Hello ghetto let yo' brain breathe
Believe there's always more. Ahh!
—"B.O.B.," Stankonia (2000)
Shirley Hightower still remembers when OutKast filmed the video for "B.O.B." in her backyard. "That was a good day," Hightower says, recalling the Dave Meyers-directed scenes of a shirtless Andre 3000 running through fields of psychedelic purple grass in Bowen Homes with a sea of younger residents on his tail.
The setting seems so idyllic, in hindsight it belies every story ever told concerning one of Atlanta's most notorious housing projects.
For 20 years, Hightower lived in Bowen Homes off the former Bankhead Highway. During about a quarter of that time she served as Resident Association President. With a total of 650 units, it was among the city's largest public housing developments until its demolition in 2009. It was also widely considered one of the most crime-ridden.
That reputation was rivaled by homegrown talent, ranging from former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield to a never-ending roster of rappers. Even the shortlist is notable: It starts with bass legend Kilo Ali, the first Atlanta native to achieve regional success starting with the 1990 release of his debut single, "Cocaine (America Has a Problem)"; and ends with "Shawty Lo" a reputed former drug dealer who, in 2003, started independent label D4L Records and the short-lived snap group of the same name before branching off as a solo act. Another product of the Bankhead area, T.I. was his one-time rap rival.
But the story of Bowen Homes' demolition has had implications far beyond Bankhead's snap-and-trap rap legacy. When Atlanta earned the distinction as the first U.S. city to demolish all of its low-income family public housing in favor of mixed-income communities, it set a new standard nationally hailed as "the Atlanta Model." Former Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover became such an outsized — and well-paid — figure that her total 2010 compensation of $644,214 raised eyebrows among the same Department of Housing and Urban Development officials who'd praised her efforts.
While census tract numbers show that the shift did result in a modest deconcentration of poverty, some critics argue that the character of the city is changing for the worse. Deirdre Oakley, Georgia State University professor of sociology, cites the rise in Atlanta's economic disparity and a growing sense of racial inequality as some of the negative effects.
"Just from a social justice standpoint, if you think about the history of Atlanta as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, why would we want to become a rich white city?" Oakley says. "It's sort of antithetical to what Atlanta's identity is."
It's impossible to miss the countless lyrical references to former city housing developments heard on early OutKast, Goodie Mob and other Dungeon Family albums. The reputations attached to the city's 20-odd projects loomed larger than the brick fortress-like architecture. Eastlake Meadows was better known as Little Vietnam before it was torn down and replaced with the mixed-income Villages of East Lake over a decade ago. Bowen Homes was rumored to have a resident killer called "the Assassin," says Oakley, who is certain from the time she spent there conducting her Urban Health Initiative study that no such person existed.
Oakley also acknowledges the rampant mistrust she discovered public housing residents harbored for Atlanta's more affluent African-Americans, like Glover.
"They thought we were dumb and lazy, and that wasn't the case," says Hightower, who took her fight to save Bowen Homes and secure a better dispersal plan all the way to Washington, D.C. When she met with then-HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson, "he said to me, 'They're coming down — all of them.'"
Hightower also believes residents would've benefitted from more educational programs before the forced transition. "Not that they were responsible for the people's lives in Bowen Homes," she says. "But if you condition them you play a role in this as well."
At one point during his adolescence, Andre 3000 lived in apartments located across the street from Bowen Homes. And OutKast's choice to shoot the video "B.O.B." there in 2000 gave younger residents a feeling of recognition, according to Hightower. "They started thinking, we can do this, too," she says. "Next thing you know it seemed like every rapper in Atlanta was coming out of there."
Hightower's own son, Rasheed Hightower, even scored a major hit as a member of the Shop Boyz. Their song "Party Like a Rock Star" became a top-five Billboard charting summer anthem in 2007. He still works in the industry as a ghostwriter.
"They were just thirsty to come up out of there and they chose to sing about their life. Some chose inappropriate behavior and some chose rapping," she says. "What you see coming out of them is talent, but it's more like pain. After you get past the cussing and all that other crap, you can hear their cry."