Participants in two of Sandy Springs’ Civic Dinners on Inclusion and Diversity see problems with gentrification and social segregation that contribute to social injustice. But they also have hope in the city’s future, especially with efforts like the community discourse they had joined.

Mayor Rusty Paul proposed inviting city residents from all walks of life, ethnicity and socio-economic status to join in small discussions about inclusion and diversity. He brought the idea to the City Council on June 2 after Rabbi Brad Levenberg of the local Temple Sinai and chair of the Sandy Springs Interfaith Clergy Association asked him to have the city host a town hall meeting on racism and social injustice.

The global pandemic prevented any in-person gatherings. That led to the city using the Civic Dinners, an online platform for civic groups or agencies to organize and schedule virtual discussion groups. The company shifted its idea to host these discussions over a meal to virtual meetings only during the pandemic.

More than 260 Sandy Springs residents had registered for 36 Civic Dinners on “Inclusion and Belonging” as of July 27, with 20 discussion sessions completed. At least 16 sessions remained open to registration through Aug. 26 at civicdinners.com/SandySpringsGA.

In each session, as many as eight residents, including a host, join a virtual meeting scheduled through the Civic Dinners platform. The host leads the discussion and a member of the city’s staff takes notes on the main issues and topics participants find important, keeping the comments anonymous. Those comments will be compiled by staff for the City Council to consider for action or future policies.

The Reporter covered two of the meetings hosted by City Clerk Raquel Gonzalez and Performing Arts Center Executive Director Shaun Albrechtson with the promise of anonymity for participants who do not work for city government. In the two virtual discussions, seven local residents and two hosts from the city took part in a discussion of inclusion and diversity, answering the same three questions asked in every meeting. In the comments below, participants are identified by a letter instead of using their names.

Racist overtones in cityhood

R, a White retiree in the city, said the reasons she heard some people gave to support forming cities in north Fulton had roots in racial issues.

“It was couched often in economics. We need to separate from the city [of Atlanta]. We needed to separate out from Fulton County. But underlying it were a lot of racial issues,” R said about Sandy Springs and other North Fulton communities that pushed for cityhood.

The younger people now moving into the area tend to be more welcoming and inclusive, she said. But, she added, some longtime residents seem resentful of what’s happening.

Affordability and gentrification

The original concept of the city presented to R was that its future would be overwhelmingly single-family housing, she said. That’s unaffordable to anyone in diverse socio-economic groups, she said.

“If you are not living in a single-family home you are not part of the community,” was a message she said she still hears.

T, a younger White resident agreed with her take on the community, especially relating to single family housing vs. apartments. He said many people around his age would like to live in Sandy Springs, but the pressure to live in single-family homes instead of apartments makes them feel uncomfortable.

Gonzalez said she and her family have experienced difficulty in finding an affordable home or an apartment in the city.

“There were so many issues including gentrification that’s going on and the way the city has handled gentrification in the past,” R said.

Replacing apartment complexes with newer mixed-use properties will price them out of affordability for existing residents, she said. Proposals to redevelop four North End shopping centers along Roswell Road was in part to attract new shops to the area, though the city has said it intends to have mixed-income housing as well to avoid displacement.

Many residents who attended a community meeting at City Hall on March 5 said they wanted North End redevelopment to have mixed-use developments and not have “poor-quality” retail. Only 4% of the attendees lived in an apartment on the North End, with 42% living in single-family homes in that part of the city.

R said the reason given for the lack of quality shopping was that apartment dwellers weren’t the right people to support shopping.

But she said near her home close to City Springs, a lot of retail space remains empty.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with income level. It has to do with the Amazon truck,” R said.

The city’s Next Ten Comprehensive Plan proposes more extensive areas of redevelopment, with property now occupied by apartment buildings designated for mixed-use or commercial mixed-use. The Next Ten plan suggests making the revitalization happen by “incentivizing mixed-used redevelopment of commercial centers and aging apartment complexes” in the North River, City Springs and Northwood/Prado areas.”

Ronald Bayor, former Georgia Tech professor of history and sociology and author of “Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta,” previously said that displacement of minority communities to suit affluent White communities is part of the metro area’s pattern of systemic racism, and that Sandy Springs has seen it before.

Fear of the unknown

For most residents, a fear of change seems to be the problem, T said.

“Overall people in general tend to be a little bit more afraid of what we consider unknown,” T said.

It’s not enough to acknowledge different people and cultures exist, he said, but also that different people have different experiences.

“You fear what you don’t know,” E, a Black resident of neighboring Roswell whose work includes the city, said. “It’s almost a survival mechanism to make up a story about what you don’t know until you find someone that can prove it to be wrong.”

Though she experienced that fear firsthand after 9/11 as a Muslim suffering from portrayals by the media as a Muslim from the United States, S said things are still much better here.

S grew up in Florida in a Muslim family in a very small town where people tended to be standoffish. But after she introduced herself and people got to know her, their attitudes toward her changed.

S, a mother of seven, has lived in Saudi Arabia for several years, where she said people tend to stay in their own groups. It took her some time to get to know one of her neighbors who remained isolated because of this fear.

Inclusion

K, a Black resident who was invited to join by a coworker said the discussion of inclusion, diversity and social injustice is nothing new.

“It just raises its head again,” she said.

K experienced problems growing up in the South in a Black family that was the first in their small community to have an interracial marriage.

“Inclusion to me means bringing everybody to the table on equal terms, not excluding anyone for any particular reason, race, religion, anything along those lines. But making sure that everything is fair and equitable,” she said.

Today, she said, she has an unexpected problem within the community.

“I would think that in 2020 that wouldn’t have been an issue, but I have not found a church base that I felt comfortable in,” she said.

‘Siloed’ groups

E said we’ve always heard that the United States is a melting pot.

“It’s not. It’s a very siloed group of different people,” she said.

Different racial and ethnic groups stick together and don’t mix in their communities.

When she and her husband lived in Los Angeles, she saw more of a melting pot because they’d see families with all kinds of nationalities in one family unit.

G, another participant said five years ago he got a job that required regular travel to India. The White male in his late 20s made his first trip on his first day with the new company with no expectations. He admitted having almost no exposure to other cultures. He decided to pay attention only to the positives.

“Because I realized at that point even what I may view as a negative is only based on my view of what negative is,” he said.

Hope for the future

Gonzalez’s first job with the city as executive assistant to the city manager and her recent return March 9 as city clerk have shown her a change at City Hall, she said. She worked with the city manager for seven years before accepting a job as city clerk for Doraville in 2018. Initially she saw little diversity around the offices or at public meetings. As the city has become even more diverse, that has been changing.

“I’ve been encouraged to see a real effort on behalf of the city to translate items or translate some publications, really do some footwork to get in and out of communities where the city has felt it didn’t have a lot of participation,” Gonzalez said.

“We’re not there yet. But I think the demographics are changing. And with that change, and with that shift, we’re going to change,” R, the Sandy Springs retiree, said. “There’s too much to lose and too much to change not to change.”

“We need a safe place in the community where people can come together and just meet each other without trying to change anybody’s mind,” S said.

City leaders should bring together Black people who can explain the problems they are facing so everyone can learn how to make things better, several of the participants suggested. Having these conversations in the Civic Dinners program is a positive step, all the participants agreed.

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