The big picture: Decatur MLK Service Project, Day 3

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt January 20, 2014
Willie Mae Murray, 89, has lived in her home on East Pharr road for 47 years. Her home was one of 24 rehabilitated during Decatur's annual MLK Service Project that ended Jan. 20, 2014.

Willie Mae Murray, 89, has lived in her home on in Oakhurst for 47 years. Her home was one of 24 rehabilitated during Decatur’s annual MLK Service Project that ended Jan. 20, 2014.

The city is changing.

There are signs of it on almost every street in Decatur. There are homes in various states of renovation and reconstruction, with dumpsters in driveways piled high with debris.

Call it gentrification and you’ll likely cause a stir. It’s a word with implications that few want to consider. It provokes discussions of race and class. It makes people consider the responsibilities they have for their neighbors, assuming they feel any responsibility at all.

The people who move here and rebuild older homes want the things that everyone with children wants: good schools and a decent quality of life. Unlike many of their older neighbors, newer residents can afford half million dollar homes.

Decatur’s three-day long MLK Service Project helps people who lived here when the schools weren’t so good and the quality of life wasn’t so decent. The event ends on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and attracts hundreds of volunteers to Decatur’s Oakhurst community.

They help people like Willie Mae Murray, whose home needed lots of work.

Murray is 89 years old. She has lived in her Oakhurst neighborhood for 47 years. When I met her this afternoon, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she was sitting in her living room with the lights off, covered in a blanket. She was listening to the broadcast of a sermon from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. When she was in her 20s, she heard Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father preach there.

I sat cross-legged on the floor at her feet, holding my note pad, and asked what the holiday means to her.

“It means so much,” she told me, sounding like a woman who had been relieved of some lingering pain. “It’s so much better. I’m able to go where I want to. I’m able to sit where I want to. … People are so much nicer than they were years ago. We have come a long ways. Yes, Lord.”

Once she had a beautiful yard, she said. As she got older (and I should note here that she’s looking pretty good for 89 years old) things began falling apart around her. That’s why Joe Pittman was there. Pittman and other MLK Service Project volunteers lifted Murray’s sagging gutters, replaced the windows on the back of her house, strengthened the locks on her doors and patched up a ceiling that would’ve eventually collapsed on her

They also fixed the deck in Murray’s back yard, an unexpected bonus.

“I didn’t know they were going to do that,” she told me. “I’m proud of that.”

Pittman has volunteered for the MLK Service Project for three years. This year, he was promoted to house captain in charge of overseeing the crew at Murray’s home.

“It’s a good program,” he said. “They do a lot of good work for the older people who don’t have means, financial or physical.”

I’ve spent the entire weekend covering the project, writing about the volunteers and the residents in need. The project began in 2003. Decatur’s recent housing boom brought the disparity between Murray and her neighbors into clearer focus. With each year, the project increasingly becomes a moment where the city’s present confronts its past and ponders its future.

It’s a past that’s not always pretty, as Murray can tell you. When Murray’s white neighbors fled Decatur all those years ago, she and other residents stuck it out.

Gentrification is an ongoing topic of conversation here, even if it isn’t always obvious that it’s being discussed. Tomorrow’s City Commission meeting contains a controversial item that would put new restrictions on people who want to remove trees from their property. City staff developed the new ordinance after commissioners enacted a 90-day moratorium on issuing permits for tree removal. They also considered a 90-day moratorium on tear-downs, the practice of buying older homes like Murray’s and replacing them with newer ones, but commissioners voted against that proposal.

The tree ordinance, like the tear down moratorium, is about limiting development that city leaders are struggling to control. It’s development that’s displaced many of the city’s older, poorer residents. At its core, it’s really a discussion about gentrification, but no one in Decatur would dare call it that. The tree ordinance has created enough of a stir as it is.

I asked Decatur’s Lifelong Community Coordinator Lee Ann Harvey about the broader context of the Service Project and whether it’s something the volunteers discuss with her. There are many things about the project that are easier to quantify.

Harvey went over the numbers with me, the culmination of months of preparation. The number of volunteers who turn out for the MLK Service Project is inspiring. As of early Monday afternoon, there had been 1,100 volunteers, putting the project within striking distance of beating the previous record of 1,200. The volunteers patched up 24 homes. They’d filled more than 1,800 bags with yard debris. They’d borrowed 1,000 tools from the Atlanta Community ToolBank and cleaned too many gutters to tally.

Many of the projects on the to-do list are simple things, the small fixes that head off bigger problems down the road, Harvey said.

When the project ends, Harvey said the plumbers and electrical technicians make themselves available in the weeks afterward to take care of any unforeseen problems. The historical context of the Service Project isn’t front and center, but it’s not lost on the volunteers either, Harvey told me. She said one of the zone commanders told her he’d helped an older woman who years ago founded the city’s Boys and Girls Club.

Harvey said that means something to the people who are out there swinging hammers and caulking bathtubs.

“Decatur wasn’t always the wonderful place it is now,” Harvey said. “Those people stayed, so Decatur wouldn’t be what it is without them.”

Staying put becomes harder for older residents each year as developers look for more property in a city with none to spare. Many of Murray’s neighbors sold their homes, unable to ignore what developers were willing to offer for property that was getting harder to maintain. The MLK Service Project volunteers see the value of making it easier for people like Murray to stay in their homes.

One statistic I could not measure is the one that intrigues me the most. How many of the people who claim to be concerned about gentrification in their community were swinging hammers in Oakhurst this weekend?

Murray listened to the preacher over the television. She told me when she heard Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. preach, she had no idea that their message would someday transform the world around her.

She also wouldn’t have predicted that the white families would want to move back into her neighborhood.

“I never thought I would live to see this,” she said.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Chris Billingsley

    Interesting piece. Of course there are at least two sides to the desegregation, decline, and crack/crime epidemic of south Decatur that began fifty years ago and the changes (both positive and negative) that have taken place over the past fifteen years. It is a complicated history that will probably never be completely told. What will be remembered are the feel good, agenda driven pieces that are frequently featured in the AJC and other media sites, especially today. Maybe it’s just as well. Again, Happy MLK Day!

    • Decatur is interesting because it’s a small city in the shadow of a bigger one. A lot goes on in these four square miles. Same to you.

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