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How golf transformed a blighted neighborhood

For years, the East Lake housing project in Atlanta was one of the worst places in America – crumbling and crime-ridden. CNBC reports that the game of golf -  traditionally exclusive, traditionally white - became the driving force in turning around the neighborhood.
Image: The Villages of East Lake
The Charlie Yates Golf Course runs through The Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income apartment community in a formerly crime-ridden Atlanta neighborhood.East Lake Foundation
/ Source: CNBC

For years, the East Lake housing project here was one of the worst places in America — crumbling and crime-ridden. Today, it has been transformed by a businessman who brought his passion, his money and, of all things, his love for the game of golf.

Eva Davis moved into the East Lake Meadows housing project in 1971.  It wasn’t long before murder and mayhem became a way of life.

“Two guys got in a fight right across in front of my house,” she said. “I saw one peep his head around the corner.  Pow, pow, pow.  It was just like you was in a Western movie.

"He ran right by my car and blood was just shooting out of his body. That guy shot him and he fell dead right before my face.“

The 650-unit housing project was never a great place to live. But when drugs took over and gangs claimed turf, it went from bad to horrible in a hurry.

“They would shoot and cut and stab and kill each other,” she said. “That's what they did."

By 1995, the crime rate was 18 times the national average.  Shirley Franklin, now Atlanta’s mayor, remembers the old East Lake well. 

“I would never go into East Lake Meadows alone,” she said. “The statistics suggested it was just awful — that it was a completely dysfunctional community.”

And then, in the early '90s, an unlikely savior came seemingly from out of nowhere: Tom Cousins, an Atlanta philanthropist and developer from the other side of town who was worth more than $300 million.

Cousins is a soft-spoken, self-effacing Atlanta business legend, who says that while he knows how much square footage he’s built, he’s lost track of how much money he’s given away. His skyscrapers dot the downtown skyline; he brought pro basketball and hockey to town, and he built the tallest building in the U.S. outside New York and Chicago.

But the broken-down housing project in East Lake Meadows was like nothing he’d ever encountered.

“It was almost beyond description,” he said. “It was just trash everywhere. Windows broken out of the apartments. Crime was rampant. ... (There was) no attempt to hide the drug dealing and drug selling on the streets.”

Cousins' interest in East Lake began when he read a 1993 newspaper article that described how 70 percent of New York state prisoners came from just eight neighborhoods. Atlanta’s police chief told him there were even fewer Georgia neighborhoods mass-producing criminals.  The worst by far: East Lake Meadows.

“I drove out there; I could not believe it,” he said. “Hundreds of kids out on the streets.  And I thought to myself, had I been born there, I'd probably be one of those people in jail if they could have caught me.” 

The employment rate at the housing project — not the unemployment rate — was just 14 percent.

“Can we believe that in America this sort of thing goes on?” said Cousins.  

Cousins and his wife Ann decided their family had to dive in.  He created the East Lake Foundation and began to woo housing project residents like Eva Davis, the famously strong-willed head of the residents association.

“I was kind of nervous,” said Davis. “Here’s this big rich man with all this money. And he willing to come over here messing with us. And ain't nobody else been wanting to be bothered with us." 

Long before she was mayor, Franklin was part of Cousins’ East Lake team.

“I was like a lot of other people; I thought he was crazy,” she said. “I thought he was overreaching.  But he was taking on something that frankly the rest of us felt helpless to do."

Cousins says he didn’t know whether his plan would work.

“But I knew we were going to try,” he said.

When a faltering golf club bordering the housing project came up for sale, Cousins and his family put up $25 million and used the club as the cornerstone of one of the most audacious redevelopment plans ever conceived. 

The urban nightmare that was the East Lake Meadows housing project was literally just a chip shot away from the fourth hole at East Lake Golf Club. Founded in 1904, this historic, very private club had itself fallen into disrepair from neglect and was on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Incredibly, when a plan was developed to transform the housing project, the game of golf —traditionally exclusive, traditionally white — become the driving force to help turn around the neighborhood. It was golf, of all things — privileged, pristine, genteel golf — that helped save East Lake.

East Lake wasn’t just any golf course down on its luck.  It was the home course of perhaps the greatest golfer ever: Bobby Jones, the only sportsman Wall Street would throw two ticker-tape parades for. 

Cousins and his team came up with a unique strategy to leverage the legendary golf club: Only 100 new corporate members would be allowed to join the existing members. And each would fork over a “suggested” $200,000 — bringing in a total of $20 million. That money would literally go across the street to help rebuild East Lake.

Raising money was one thing; winning trust with residents was another. Cousins had to persuade hundreds of them to move out of the housing project and have faith they’d be able to return.

“We didn't get (that trust) very quickly,” he said. “I think they'd been promised so many things, they did not believe that we would do what we said we were going to do.”

Davis admits she was suspicious of Cousins.

“I had some high officials to tell me say: ‘You better watch him because he's sneaky,’” she said. “I was not happy. Because I didn't understand the golf course.”

But the refurbished world-class golf club kick-started the redevelopment of East Lake: It brought public attention, commerce and jobs. After 10 years, the housing project had been torn down, completely rebuilt and utterly transformed into a clean, safe, family-friendly place to live.

“It's heaven,” said Davis. 

In the new neighborhood, half of the 542 units are reserved for families on public assistance, the rest for middle-income working families who pay market rates.

There’s a brand-new YMCA. And the Drew charter school, the first in Atlanta, opened here in 2001 for children from kindergarten through eighth grade. 

The educational progress is nothing short of astonishing. In 1995, just 5 percent of neighborhood fifth graders met state math standards. Today, it’s 78 percent at Drew.

Drew graduates like Jeffrey Johnson are living proof that Cousins’ vision has changed lives.  He’s now at a prestigious private school on an academic scholarship — a world away from the life he might have led.

“I'm taking American literature now,” he said. “I take pre-calculus, and that’s a really tough math class. I'm the piano player in the jazz ensemble. I just got into chorus.”

The remade neighborhood of East Lake is wrapped around a spectacular new public golf course, which became the setting for another one of Cousins' dreams: a free mentoring program that teaches golf lessons and life lessons.

“One of the better things is (that golf) teaches integrity,” he said. “In other sports, basketball, football, you break the rules and there's a penalty. But there's no moral issue there. But in golf, it's all on your personal integrity. You don't improve the ball in the rough. You don't change the position.”

Cousins hopes kids can learn the cherished values of the game he loves.  Phys-ed classes at the Drew charter school are taught on the golf course, and the school may be the only inner-city school in America with a golf section in its library.

Brandon Bradley and Shelton Davis were two of the first to take part in Cousins’ golf mentoring program. Today they attend Grambling State University — on golf scholarships. 

It’s just one example of how Cousins reached out to a community and turned it around. The “before and after” statistics are compelling: Violent crime is down 95 percent, the number of welfare recipients fell from 58 percent to 5 percent and the employment rate for people on public assistance rose from 14 percent to 71 percent.

Rebuilding East Lake wasn’t cheap. It took $128 million — from government, corporate donors and foundation grants. About a quarter of the total came from the Cousins family.

The vision was accomplished despite the doubts of friends who thought Cousins was nuts, and the rancorous battles with people who thought he was sneaky. You'd be hard-pressed to find two people who would be stranger bedfellows than Eva Davis and Tom Cousins.

“I don't know that Tom had ever known anyone quite like Eva, but the same was true in the reverse,” said Franklin. “And once they understood that they really wanted the same dreams for this community, it was just a matter of time that they would work together successfully.”