Next Stop: Atlanta
It’s 8:30 in the morning and already Frank Fernandez carries the energy of a man running behind schedule. Hovering over his laptop in a coffee shop he forgoes the available stool behind him, as if sitting might somehow slow him down. He’s on a call while he works his touch pad, awaiting his drip coffee. Soon he’ll be attending an Atlanta Business League luncheon, and after that, he’s giving me a ride-along tour of Atlanta’s Westside, where concentrated poverty has been the defining characteristic for decades. The former Harvard tight end has learned the art of mixing well in different crowds. He’s wearing a suit, which, as he freely admits, is not his natural state. Still, he’s tall and handsome, so he can pull it off—and it helps with the CEOs of the business league. As Vice President of Community Development for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Fernandez operates in various spaces between billionaire development projects and the city’s most disenfranchised residents. “I’m a translator,” he says. Before attending Harvard, as the son of Cuban immigrants, he grew up in Miami’s poorer neighborhoods, like Cutler Ridge and Coral Way. “Every day I think about how to translate among these different stakeholders who have different worldviews and experiences. They have wholly different languages with regard to how they think about life.”
By the time Fernandez’s boss, Arthur Blank, began seeking public funds for Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which begins hosting Atlanta Falcons games in August and in September, will begin doubling as the home field for Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United—Blank owns both teams—it was well established that sports complex projects supported by public money are lousy at delivering the economic development they promise. One need not look any further than Indianapolis, where public funding for Lucas Oil Stadium produced hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for the city instead of the $2.25 billion in promised economic growth. Or even the Falcons’ former home, the Georgia Dome, which was entirely funded with public money while the people of the Westside who lived next to the development, continued to be cut off from opportunity.
Blank asked to build Mercedes-Benz Stadium directly next door to the old Georgia Dome and promised that it would be different this time. To prove his point, he hired Frank Fernandez. “The first narrative I heard when I got here is that it’s just a bunch of talk,” recalls Fernandez. “It’s window dressing so the stadium gets built and you get the money—you don’t really want to make change—that’s one narrative. The other narrative is this concern about the white billionaire coming in to save the poor black people. There was a lot of skepticism, a lot of distrust. I get it. All you have to do is look at history and the five or six decades prior, and that perspective makes a lot of sense. My job is to be mindful of that and keep doing what we’re trying to do and keep chipping away at that narrative.”
For Fernandez, it is always about chipping away. As he translates between every stakeholder—learning the language of city council members and police officers, nonprofit and business leaders, ministers and teachers, new and old residents, and, of course, Arthur Blank—he remains focused on chipping away, steadfastly believing that opportunity and optimism have an infectious way of traveling from one neighbor to another. For all the talk of eight-figure budgets and helicopter perspective, Fernandez knows that real change starts at street level.
Arthur Blank’s vision for a world-class, environmentally friendly sports facility will be realized on August 26, when the Atlanta Falcons play their first preseason home game there. Scott Jenkins, general manager of the stadium, estimates that half a million people will come through the doors in the first 23 days. All of them will experience the wrap-around jumbotron and the flower-shaped roof that opens in about 10 minutes; they’ll see over 100 pieces of art and eat $2 hot dogs—“family friendly” pricing that Blank vows will not be short-lived. But Blank’s vision for the citizens who live next to the $1.5 billion, 30-story silver monolith will take much longer to bear out. “We’re committed to be there another 10, 20 years,” says Blank, the 74-year-old cofounder of Home Depot. “If you’re committed to these kinds of communities—whether you’re building a stadium or not—you have to be ready for the long haul. Because social change, human capital change—they take a long time. And you gotta care about the human beings more than anything else. Frank will tell you, it’s a full-court press on every need in these communities.”
Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, in the last three decades of the 20th century, Atlanta banks continued to use such discriminatory practices as redlining, which limited the geographic areas where African Americans could get mortgages, and allowed concentrated poverty to settle into Westside neighborhoods. A Brookings Institute report labeled Atlanta as one of the most unequal cities in the U.S.: If you are born into poverty in this city, you have a 97 percent chance of remaining in poverty. (The national average is 70 percent.) In the three Westside neighborhoods where the Blank Foundation is most active—Vine City, English Avenue, and Castleberry Hill—the population has dwindled by two-thirds to 6,700. “I bet Frank’s met half of them,” says Blank. “He cares about the folks that live in those communities. He’s walked every street. He’d win hands down if he ran for mayor of the Westside.”
Fernandez resembles something of a campaigner as we hop into his Toyota Venza: he has taken off his suit jacket and loosened his collar just one little tug. From his Westside office, it takes only a couple of minutes to drive up to the neighborhood known as The Bluff, and Blank’s man on the ground seems to know the story of nearly every lot: “MLK Jr. was living there at the time he was assassinated,” he says, pointing to an unassuming brick home. And farther down the street: “Julian Bond lived there.” Fernandez turns the corner and points out the apartment complex where Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, once lived. But these landmarks—which remain unmarked and unprotected—are mostly surrounded by boarded-up houses and overgrown lots turned dumping grounds. Fernandez stops at an opportune spot on Sunset Drive and points down to views of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “There is no better credibility builder,” says Fernandez, “than to have all these guys in bright neon-orange vests walking back home from their jobs at the stadium at the end of the day.”
Tiko Cody is one of them. Born and raised in Atlanta, the 39-year-old dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He says he started working hard, seven days a week, but his trade was moving drugs, and it led to prison. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail,” says Cody. “I didn’t want my daughters to think, Oh, that’s what men do.” The focus that Cody’s two daughters gave him eventually led him to the job training and placement program Westside Works, a component of the Blank Foundation’s Westside on the Rise campaign. According to Fernandez, more than 400 people like Cody have been placed in jobs earning $13 an hour on average. As a group, these new hires have earned $11 million in wages as of May 2017, and they maintain a one-year retention rate of 75 percent. The skills training covers a range of professions: health care, IT, culinary arts. Juliet Peters, a local high-profile chef, is working with graduates to design and serve a menu for one of the food stations at the stadium. Three hundred training participants are working construction jobs; 160 of them were hired by different firms working on Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
At Westside Works, Cody completed OSHA training, learned about rigging, hand signals, how to read blueprints. When he was hired to work at the stadium, his first assignment was separating and categorizing bolts; now he’s spotting forklift drivers and learning grout work. “In certain situations, I might make a suggestion,” he says, “and it surprised me when they said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea.’ My opinion matters. I’m a skilled laborer instead of just a guy walking around picking up trash.”
Cody works 12-hour days, seven days most weeks, but he shrugs off the relentless schedule: “Well, you know, in my past I did a lot of wrong things seven days a week. So now I’m turning that negative energy into positive energy.”
He’s confident the work won’t dry up once the stadium is completed—a common problem with jobs generated by sports complex projects around the country. Cranes dot the Atlanta skyline: There is more work to be had. The general contractor for the stadium, HHRM, is also doing an overhaul of the Atlanta airport; it will be another large-scale job that requires a vast workforce. Cody is ready for the call.
Frank Fernandez pulls into the parking lot of a small strip mall and walks into Good Kupa Koffie. Otis Redding is playing and the owner, Richard Hinds, insists on making a fresh pot. “We think about people and place,” says Fernandez, awaiting the brew. “‘Place’ is housing, parks, retail, infrastructure. And ‘people’ is education, economic inclusion, safety, civic empowerment. How do we empower people to become their own agents for positive changes in their lives?”
Hinds and his coffee shop are beneficiaries of the “people” part of the equation. More specifically, an entrepreneurial grant from Civic Innovation, another Westside program supported by the Blank Foundation.
“Day of pitch,” Hinds recalls, as he sidles up to our table with a fresh cup of organic Colombian for Fernandez, “my car broke down in the rain, and I ran on foot to get there. I kept telling myself this is supposed to happen.”
Hinds had been thinking about opening a coffee shop for six years leading up to the 2016 pitch to Civic Innovation, a dream that started with a trip home to Jamaica with his father. “My dad took me out to the coffee fields, and he was telling me about how coffee grows,” says Hinds. “And I was shocked: ‘How do you know all this?’ And he was nonchalant: ‘Your grandfather used to roast coffee.’ And that’s the moment I found myself. This is my life.”
Today, Hinds roasts beans in a roaster he built himself out of a grill, a motor, and a cylinder he bought on Craigslist. He prices a cup of coffee at $2, trying to deliver a good product while keeping it approachable for the people who live in the neighborhood. “I want to integrate younger folks with older folks,” says Hinds, who credits the character of the coffee shop to the Vietnam vets and retired train line workers who are his regulars. A new coffee shop is often a leading sign of gentrification and changing demographics in a neighborhood. The fact that Hinds is pushing back on this stereotype is not lost on Fernandez: “Coffee shops tend to be run by people that aren’t like Richard. He’s a good reminder to keep us asking: What can we do to promote local minority-owned business?”
Fernandez downs the rest of his coffee and hustles back to his car. Pulling onto MLK Jr. Drive, he notes a work crew repairing a public sidewalk. The city has certainly been an important player in Blank’s vision for the stadium and Westside growth. The Falcons will get $200 million in hotel-motel taxes from the city of Atlanta and potentially more in due course. In return, Blank has pledged roughly a tenth of that amount, $23 million, to Westside programming—not just Westside Works and Civic Innovation but also initiatives for early education opportunities, access to health care, financial literacy courses, and new parks. While Blank underscores that he isn’t done committing funds, Fernandez emphasizes that the foundation’s work is not just about bringing in outside money. “It’s also about how do you lift up what people are already doing for themselves? We have a neighborhood in transition. How do you have it be a transition that protects and honors the long-standing legacy residents, that honors that history and culture, while at the same time is welcoming to the changes that are happening across Atlanta?”
While we coast up MLK Jr. Drive, Fernandez breaks down what he views as the four elements of concentrated poverty: “One, it tends to isolate people from opportunity—jobs, schools. Two, it ill-equips people to take advantage of opportunity, even when it presents itself. Three, it diminishes people’s sense of possibility. And four, you’re overwhelmed by bad stuff—drugs, crime.”
Fernandez parks in front of University Barber Shop. Inside, LaTeef Pyles cuts hair at one of four old-time barbershop chairs. He’s 39 with gray sneaking into his thick beard. In the coming year, Pyles will use money from the Blank Foundation to mentor 10 boys at the barbershop. He wants to introduce them to local politicians, like City Councilmember Ivory Lee Young Jr. and to the writing of James Baldwin. “I understand that if I support the children in my neighborhood, we can do something to help strengthen this place,” he says.
The participants will spend time after school with Pyles, making trips out of town, learning to cut hair, shooting baskets. He’s asking the boys who are interested to write an essay. He wants to know about their lives at home, the makeup of their families. He wants to know their thoughts on leadership and the community in which they live.
“Ten years from now,” he says, reflecting on what he might want to see for the boys he mentors, “I’m looking for two or three of them, at least, to be graduating college. Maybe two or three of them will be fathers, understanding the importance of being in their child’s life. All 10 of them should know how to make money legally and have a plan that they’re working toward—a plan they’ve set for themselves. Our goal is for some of them to become barbers so maybe one of them will be cutting up here.”
As Fernandez turns onto James P. Brawley Drive, five homes stand out from their surroundings. It’s not just the new construction and pristine condition but the parking spots in front of the houses—each reserved for a police car. As part of its effort to improve safety on the Westside, the Blank Foundation partnered with the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation to build the houses expressly for police officers with take-home cars.
Savannah Berry was one of five officers selected from a pool of more than 40 applicants for the houses. She’s lucky if she clears much more than 5 feet, but her authority is evident: “I’ve always been a little tough cookie.” Berry says it took time for her neighbors to get used to her presence, but she knocked on one door at a time. “I am a people person,” she says. “As a police officer, if you know how to speak with people and communicate well—that’s most of the battle right there. I figure I can bring that to the neighborhood.”
The kids were the first to open up to her. “They’re the ones you can change,” she says. She points out the front window of her house: “They like to hop this fence every so often. So I like to kind of,” she puts on a cartoonish mean voice—“Get off that thing!”—and laughs. “At first when I saw them hopping the gate they were so nervous, but then they got to know me. ‘Oh, Officer Savannah, I don’t want to walk all the way around.’”
Berry runs for exercise and soon came to realize the habit was an oddity here. “People don’t run in this neighborhood. You get looks like, ‘You’re really running out here?’ And they’ll look to see if someone’s running behind me.” She laughs before continuing: “I want to change that—small stuff like that.”
Berry circles around to the point Fernandez repeatedly emphasizes: It’s about chipping away, small changes affecting a neighborhood over time. And the process is impossible without personal connections and insider perspective.
In practical terms, Fernandez is trying to get that perspective as hard data. Recently, he hired an outside firm to design an app that allows him to send surveys to Westside residents. Participation is incentivized with small payments—50 cents per answer, which is immediately added to a bank or PayPal account. Fernandez wants to use the app on a frequent basis, even one question at a time, regularly checking in with residents to gauge their priorities and to track their level of satisfaction with changes in the neighborhood.
He says his favorite writer is José Saramago, and whenever he is working, he has the Nobel Laureate on his mind: “In The Cave he has this great line where he says, ‘They are us.’ And that always stood out to me because we tend to think of people who are the other, who are not like us—whether it’s rich people or poor people, black, white—whatever the dynamic, we tend to think it’s just a different set of dynamics that play out there. Well, no. They’re us.”