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Two alumni improve lives as well as living conditions

When 1968 law school alumnus John Lantz took over the management of Shallowford Gardens Apartments in Doraville, a heroin dealer was conducting business out of one unit, most tenants were behind on rent, and turnover was high. But rather than strictly enforcing lease agreements with his renters, many of whom were Asian and Hispanic immigrant families, Lantz turned his attention to the quality of life in the complex.

"The obvious part of my job as landlord is to make sure the roof doesn't leak and the plumbing works," Lantz says. "But there are a lot of other things a landlord can do that are appropriate to caring for needs. If you have a community of people who know each other and take pride in where they [live], it's a totally different feeling from being in a strange place with a bunch of strangers. Community is a big word that encompasses a whole lot of little things, such as a sense of security, pride, and self-esteem."

Lantz is not the only Emory alumnus who has demonstrated that providing decent, affordable housing is good for both business and people. Two hundred and fifty miles to the north, Robert Shemin, who earned his law and MBA degrees from Emory in 1989, is filling a similar need for quality low-income homes in Nashville by purchasing, renovating, and managing undervalued rental properties.

Lantz began his efforts in 1991 by hiring Jeff Jones, a graduate student in history at Georgia State University who was making a career change from computer science to public service. Together, Jones and Lantz generate and implement ideas for creating a sense of community at Shallowford Gardens, which sits on the outskirts of Atlanta. They first encouraged tenants to get to know one another by sponsoring Labor Day and Memorial Day picnics. "You can't get better security than knowing your neighbors will help you and you will help them," says Lantz.

He and Jones turned part of the complex's laundry building into a classroom where English lessons are taught. A YMCA program offers after-school, on-site child care, and families can offset the program's cost by helping with landscaping tasks around the complex. The two have improved maintenance, given away hanging flower baskets and bird feeders, and installed a basketball goal in the parking lot. Lantz purchased a vacuum cleaner that tenants can use. A community newsletter, printed in English and Spanish, offers money management tips, welcomes new tenants by name, and keeps residents informed of activities in the complex. And with the help of the DeKalb Extension Service, residents planted a community garden of vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

Since Lantz began his initiative, many tenants have learned enough English to fill out a job application, which enabled most to find employment and catch up on their rent. For many working parents, the YMCA program solved chronic child-care problems. The vacuum cleaner, used at least two hundred times in the first year, has helped Lantz save thousands of dollars on new carpets. There is a waiting list for the garden project, which won second place in the raised bed division of the Atlanta Botanical Garden's 1994 Autumn Gardening Festival. The turnover rate for the apartments dropped from seventy-seven in 1992 to fewer than thirty in 1994. Lourdes Perez, a Shallowford Gardens resident for more than two years, plans to keep her family of six there permanently. "Here we live almost like [we did] in Mexico," she says. "Everybody meets other people, and our children play here safely."

 Providing a safe living environment for low-income families was also a goal of Robert Shemin when he began investing in Nashville residential properties almost four years ago. After leaving Emory, he clerked at the International Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica for four months and then went to Wall Street to work in securities sales. After a year in New York, Shemin returned to his hometown to enter the real estate business. As he analyzed the market and interviewed landlords, tenants, bankers, and bankrupt real estate investors, he was struck by the lack of well-kept, secure housing available to Nashville citizens with limited resources. "There were [places with] holes in the walls and floor, a leaking ceiling, no hot water, the commodes ripped out," he says. "I could not believe people were living in there."

The problem presented an opportunity to Shemin, whose background in human rights work inspired him to pursue "a business that could help people." He began to purchase poorly maintained houses and duplexes at bargain prices, renovate them, and manage them efficiently and humanely. "I discovered that providing quality low-income housing throughout a city's suburbs improved living conditions and brought a sense of hope and safety," he says. "And when I say housing, I mean a house--with a lawn, trees, a neighborhood, the whole enchilada."

His 130 properties (and an additional forty he manages) are in great demand. His homes include central heat and air, insulation, paved driveways, new paint, mini-blinds, ceiling fans, and his guarantee that repairs will be made within three days of notification. His working relationship with the Nashville police helps keep crime to a minimum. "People know I'm serious about combating crime," he says. "If I have a problem, I work closely with the police. They appreciate what I'm trying to do, so they've been really helpful." Shemin has transformed entire neighborhoods, once buying a whole block of homes to close down a crack cocaine dealer in one house.

In 1993, Shemin leased a house to a group home for runaway teenagers when other landlords refused them. He provides free consulting services for non-profit agencies dedicated to developing low-income housing, and he works with an organization that helps find homes for political refugees from nations as distant as Haiti and Bosnia. He has even assisted several former tenants in buying their own homes. Last fall, Shemin offered one year's free rent to a family on welfare and challenged other Tennessee real estate entrepreneurs to do the same, with the goal of helping to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness. "For one year, tens of thousands of low-income families can start saving money, buy clothes for their children, and eat more nutritious meals," he says. "And what if every landlord chose a new family each year? The possibilities are endless."

Shemin spends his days driving around Nashville, working out of his car and answering fifty to seventy phone calls a day. He tries to visit all of his tenants once a month. "It's important for them to know that I'm not a big, nameless, faceless company that doesn't care," he says. "I treat my tenants like valued customers, and that makes a big difference. If you give people something nice, they'll more than likely take care of it. It's a win-win situation."--A.O.A.


Alumnus Grady Clay examines America's generic landscape

In the spring of 1984, after having retired as editor of the journal Landscape Architecture, Grady Clay accepted a position to lecture in any subject he wanted at Texas A&M University. He decided to engage his students in an investigation of generic man-made places--for example, "the good address," "the edge of town," "the courthouse square"--in and around the university. The subject was, "How Places Work."

"I went to Texas with a list of maybe fifty to seventy generic places, and by the time I got through, the list was up to about five hundred and it was unstoppable," says Clay, a 1938 Emory College graduate and longtime urban affairs editor at Louisville's Courier Journal. "Nobody had done this, and there was no such list [of generic places] extant in the United States that I could find. So I realized I was plowing new ground, and I was off and running, already beginning to write essays on each of these generic places."

A little more than a decade later, that initial project culminated in the publication of Clay's latest book, Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America's Generic Landscape, published by the University of Chicago Press. Even though he has cataloged some five thousand such generic places in his files, Clay limited his book to examining just 124. "So the price of the book wouldn't go out of the ceiling," he says.

In the introduction to Real Places, Clay writes, "These terms--open site, edge of town, dump, hangout, good address, market garden, commuting suburb--arise from that vast pool of familiar generic names used in American discourse about the places where we live, work, and play. We build these man-made conventions and inventions out of thin air--hits, runs, and errors--gaudy, gossamer, insubstantial stuff of the mind. They are parts of grammar we inherit and adapt to negotiate changing worlds. . . . Our meaningful world is what we can describe to each other with a good chance of being understood. Generic place-names are essential lubricants."

In Real Places, Clay endeavors not merely to describe the general characteristics of the generic spots he includes, but also to examine their historical development and cultural significance, often in a critical vein. One such example is security, whose variants include security zone, gate, office, and holdover. "Prior to urban riots of the 1960s, SECURITY had been a benign presence," Clay writes. "The word itself dates from around 1432 and appeared in Shakespeare's Macbeth from the witches' mouth, `Security is mortals' chiefest enemy.' But that was long before the protection of material wealth became the overriding concern of modern Western societies."

Because generic place-names are not spontaneously created but come into currency through a grassroots process of social acceptance, Clay relies on a network of friends and colleagues across the country to help keep him informed of new arrivals into the language. According to Clay, "These contributors get a certificate of membership in my band of `Topographical Irregulars'--which is a takeoff from William Safire's own `Irregulars,' which in turn derives from Sherlock Holmes' `Baker Street Irregulars.' "

In his home of Louisville, where a local radio station broadcasts his essays on generic place-names, Clay says he is even approached in public by people who are espousing the merits of a new generic term. "When I'm at a party, people who have heard me on the radio will come up and say, Have you heard this or do you know about this?" he says. "My life is made much more exotic by tipsters and people who are touting a given word.

"The most powerful tool at work here is the attachment of abstractions--names, values, and prices--to places. It's a pervasive form of non-official coinage."--J.D.T.


Emory doctoral student Susan Rook hosts CNN's 'TalkBack Live'

The standing-room-only crowd seated in the amphitheater inside the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta is abuzz with anticipation, knowing they are only moments away from being on live national television. Susan Rook, the host of "TalkBack Live," confidently ambles in and begins to casually acquaint herself with the crowd. Suddenly, a producer barks out that there are only seconds left to air time, and Rook walks toward camera one. "We are talking about talk [radio] jocks," she says, addressing the home viewing audience. "They certainly know how to push the buttons of their audiences, but are they really pushing your buttons? If you have something to say about it, stand by, because it's your turn to talk back."

CNN describes "TalkBack Live," which debuted last year, as "a truly interactive television town meeting where people from around the nation can talk to each other every weekday." While the studio audience expresses its opinions, viewers can connect with the show by phone, fax, video conferencing, and via the information superhighway through their personal on-line computers. Rook says the technological advances that distinguish the program from other talk shows are also what make "TalkBack Live" such a challenge to host. "It's really difficult trying to keep the guests happy by talking to all of them, getting all of the audience's questions and comments in, and then going to the faxes, the [computer], and to the phone calls. It's a juggling act and a balancing act."

As if her life weren't hectic enough, Rook, who earned her undergraduate degree in communications from George Mason University, began working on her doctoral degree in international relations at Emory in the fall of 1993. She says the depth of study in which she could engage in graduate school was one of the reasons she enrolled. "I wanted to be able to go more into depth on things, and you just can't do that [on a talk show] when you're doing a topic a day." Specifically, she is focusing her studies on the differences between how war is discussed in private, personal correspondence and how it is discussed in the press.

Rook says another thing that enticed her back into school was a desire to bring journalism and academia a little closer together. "I think the academic world has a huge amount to contribute to the world of working journalists," she says. "All too often, working journalists look at the critics and comments and suggestions of the academic world and say, You people live in an ivory tower, you have no clue what you're talking about. . . . And academics look at working journalists and say, You're money-grubbing evildoers, and you shouldn't really talk to us. And that's not true. I think there needs to be a bridge between the two."

Rook joined CNN in 1987 and worked as a news anchor for more than six years before becoming host of "TalkBack Live" last year. Her career highlights include being chosen to participate in the final debate of the 1992 presidential campaign and a nomination last year for a Cable Ace Award, the highest honor in the industry. However, she says none of that prepared her for the rigors of hosting a live talk show. "If I knew what I was getting into, would I have done this? No!" she says in mock anguish. "It's a lot more difficult [than doing a newscast]. . . . The facts and figures that I'm spouting, they're all in my head. So it's a huge amount of memorization. I'm lucky I have a near photographic memory, so I can absorb things quickly and spout them back. But it's all live. It's not written, like a newscast is."

Rook believes that in addition to its technological advances, the show's focus on breaking news also separates it from the spate of other talk shows jamming the country's cable television lines. "Twenty-four hours is our maximum lead time, because it's fresh and it's topical . . . ," she says. "If something happens at eleven o'clock and it's the big story, and we're doing wall-to-wall coverage of it [on CNN], it would look stupid for us [not to cover it]. It wouldn't work. You have to be able to turn quickly, and we can."--J.D.T.

Return to Spring 1995 contents page.