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Wins & losses

Poverty | Bob Lupton shows how Christian understanding plus business savvy transforms poor neighbors

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

ATLANTA -- Many who whiz by inner-city areas on freeways have only a vague sense of the struggles that go on there. To see poor areas through different eyes, take a ride with Bob Lupton, who at age 61 has seen how hard it is to help some among the poor climb out of dependency and despair, and how rewarding the calling at times can be.

Mr. Lupton founded Family Consultation Service one-third of a century ago after serving in Vietnam and gaining a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Georgia. His goal was to help troubled kids, but he learned that they often emerge from troubled families whose problems grew worse amid the pressures of troubled environments. He's one of the most respected Christian urban reformers around, but he's had defeats as well as victories. In a drive around Atlanta last month he showed WORLD five sites that represent two decades of effort.

1. GlenCastle is now a 67-unit apartment building set aside largely for the working poor who rent efficiency units for $350-$425. The building formerly was the Atlanta Stockade, a miserable prison from 1910 to 1929 that had sat abandoned and empty for nearly six decades. In 1997 Mr. Lupton, working through developers he knew, brought together Atlanta's major contractors, who became excited by "the historic significance of the building and the marketing sizzle inherent in a conversion of this nature."

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Architects donated their services, subcontractors donated labor and materials, and after "serious fundraising and lots of positively providential occurrences," GlenCastle opened in 1989. The contractors, normally fiercely competitive, have continued to pool their talents for a pro bono program (such as a camp for chronically sick children or shelters for homeless families) each year.

2. East Lake is an Atlanta neighborhood that 15 years ago-in Mr. Lupton's words-"was synonymous with all that's wrong in the city." The neighborhood emerged in the 1920s around East Lake Golf Club, famous because the young Bobby Jones grew up across the street and learned to play there. By the 1980s, though, golfers were being held up at gunpoint and the course was in bankruptcy. Residents called the nearby East Lake Meadows housing project "Little Vietnam."

In 1991 Mr. Lupton began working with Atlanta developer Tom Cousins to resurrect the neighborhood. Mr. Cousins bought the golf course and created jobs through a massive neighborhood renovation project that included restoring the course and also converting the housing project into townhouses and apartments, with half the units reserved for public housing users and the other half rented at market rates, now $850-$1,200.

But the golf course and townhouses would have been unappealing if no one had taken a bite out of crime. Here's where the East Lake community and the Atlanta police began to work together and encourage each other: The key, according to Mr. Lupton, "was getting engaged neighbors in place and organized." When citizens began gathering intelligence on drug dealers, the police agreed to make quick responses a priority. When the police set up foot patrols designed to break the back of the dealers, other law-abiding residents realized the situation wasn't hopeless.

The neighborhood also needed improved schooling. The local public elementary school, the worst in Atlanta, gave way to the Drew Charter School, which focuses intensely on the basics and features required 90-minute reading classes each day for all students. Mr. Cousins donated the golf course to a foundation he created, and the revenues from it now pay for after-school tutoring and a junior golf academy. Drew is now in the top third of Atlanta schools.

Each improvement made other improvements more likely. The YMCA built a new facility, and new townhouses and single-family homes also arose. Mr. Lupton brokered an arrangement by which the foundation put up a structure that Publix agreed to lease. With crime down and amenities up, property values began increasing by more than 20 percent per year.

3. The Summerhill neighborhood in the early 1990s looked more promising than East Lake because it's within walking distance of downtown and adjacent to the Atlanta Braves ballpark. Summerhill also was expected to be a prime recipient of development dollars that would make it look good in time for Atlanta's 1996 Olympics.

But Summerhill, Mr. Lupton said, became "a case study in what can go wrong with well-intentioned community development projects" when local residents are empowered and let power go to their heads: Unlike in East Lake, "seasoned business people checked their marketplace savvy at the door. Wishing desperately to avoid old stereotypes of 'controlling white boys' and prove that we were beyond the racist and patronizing past, we supported deals and decisions that we would have never condoned in our own organization."

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