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  • Writer's pictureGenia Billingsley, CoL fellow

Hope for a Post-it note

A lifelong Grove Park resident on what it’s like to be caught in a gentrification feedback loop

 
Illustration by Khoa Tran

It’s mid-spring, and after a long day at work I find myself tasked with reimagining the Bankhead MARTA station. This community engagement meeting (one of many) is part of the multibillion-dollar MARTA improvement plan that was approved by taxpayers back in 2016; the redevelopment we “imagine” tonight will come, at the earliest, in 2028—if it comes at all. A lifelong resident of Grove Park, I’ve shown up for these visioning sessions enough times that I’ve grown familiar with the cocktail of emotions I’ll feel: hope, disappointment, panic. Tonight, it starts with nostalgia.


The meeting is being held at John Lewis Invictus Academy, which is today’s iteration of my alma mater: West Fulton. I spent my high school wonder years here. This is just a meeting space for so many new Bankhead residents in the room. For me, though, these are hallowed grounds. I enter through the same doors that I once passed through as an awkward kid who had trouble speaking up for herself and making friends. I didn’t know what to expect from this space my freshman year, but I left it as a young adult full of visions of what life might be like after high school: Would four years of college pay off for a kid who grew up on Bankhead?

This is just a meeting space for so many new Bankhead residents in the room. For me, though, these are hallowed grounds.
Billingsley attended West Fulton High School from 1979 to 1983.

As I find a seat in the auditorium, I remember my physical education teacher, Ms. Dickens, speaking about the importance of taking children to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She wanted to show us the possibility of using creativity and dance to express the uniqueness and glory of the Black experience. Her favorite scene was the finale, called Revelations. I can still see the excitement on her face when it started. My thoughts are interrupted by someone asking whether it’s possible to change the name of the Bankhead train station since the street name was changed to Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway back in the late ’90s. I could scream at the top of my lungs: Bankhead is still a neighborhood! Consult a map! But I don’t. A MARTA representative tells him that many people still call this area Bankhead, therefore a name change is not being considered at this time. I file this away in my mind’s “fight for another day” folder and resolve to create a Bankhead Forever campaign in the future.


The panic fully sets in when MARTA’s presentation on reimagining the train station ends, and we’re invited to a new room for a visioning session. The setup is all too familiar: There are standard sandwiches on white or wheat bread, snacks, and drinks set off to the side. In the front and center are sticky notes, colored adhesive dots, markers, and several posters showing renditions of what the train station could look like a decade from now. Tonight, MARTA representatives tease affordable housing and that same grocery store that has been promised to my neighborhood again and again but which never seems to materialize. That carrot has been dangled in front of my neighbors and me so many times. That’s yet another fight for yet another day.


I get a sinking feeling as I remember all the times that I and other people in this room have done this same imagining—for Microsoft (for its planned 90-acre campus), Bowen Homes (for a multi-million “transformation”), and Brock Built Homes (for a proposed development on Chappell Road). For each of those projects—and many others—we’ve dutifully gone through the motions.


It’s like there is a visioning playbook developers use to engage communities. It starts with a general presentation at a local neighborhood meeting about their plans. These presentations include a sign-up list for next steps. Within a couple of months, those who sign up receive an invitation to the visioning meeting. (This checks the box for including community voices.) There are usually three or four renditions of what a particular space could look like, and guests are given an adhesive dot to place on the one they prefer. Post-it notes are provided for additional comments.

For each of those projects—and many others—we’ve dutifully gone through the motions. It’s like there is a visioning playbook developers use to engage communities.

All of those projects have been stalled, stopped, or sold to someone else. This is my fourth “visioning session,” and I have Post-it note fatigue. I feel exhausted. It’s the same feeling I get every time a gentrifier offers to give me a walking tour of my own neighborhood. I don’t need to take a walking tour to understand the needs of my community. I know there’s a need for affordable, safe housing and economic development because I have been walking here since elementary school. I think about the senior who lived nearby until a tree fell on her house, which was uninsured. The community tried raising funds but her home still sits in disrepair. I think of the unmowed lawns of neighbors over 60, whose bodies no longer allow them to keep the immaculate form they prided themselves in 20 years ago.


I want to scream: Save your Post-it notes and dots and really, finally listen—and I don’t mean host another meeting. I mean canvass the neighborhood and get to know people. Maybe once you get out here you’ll see real needs; you’ll see people being displaced and left behind as the neighborhood progresses. I have no hope that this will happen, so my single act of rebellion is to refuse to use their Post-it notes. I walk out of the room. I simply can’t reduce my hopes and dreams for a thriving neighborhood to the size of a Post-it note.

Maybe once you get out here you’ll see real needs; you’ll see people being displaced and left behind as the neighborhood progresses. I have no hope that this will happen, so my single act of rebellion is to refuse to use their Post-it notes.

As I’m leaving, I run into someone from the nearby Hunter Hills neighborhood, and we talk about how it’s nice to see a familiar face. Even though we’ve been disappointed by fruitless reimagining and visioning sessions many times before, we keep showing up. I start to feel hopeful again—not because of plans and promises from outside entities but because of the resilience of the people who keep showing up. Hopefully, one day we’ll reimagine our community from the inside. Maybe we’ll find the resources to open that grocery store ourselves. For now, I only have hope, but it’s better than just a Post-it note and an adhesive dot.

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