on a wall outside the original dope house.
Ward’s vision is for the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation to acquire the properties, screen a group of people who want to move out of their present housing situation and into something that they can make their own, and relocate them en masse onto Fern Avenue. A kind of instant neighborhood that would, theoretically, drive out the remaining bad element.
“The problem is that everybody’s coming up with their plans and bringing them to the community, rather than coming to communities and saying, ‘Help us design the plan from the ground up.’ “
“I think Columbus holds the city and the Olympics responsible for seeing that these neighborhoods are revitalized. I’m not going to take the chance on them to deliver,” says Dean, who is president and CEO of Summerhill Neighborhood Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation. “Columbus and I are very close on understanding the needs in the neighborhood, but we don’t always see eye to eye on methodology.”
Nothing better represents those differences than the Olympic Stadium groundbreaking ceremony last July. As a member of ANUFF, a radical offshoot of the NPU-V that has all along opposed any stadium development south of the existing stadium, Ward organized the “Tent City” demonstration. While he and others attempted to shout down scheduled speakers, including Maynard Jackson and Billy Payne, Doug Dean stood on the platform with the Olympic powers.
“The separation between Summerhill Inc. and ANUFF is that Summerhill takes the initiative,” says Dean. Ironically, ANUFF’s radicalness may have made Summerhill Neighborhood Inc. appear more moderate, and therefore more comfortable for corporations and governments that want to be involved in the impacted neighborhoods.
“The problem is that everybody’s coming up with their plans and bringing them to the community, rather than coming to communities and saying, ‘Help us design the plan from the ground up,’ ” says Ward.
Ultimately, however, it may be Ward’s own ideals that prove to be his biggest obstacle. In his vision of neighborhood revitalization, virtually any outside entity, whether government, private, commercial or nonprofit, is suspect.
He has had a contentious relationship with Study Hall, the well-funded child development center located right behind Emmaus House and just across from the youth center. And once, when some well-meaning Hands On Atlanta volunteers wanted to suspend some of his kids from the Youth Center as discipline for their tardiness on neighborhood projects, he dismissed the volunteers on the spot. And he has roundly ignored Jimmy Carter’s Atlanta Project.
“I don’t see one program in The Atlanta Project that is going to eliminate poverty. They’ve raised all that money and put it into administrative costs… paying people to do what I’m already doing… when it could have been better spent on guaranteeing some people a lifestyle, such as direct grants for college or wage supplements.”
When the Olympics are gone, The Atlanta Project (TAP) will go, says Ward. “It’s designed not to work. When the power brokers of TAP were put into place, the people who had been out on the front lines from the beginning were never even consulted.”
He refers primarily to the Old Guard figures such as Father Ford, Ethel Mathews and Rev. Joseph E. Boone, all senior activists who have close ties to Emmaus House. “Beyond the Olympics, The Atlanta Project will deteriorate and I’ll still be here, because my being here doesn’t depend on any of those programs.”
Some critics claim Ward is just jaded, someone who sees anything emanating from The Establishment as a threat. “Sometimes I do feel that way,” says Ward. But he points out that TAP and the Olympics could usurp scarce donations, grants and sponsorship monies that might otherwise be better spent by the neighborhoods themselves. “But the bottom line is that we still have to be a part of the process,” he says. “From the beginning.”
WHEN AUSTIN FORD and Ethel Mathews and the others go, Columbus Ward will roll with us or we will roll right over him,” says one critic, who would not be identified, but who contends that Columbus Ward is a faltering prop of a worn-out vision.
“Columbus came up in Emmaus House, and he’s never known anything else, so he’ll never go against Mrs. Mathews and Austin Ford and the others, which in a way makes him predictably uncompromising…
“For those old people who didn’t get much recognition in the old civil-rights days, the Olympics is the best thing that ever happened to them. They tend to see everything as black vs. white, rich vs. poor. But these days it’s much more complicated. You sit down and negotiate… and the truth is, there just isn’t anybody out there who is willing to die for their cause.”
According to Ward, virtually all of the neighborhood concessions from Olympic organizers have been a result of ANUFF’s militancy. Without that, he believes, the neighborhoods would have been completely ignored. The list of agreements struck to date is indeed substantial, including union hiring and job training and placement for residents of impacted neighborhoods; regular dialogue between neighborhood representatives and Olympic officials; concessions on the exact location of the new stadium; an environmental and economic assessment of the construction site; and a reduction of the number of parking spaces from more than 10,000 to 8,900, as well as a percentage of parking revenue for a neighborhood trust.
Despite these gains, Columbus Ward would halt stadium construction in its tracks today, if he only could. “That land could be used for much better purposes,” he says, and as the clock ticks down to 1996, he will undoubtedly remain a vocal figure in the process.
The problem, however, for someone who is involved in every component of neighborhood planning, each with its own function and agenda, is often one of conflicting interests. When Ward and ANUFF were charging the barricades at the stadium ground-breaking ceremony; members of the PRC, of which Ward is president, worked with Olympics organizers to include children from Ward’s own neighborhood in the festivities.
“I see it more as a situation of competing problems. Some days Columbus has to decide whether to go to the burial of a child who has been shot, or to the aid of a family that is being evicted,” says McDevitt, although he admits that because of Columbus’ heightened involvement with development concerns, the Community Care Program has suffered. Ward recently upgraded the only other staffer from part time to full time. “I think this whole Olympics thing has created some stress at the seams for Columbus,” says McDevitt.
“SOMEONE IS GOING to write history here. Either we are going to cause the Olympics and the new stadium opportunity to help us implement our plan, or the Olympics will fail to live up to their commitment and Columbus and them are going to be proven right,” says Doug Dean, who was originally opposed to new stadium construction, but ultimately switched his allegiance to the ACOG plan. Ward saw it as a sellout.
“Doug has been a part of the political process. He knows the ins and outs,” says Ward, in an almost mournful tone. “But I’m not going out there to get nothing. I want something for my neighborhood, but not to where I have to sell out or not be able to express my opinions freely.”
Last year, however, Columbus Ward accepted on behalf of the Peoplestown Revitalization Corp. a $700,000 share of an $8 million direct grant from Fleet Finance Inc., a subsidiary of one of the largest financial institutions in the Northeast. At just about the same time, the state Office of Consumer Affairs launched a full-scale investigation into Fleet for alleged discriminatory and extortive lending practices statewide.
“Too often we—blacks, whites, or whoever—are willing to allow ourselves to be co-opted for a mess of pottage,” says Rev. Joe Boone, pastor of the Rush Memorial United Church of Christ for 23 years and a veteran activist whom Ward considers a mentor.
“I do not believe in this racist, vulgar Fleet outfit,” Boone says, and, along with other critics, accuses Fleet of trying to buy a better image. For groups that were working to expose Fleet, the open-arms gesture by Ward on behalf of the very communities they sought to vindicate was a slap in the face. “I would definitely say Columbus was wrong as two left shoes if [he] accepted that money. He is still my son, but he was wrong…”
In the end, there will be a new stadium in Peoplestown. The Atlanta Project will have either redefined urban models or drowned in a morass of failed communication. Columbus Ward will still be trying to help folks in Peoplestown, serving soup lines, driving the van, resolving domestic disputes, counseling his kids. Thus far, because the Fleet money was a direct cash grant to the community with no conditions imposed, Ward believes that his integrity is intact. But the sad fact of the matter may just be that for anything to happen these days, somehow, some way, somebody always has to sell out. ✦