Through a violent process imbued with white supremacy and capitalism, gentrification continues to wreak havoc upon Black neighborhoods across america.
Close your eyes and do this exercise:
Think of your favorite Black restaurant in your favorite Black neighborhood in your city. Think of what it’s surrounded by, who frequents it, how good it makes you feel, and how many memories you’ve created there.
Now imagine that, just close to two years after the moment you just thought of, just about everything you once knew about this restaurant changed.
For me, that is my exact reality here in Atlanta. And if you’re Black, you’ve likely experienced this, too.
One of my favorite barbecue joints to frequent in Atlanta is a small restaurant—which my friends and I would call “in the cut”—called Tom, Dick, and Hank. It is connected to a sports bar called 656 Sports Bar & Grille. Across the street is an empty lot, which is often used for parking. Beside that lot is a somewhat-busy gas station. Just up the street from there, there’s a Family Dollar and a few neighborhoods—some old, some newly-built.
Since the summer of 2016, during very long days and even longer nights in the #ATLisReady headquarters, myself and my “movement fam,” as we did then and continue to call ourselves, would travel up the road to this very Black and very southern barbecue experience.
The music was always soulful, the staff was always hella Black, and it was always only ever occupied by tons of other Black folks. And more than anything that Summer—the Summer that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered, leading Atlanta organizers and occupants to shutting down freeways for a week—we needed to feel held by other Black folks; even if they did not necessarily know they were holding us up.
I always get their succulent turkey ribs, glazed with a sweet BBQ sauce, with a side of collard greens, mac & cheese, and fresh cornbread. Of course, with that meal, I must get something to drink, so I buy a peach lemonade to quench my thirst. Black ass food, prepared and served by Black ass workers, surrounded by Black ass people during a Summer where we truly felt, yet again, the pains and horrors of being Black in america. This place easily became one of the most important places in Atlanta to me.
On March 1st of 2017, residents of one of Atlanta’s last historically Black districts—the NPU-V area—took to the streets to protest against being pushed out of their homes. The protest was called March Against Gentrification. Turner Field, the former baseball home to the Atlanta Braves, was being sold to Georgia State University (GSU) to become their new college football stadium. Part of that included new developments, like apartment complexes, parking decks, shopping centers, and more. What it did not include, however, was language that guaranteed the residents of the NPU-V would not be harmed by these developments.
Due to this, prior to the march and the negotiation process between the city and GSU, residents from the Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, Summerhill, Pittsburgh, and Grant Park neighborhoods came together to create a document of what exactly they would like to see from this development, including investment in local infrastructure, police accountability, employment opportunities, and education—all of which would cost less than $100,000. This would be what we call a CBA, or a Community Benefits Agreement. Despite our efforts, the city continued the negotiation process with claims to implement these requests, but no follow-through. This is what led to the March Against Gentrification.
However, residents and other organizers had done marches like this one before. We needed to do something unprecedented. So, at the end of the march, elder Black women from the communities came together and called for the occupation of the Turner Field property. This would be named #TentCityATL, and it would go on to be 60+ days of camping out in front of the Turner Field stadium demanding that the CBA be signed until the tent city was eventually torn down by GSU’s police force—a violent act that, in many ways, represented the symbolic and literal commitment the state has to tearing apart the lives of poor Black folks to make way for developments that bring the city revenue by way of the people who can afford it: white people.
Turner Field is just up the street from Tom, Dick, and Hank. During the occupation, we would sometimes go there to get food, or to use the restroom. Now, just months away from the two-year mark of its origin, while the NPU-V neighborhoods are still functioning and occupied by Black folks, the developments have been underway and drawing in gentrifiers by the droves. Beatnik, hipster-esque white people have begun to move into the new apartment complexes surrounding the field. I have always known that gentrification was not a myth; I’ve organized around it for years, and have lived through it for even longer. Still, every time I drove by Turner Field and saw the surrounding area changing before my very eyes, it began to feel much more real.
This is a mere reflection, not necessarily an analysis, on what it means to exist on the opposite side of the gentrification process. I have written many times about gentrification—what it is, who it often affects and effects, who initiates it, and more. This is the first time, though, that I am writing a reflection on what it feels like to be experiencing it. Now that I am reflecting publicly, I can mostly only say that it pains me to witness this in real-time. People with whom I’ve built community are struggling more and more to pay their rent that doesn’t seem to stop rising; Black kids being met with looks of terror and detest by white folks clutching the handle of their babies’ strollers and tightly holding on to their dogs’ leashes as they jog around our neighborhoods.
Recently, for the first time in months, I went to Tom, Dick, and Hank with some friends. Instead of being met with the same large and beautiful Black presence I am usually met with, I saw a restaurant mostly occupied by white people and tourists. I sulked for a moment and got angry in the next because we worked very long and very hard to avoid this exact thing. But cities were made for capital, of which poor Black folks have none. So it oftentimes feels like we sit and wait for our time to be next to see the neighborhoods we love wither away. So now, as a resident of the Pittsburgh community—one of the neighborhoods of the NPU-V—when I visit Tom, Dick, and Hank, I can’t help but wonder if that time will be sooner rather than later for me and this restaurant that holds so many memories for myself and the people who helped to sustain this dying city called Atlanta.
I don’t have a deeply profound conclusion filled with calls to action and motivational speech. All I have is my commitment to my people, to myself, and to my imagination. It is the imagining of a better tomorrow for myself and my people that keeps my feet planted by the river I’ve watched so many of my memories die in. All I have is a commitment to learning, teaching, struggling, and celebrating in the process. And all I can do is urge you to do the same. Hold the communities around you and allow them to hold you back. There is another future for us.