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Down on Boulevard: Positive change might finally come to Atlanta’s lawless street

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As long as he can remember, Cortez Hill has wanted to be a police officer. He yearns to drive a patrol car and be able to give something back to his community.

Perhaps most of all, Hill, 18, would like to feel safe.

For the past three-and-a-half years, the Clarkston High School graduate has shared an apartment with his parents down on Boulevard, the notorious mile of crime-infested asphalt between Atlanta Medical Center and Ponce de Leon Avenue. During his time here, Hill has been chased down the street by a group of boys wielding guns. He’s seen 13- and 14-year-old neighborhood kids skip school to earn money as lookouts for crack dealers.

Last Christmas, his older brother was killed — shot in the back of the head, Hill claims, by an acquaintance who wanted him to take part in a robbery. A trial is scheduled for later this year.

Asked how it feels to live on Boulevard, Hill simply says: “I just thank God I could live to see another day.”

For decades, the street — now bounded on all sides by gentrified avenues with coffee shops and boutiques — has been a no-man’s land dominated by drugs, street crime and bitter poverty. Rappers name-check Boulevard as a place where gang-bangers earn their stripes. Generations of boys have come up in the neighborhood, joining gangs, going to prison, ending up shot or, like Cortez, looking forward to the day they can finally get out.

Many locals lock their car doors when they drive down Boulevard and wouldn’t dare to stop at the gas stations on the street, says Councilman Kwanza Hall who represents the area. He adds: “That’s not what a neighborhood should be about.”

In recent years, the surrounding Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, like much of the city, has seen waves of new development. Nearby Glen Iris Drive is now home to loft buildings, upscale restaurants and the Southern Dairies office complex. Edgewood Avenue has become a dining destination. Even Ponce de Leon began cleaning up its act long ago, trading off its hookers and street hustlers for condos or such signifiers of retail gentility as Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters.

Boulevard, meanwhile, is virtually unchanged. And there’s a reason for that. Most of Boulevard’s dozens of aging, two-story apartment buildings — commonly mistaken for public housing projects — have been owned since the early ’70s by a single company, Boston-based Continental Wingate, which has rejected all offers to sell or upgrade their properties. All of Wingate’s nearly 700 units are federally subsidized, making the apartments the highest concentration of Section 8 housing in the Southeast.

Despite the civic revival happening on all sides, the street remains seemingly lawless. Debi Starnes, the former City Council representative for the area, remembers a night in 2005 when she walked down the street with a local TV reporter and a hidden camera. “We got offered drugs a couple of times every block,” she says.

Earlier this year, when Kyle Keyser was robbed at gunpoint in the Pizza Hut parking lot at Boulevard and North, he responded by founding Atlantans Together Against Crime, a grassroots group that has so far attracted more than 6,500 Facebook followers.

“This is the last area that has yet to be redeveloped,” says David Patton, a real-estate consultant who served several years as president of the local Neighborhood Planning Unit-M (NPU-M). “It’s the hole in the donut.”

So imagine the surprise for Patton and other neighborhood activists when they learned last week that Wingate has plans to redevelop all its local holdings, which include more than 70 separate buildings and parcels on Boulevard and in the nearby Bedford-Pine neighborhood.

The resulting overhaul could add more than a thousand market-rate apartments to the street and create a mixed-income, pedestrian-friendly environment where stopping for a pizza doesn’t mean risking your life.

If Wingate intends to follow through with this promise — and there’s reason to believe it does — it would mean the first real progress in nearly 40 years for one of central Atlanta’s last true ghettos.

By most standards, Boulevard should be valuable real estate. The four-lane street forms an important north-south artery, connecting Cabbagetown and Grant Park to Midtown and Morningside.

“Boulevard runs along a ridge, so if you get four or five stories up, you get some really amazing views of Atlanta,” says architect Tom Dalia, who’s worked on redevelopment projects throughout the Old Fourth Ward. “It could be one of the coolest parts of the city by virtue of its location.”

But the area has also seen more than its share of setbacks over the past century.

A little after noon on May 21, 1917, the Atlanta Fire Department received a call about a stack of burning mattresses at a warehouse just off Decatur Street. For the next 11 hours, the fire burned out of control north across the Old Fourth Ward. By the time it finally ran its course, it had burned nearly 2,000 buildings over 300 acres, including both sides of Boulevard from Highland Avenue to Ponce.

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