Place Attachment Fosters Collective Action in Rapidly Changing Urban Neighborhoods

By Andrew Foell (Washington University in St. Louis) and Kirk A. Foster (East Carolina University)

Urban “redevelopment” has been a buzzword for decades – from the post-war urban renewal programs that forced many low-income African Americans from their neighborhoods to modern gentrification fueled by a middle- and upper middle-class push to reduce commute times. Such redevelopment efforts, historically, have been done absent of the residents themselves who must live with the consequences. The result is often social and cultural displacement of longtime residents. Atlanta’s West End neighborhood is a good example, particularly because of its significant place in African American history and culture and recent target of economic investment. Increased development interests spurred by the Atlanta BeltLine, a roughly $5-billion-dollar green infrastructure initiative, has heightened neighborhood concerns over issues of gentrification, resident displacement, and equitable development. With potential to be a vehicle for positive community change, the BeltLine is also emblematic of a historic legacy of racialized neighborhood disinvestment and urban renewal.

The West End neighborhood was originally developed in the 1830s as White Hall, a suburban community catering to Atlanta’s wealthy White residents, and chartered as the West End in the 1860s. During the 1930s and 40s, the West End was dramatically influenced by residential security maps created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a federal agency tasked with assessing America’s urban neighborhoods for the purposes of evaluating home loan risks for banking and real estate professionals. These ratings became the basis for redlining – the systematic refusal to make home loans in African American communities – throughout the United States. As a result, the neighborhood began transforming into a majority Black neighborhood starting in the 1960s due to prejudicial housing policy that devalued African American communities, which led to entrenched residential race and class segregation and further disinvestment.

Today the West End sits at mile 0 of the Atlanta BeltLine. The BeltLine includes plans for 22-miles of rail transit and 33-miles of trails and parks, along with affordable housing development, brownfield remediation, and urban agriculture development, among others (https://beltline.org/). The BeltLine has renewed the interests of private developers and includes billions of dollars in private economic development in neighborhoods within its footprint. Given the neighborhood’s history as a significant place for Black families and present-day location at the start of one of Atlanta’s most ambitious urban development projects, the West End is recognized as a neighborhood at risk of gentrification and resident displacement.

Against this backdrop, our study examined the ways in which West End neighbors worked together (collective action) to advance equitable development. We found that residents’ social and emotional attachments to place, which developed through social relationships, shared experiences and memories, and connections to physical aspects of the neighborhood, galvanized collective action to minimize social, cultural, and physical displacement of people and community institutions. Using a technique called Photovoice, an approach to research that combines community-engagement with photography, we explored: 1) how residents understood their role in and responsibility for collective action and neighborhood change within a neighborhood experiencing rapid redevelopment, and 2) how residents described collective action dynamics in the context of neighborhood change.

Participants in our study were keenly aware of the potential detrimental effects that redevelopment might have on the West End, particularly in terms of social and cultural displacement of neighbors and community assets. We found that participants held deep emotional attachments to the neighborhood and felt a sense of community to the place itself and the people who lived there. These attachments inspired collective action to address neighborhood issues, such as housing abandonment and inadequate public service provision, while also challenging stigmatizing narratives of the neighborhood and families who lived there. Through engagement in organized community groups, like neighborhood associations, West End residents attempted to exert their voice in the development decisions that impacted their community.

In addition to formal collective action like organized protests and campaigns, which often occur through formal organizations and associations, we found abundant evidence of routine everyday informal collective action efforts, like creating a do-it-yourself bus stop and calling local grocery stores to advocate for fresh produce. These informal efforts are essential but have been largely overlooked and unaccounted for in the literature on collective action in urban neighborhoods. Our findings show that in the face of bureaucratic inefficiencies (e.g., tedious code enforcement processes) and institutional failures (e.g., local government), neighbors turn to everyday acts of resistance and advocacy to exert influence over the conditions that affect their daily lives. This is the true story of collective action at the neighborhood level.

In the West End, longtime neighborhood residents and newcomers both acknowledged the inherent tension to balance development with preservation and wanted to chart a new course of action that differed from other gentrifying neighborhoods. For this to occur, participants recognized that their local actions must be linked to broader efforts towards institutional and systems change. To this end, participants identified several strategies to advance equitable development and minimize risks of displacement. These included lobbying for affordable housing, demanding enforcement of zoning regulations, and ensuring business development represented and honored the growing and historic diversity within the West End.

Read the UAR article, “We Roll our Sleeves up and get to Work!”: Portraits of Collective Action and Neighborhood Change in Atlanta’s West End, here.

Photo of Beltline Artwork by Timothy J. Carroll via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Author Biographies

Andrew Foell is a doctoral candidate at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. His research focuses on the design, implementation, and evaluation of housing and community development interventions. His recent projects include research on housing voucher utilization among low-income families, mental health among youth exposed to community violence, and community-engaged research to address health concerns associated with vacant and abandoned housing.

Kirk A. Foster is the Carolyn Freeze Baynes Distinguished Scholar and Director of the School of Social Work at East Carolina University. His research focuses on poverty, social capital, collective action, and restorative justice in and for African American communities. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and private foundations, and he won the top research award from the Society for Social Work and Research for his co-authored book Chasing the American Dream.