By Carol Naughton, Senior Vice President, Purpose Built Communities
Not long ago, East Lake Meadows, in Atlanta, Georgia, was known for its poverty. In 1995, 96 percent of residents were living in poverty, the employment rate was only 13.5 percent, the crime rate was 18 times higher than the national average, only 5 percent of fifth graders met state math standards, and less than one-third of teens graduated from school.
Today, that neighborhood has been revitalized and is thriving. Household incomes have grown by 500 percent, violent crime has been reduced by 95 percent, 98.9 percent of fifth graders are meeting math standards and 97.9 percent meet reading standards. Seventy-eight percent of students who completed elementary school at the new neighborhood charter school graduate from high school, comparing favorably to Georgia’s rate (67 percent) and Atlanta Public Schools at 52 percent. And that percentage is certain to grow given the new high school opening in East Lake in 2014.
The revitalization of East Lake has been a long term initiative. I have been actively involved from the beginning, first as a lawyer with the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) from 1995 to 2001, and then as Executive Director of the East Lake Foundation, a nonprofit organization that worked with AHA, the residents of the community and other stakeholders to plan, implement and sustain the revitalization. In 2009, in response to a growing demand for solutions to intergenerational poverty, I helped form Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit consulting firm affiliated with the East Lake Foundation that works with local leaders to implement our model of revitalization in neighborhoods around the country.
This kind of success raises the obvious question: how did we do it? Early on, we realized that change would mean thinking differently. It would require a strong, committed group of public and private leaders to come together, to create partnerships and work across boundaries and interests, and to take shared responsibility toward common goals for the common good. The East Lake Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1995 specifically to lead the revitalization, spearheaded efforts, bringing together a range of public and private partners including neighborhood leaders, the Atlanta Housing Authority, Atlanta Public Schools, the Metro Atlanta YMCA and many others.
We quickly realized that we could never build a strong neighborhood unless it was a healthy one. That no matter the goals we set for education or employment or crime reduction, they could not be achieved unless East Lake provided the opportunity for everyone to be as healthy as they can be, giving them the chance to succeed.
Health is a centerpiece of our strategies and our success. Our four primary strategies include:
- Replacing distressed, low-income, unhealthy housing with high quality mixed-income housing;
- Creating a cradle to college education pipeline;
- Bringing the community wellness partners/programs together to create healthy sustainable neighborhoods; and
- Creating a newly formed non-profit with a single focus, called the lead organization, that drives and coordinates the revitalization.
East Lake is now a vibrant community, and the initial return on investment has been remarkable. The direct benefits from redevelopment exceeded the initial capital outlay in the first two years – and, equally importantly, East Lake is now a highly desirable place for families to live.
Our Community’s Wellness Center
Our first health and wellness partner in the revitalization was the East Lake Family YMCA. The Metro Atlanta YMCA operated a small facility a mile from East Lake that was about to close. The East Lake Foundation invited the YMCA to build and operate a new YMCA as part of the rebuild of the East Lake neighborhood. The East Lake Foundation also helped forge a relationship between the YMCA and Drew Charter School, the new neighborhood school that would be built on an adjoining piece of land.
Together, we raised money to build a new family YMCA: a 55,000 square foot facility that includes wellness space with weight rooms, pools, dance studios, and other multi-purpose areas. It includes community space for neighborhood meetings, fundraisers, weddings and dances. The YMCA, which was one of the first places in the neighborhood that brought people together across race and income, has become a multi-purpose community center. For example, seniors in the YMCA’s “Silver Fox Club” take water aerobics in the morning and then socialize in the YMCA’s café.
Since 2001, the East Lake Family YMCA has contracted with Drew Charter School to provide physical education classes including swimming lessons. This arrangement is a great use of both human and physical capital, keeping the YMCA and its staff busy all day long, unlike a typical YMCA, where most of the traffic is from 6:00-9:00 am and after 4:00 pm.
The leadership of the Metro Atlanta YMCA took a chance on this new community partnership model. Their decision to invest in East Lake, and now other urban neighborhoods in Atlanta, grew from their commitment to serve areas that had historically been underserved by top flight institutions. Of the 18 YMCA’s in metro Atlanta, East Lake has the third highest membership, which is offered on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. One of the most significant examples of the strength of the partnership is demonstrated by RC Pruitt, the Group Vice President of the Metro Atlanta YMCA, who says that he measures the success of the East Lake Family YMCA by how well children at Drew Charter School are doing academically, physically, emotionally and socially.
Quite simply, the Metro Atlanta YMCA loves this model and is looking for more ways to partner with schools in the metro area. This partnership has also greatly benefited the Drew Charter School—Drew didn’t have to build a gym because the YMCA was the physical education partner for the school. So, instead of a small gym with limited programs, children have access to a large, first-class facility lead by top quality professionals.
Healthy Children + a Healthy School = a Healthy and Happy Community
For years, a local office of PricewaterhouseCoopers has assembled bicycles as part of team building exercises and donated them to Drew Charter School. Drew used the bikes to reward academic progress, good behavior and other accomplishments. This led to the creation of a bike club that meets on Saturdays to ride through Atlanta. Drew added bike racks to accommodate children who started riding their bikes to school. In addition, many seventh graders participate in the “Bike Ride Across Georgia” every year. What started with just a few donated bikes has grown into an unintentional health movement.
We were more intentional about other aspects of student health at Drew. During every school day, each child gets recess and, three times per week, students take physical education. We also have a robust walk-to-school program and healthier school foods in meals and vending machines. Quite simply, wellness is integrated in the school culture. It’s part of a Drew education.
Recently we had visitors to our school. We asked them “What do you notice?” Their first answer: “The kids aren’t fat.”
Beyond physical activity, our community has addressed systemic child health issues. When we started our work, many children missed school because of asthma. So, we partnered with Children’s Health Care of Atlanta to reduce incidences of asthma by helping children and their families better manage their condition.
And, because Drew is a charter school, it decides where to spend its money. The school elected to fund a school nurse, a social worker, and counselor as full-time employees. Drew has also worked with psychologists, psychiatrists, and clinical pastoral counselors when a student needed that level of support.
We have seen health change for the better:
- A dramatic reduction in number of obese and overweight children;
- Fewer children missing more than 10 days of school;
- Fewer children with asthma; and
- Fewer teen pregnancies.
A Neighborhood Purposefully Built with Health in Mind
At the beginning of the revitalization, we knew it was important to make East Lake a walkable and friendly to outdoor exercise and biking. We built wide, well-lit sidewalks – in fact, there are separate street lights that shine just on the sidewalks. This neighborhood feels like a campus, and the design encourages walking from place to place.
In addition, the mixed-income housing was built intentionally around the new public Charlie Yates Golf Course, the home of the First Tee of East Lake©, a youth development program that uses the game of golf to not only provide recreation, but to help the kids develop life skills.
For 40 years, East Lake residents had to go miles (through dangerous areas) to reach a grocery store. Early in the revitalization, the East Lake Foundation purchased land in hope of attracting a large grocery chain. By the time the mixed-income housing was complete, the Foundation had entered into an agreement with Publix to build a store on the land across the street from the apartments. Publix opened in November 2001 and now we have an accessible source of fresh, affordable foods.
We also converted spaces that once held fast food into green spaces and ensured there were ample playgrounds and open spaces in the neighborhood. In fact, the athletic field at the Villages of East Lake is the home pitch for the YMCA’s soccer league.
Lastly, in July 2010, the East Lake Foundation and its partners founded the East Lake Community Learning Garden as a safe, supportive environment where neighborhood residents grow organic produce in a small urban farm and participate in interactive workshops while learning from one another and gardening experts.
The Little Changes Make a Huge Difference
After years of study, it is clear there is no silver bullet to the obesity epidemic, community violence or underperforming schools. None of the individual actions we took would have addressed these systemic problems on their own. But, cumulatively, each initiative, program and investment has provided a huge benefit at both the individual and community levels.
Today, East Lake is a thriving neighborhood, with all children and families living in better quality and healthier housing, with nearby facilities geared toward their continued well-being. There are no vermin or toxins that trigger dangerous health episodes. Drew students, YMCA members and neighborhood residents cross paths and get to know one another while working together in the garden or cheering for Drew’s athletic and academic teams. People across a broad range of incomes play tennis and golf at the neighborhood facilities. They congregate in Drew Charter School and the YMCA to work to make East Lake a better place.
Our model worked for East Lake – our children are healthier, performing better in school and happier. This revitalized neighborhood is vibrant and safer. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said when citing East Lake as a successful model, “… substantial coordination and dedication, [can]… break through silos to simultaneously improve housing, connect residents to jobs, and help ensure access to adequate nutrition, health care, education, and day care.” That is the big picture vision that transformed East Lake and is now working in a growing number of cities to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty so that geography no longer limits human potential.