August 25 is the 100th anniversary of the murder conviction of Leo Frank, a 31-year-old Jewish-American factory superintendent who lived in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta, just south of downtown. Frank had purportedly strangled to death an employee, Mary Phagan. In 1915 Georgia’s governor commuted the sentence, arguing a miscarriage of justice had occurred. In response a mob lynched Frank, then cut down his corpse, stomped on his face, and cut off pieces of his nightshirt and rope to sell as souvenirs.
A plaque on the wall of a building on Georgia Avenue, Summerhill’s main drag, testifies that Frank’s house once stood there. I walked that neighborhood (and wrote about it) two decades ago, did so again in 2003 to see what had changed, and did so again last month. Once-vibrant Georgia Avenue is now a desolate stretch of deserted storefronts and weeds. South of it lies the part of Summerhill lynched by federal programs, philanthropic schemes, and a promised 1996 Olympics surge that ended with a few slapped-on coats of paint.
Summerhill, poor but with generally intact families, began dying in the 1950s and 1960s as federal urban renewal, along with expressway and stadium construction, reduced population density. So did Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities program, which in six years spent $173 million in Summerhill and vicinity with the goal of creating “new homes, schools, parks, community centers, and open spaces,” since Summerhill had “less than half as much land per person devoted to recreational purposes [as the rest of] the city.”
One problem: As population density declined, so did the number of customers. Businesses closed. Unemployment, welfare, and crime grew. Jimmy Carter as president threw more money at the problem and did the same years later as head of the massive nonprofit Atlanta Project in the 1990s. More than $50 million from governments and nonprofits entered the Summerhill neighborhood during the six years before the 1996 Olympics. The major result: Corruption increased, with political, regulatory, and community leaders lying and stealing.
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