Community members and business leaders convened at The Gathering Spot July 21 for the Transform Westside Summit.
The program began with a moving devotion from Reverend Winston Taylor, legacy Westside resident local preacher, and founder of The Beloved Community Inc. Taylor also owns the historic St. Mark AME Church, which he plans to make a community gathering spot for the Historic Westside. Taylor’s message was centered on miracles. “In order to do this impossible work that we’re doing that is considered to be building Jerusalem, you’re going to have to believe in miracles,” said Taylor at the start of his message.
Following the devotion, T. Dallas Smith, T. Dallas Smith & Company Founder and CEO, and WFF Board Chair-Elect, joined John Ahmann, Westside Future Fund President & CEO, for a powerful and candid fireside chat about his early remembrances growing up on the Westside,, and his passion for seeing his childhood neighborhood restored to a thriving, mixed-income community.
Key Moments from the Fireside Chat
“It [the neighborhood] was paradise. People took care of one another.”
Smith grew up in Hunter Hills, off of Simpson Road on Child’s Drive. It is now known as Joseph E. Boone. His mother watched children in his childhood home and his father, a former paratrooper in the Air Force’s 82nd Airborn division, worked at Lockheed Martin and drove a taxi for Simpson Road Cab Company. He attended EC Clement Elementary School and Turner High School before moving to College Park.
“…the first razor blade I had to swallow.”
At age 14, Smith’s family moved to College Park, where they were the first Black family on their street. The same day they moved in, his neighbors across the street made a point of posting their for sale sign. He recalls an incident where three white boys pulled up next to him as he rode his bike. They threw foul language, rocks and cans at him and told him to “get out of my neighborhood.” He described that event as “the first razor blade I had to swallow.”
In hindsight, Smith described his parents’ rationale for moving as “the okey-doke.” They thought everything would be better because they were moving to a white neighborhood. They believed Dr. King’s dream was integration and the grass was going to be greener on the other side. In reality, they moved to a neighborhood that didn’t want them in the first place.
“I knew one thing: I wasn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt.”
His book “In the Black, Changing the Dominant Narrative in the Commercial Real Estate Industry” features a poem he wrote in May 1996, entitled “Tears of Black Folk.” This moving poem was written when he worked at Cushman Wakefield, a self-proclaimed very tough time in his life, as he was the firm’s first Black broker. He recalls having to work harder than all the other brokers while feeling—very clearly—that he wasn’t supposed to be there.
“It’s like God was pushing me back to this old neighborhood. I could not shake it.”
The two men met years ago at a networking event. Both were looking for homes and Ahmann mentioned that he was interested in purchasing a home on Sunset in the Historic Westside. Smith was struck by this response both because it was in his old neighborhood but also because Ahmann is a white man. This conversation, along with others he met who mentioned returning to live on the Westside, inspired Smith. He purchased T. M. Alexander’s house on Sunset two years ago. He plans to redevelop it and move back into the neighborhood.
“Giving the benefit of the doubt is such a treasure.”
During an emotional moment in the conversation, Smith stressed the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt, likening it to giving someone fresh water. He boldly proclaimed that the Historic Westside is not less than; it is better than because it has survived despite the things that have happened to it..
“Until we have people who look like me…who can afford to live anywhere they want…come back to the neighborhood, we’re going to continue to have this issue. Give us the benefit of the doubt. This is a neighborhood that will save this city—because they did it before.”
- How does a young person find a house in Atlanta? It’s so hard to find anything.
- Number one, get connected to an Empire Board of Realtors broker. Number two, come to Westside Future Fund. Maybe you don’t know this, but there are some down payment assistance programs giving up to $60,000 in assistance. These opportunities are available now. Another thing we’re working on is trying to get the message out for these resources within WFF.
- People have different views of what the issue is. Some think it’s housing; others say preservation. What is the vision we can all come together to restore and revitalize the whole MLK quarter?
- I think it’s the old adage—The Five Blind Men—who were all touching an elephant. The reality of it is we’re all talking about the same elephant and if we take care of the pieces we feel drawn to, they will all work together.
Miss the event? Watch the full Transform Westside Summit on YouTube.