Spring 2009: Of Note

Nathan McCall in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward

The human toll: Nathan McCall reflects on the cost of gentrification in Atlanta through his novel, Them.

Jon Rou

Culture Clash

Urban gentrification comes with a cost, says author Nathan McCall

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By Mary J. Loftus

The gentrification of inner-city communities comes with a steep human cost, says Emory lecturer Nathan McCall, as families are pushed out of areas where they’ve lived for generations and neighborhoods become fragmented.

As McCall traveled the country on a book tour for his first novel, Them—which tells of a fictional white couple who move into a historically black Atlanta neighborhood and face some resentment from their new neighbors—he heard story after story about the frustration being caused by similar situations.

“There’s a clash in values and perceptions that often emerges when blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asians find themselves sharing the same community spaces,” says McCall, a lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at Emory who has been a reporter for the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a pattern that’s happening all over the country.”

In Harlem, he read to a mixed audience where the tension was palpable. “It ended up that there had been a drumming group meeting in the city park for years,” McCall said, “but the new residents who had moved into refurbished homes around the park considered it ‘noise’ and wanted it banned.”

In Washington, D.C., churchgoers had routinely double-parked on Sundays during “church hour,” but newcomers were demanding that parking citations be placed on the cars.

Such battles over turf and tradition are becoming commonplace in cities as modest family homes make way for upscale housing and property taxes soar, McCall says. “There’s a fear of displacement and alienation, and it’s not just by blacks. The poor white residents in Cabbagetown [a historic mill town in Atlanta] feel the same. Adults are having to move outside the area of public transportation, children are attending crosstown schools where they’re met with a sometimes hostile environment.”

Them, McCall’s first foray into fiction after two nonfiction books (Makes Me Wanna Holler and What’s Going On?) explores the relationship that develops between a longtime black resident of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward and his new white neighbors, with whom he has long conversations over his backyard fence.

McCall, who has led student journalism groups from Emory to study in South Africa, says he approached the story as a reporter, but came to welcome the freedom of a novel. “I wanted to depict the characters in all of their complexity, contradictions, and humanity,” he says. “Fiction gave me the flexibility to explore, to get into the heads of people of other racial backgrounds.”

He hopes cities will find ways to keep affordable as well as luxury housing at their cores. “Atlanta’s a prime example—we keep building and building, and I don’t see any thought going into the human toll.”

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