photo courtesy of EverybodyEatsATL
You’ll find him on a corner most days from noon to 5 PM in Atlanta’s first-planned African American community, named Ashview Heights (which celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year), across the street from the biggest Black-owned-and-operated urban farm in the city.
It’s a corner that used to be an open-air drug market since long ago when he passed it on bike on his way to nearby Morehouse College (one of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities — called HBCUs — in Atlanta) while earning his degree in Early Childhood education.
A corner so close to a local elementary school that people shooting up behind its buildings could be seen from the school’s playground.
A corner not unlike the one where he grew up in South Atlanta, passing drug dealers every day on his way to school as a little boy.
This former leader of a bike shop named WeCycle and the prior Ashview Community Garden stands on this corner for one reason and one reason only.
To break the cycle.
Of economic and food insecurity. Of reliance on outside-the-community determination about its future. Of drugs as the only pathway forward for children.
And he’s doing it.
Meet Shawn Deangelo Walton. In fact, if you have read my previous blog (Foodshed Planet) or seen it referenced on Curbed Atlanta, you met him years ago. He is featured in what was the most-read article I wrote (until this one), titled The Atlanta Beltline Is Getting Rid of This Community Garden? You’re Kidding, Right? (reprinted in a condensed format here) after I was asked to cover that story by someone who now works at Atlanta City Hall.
Shawn created and led a program named 40 Hours and a Bike where neighborhood kids helped in a beautiful little community garden and took bike classes in order to earn their own bikes. Here — you can meet them:
The Atlanta Beltline eliminated the garden.
I visited Shawn and that garden spot once a month for three years (2014-2017) as the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail was being built.
Shawn and I talked a lot when I would see him during those visits. He got angrier over those years as the indignities mounted; as Black Lives Matter started and he raised his fist and voice in solidarity; as he struggled yet persevered in staying committed to his goals for the community. Here he is in 2015 reminding people to give time to their communities even if they had no money to give, as construction vehicles were flattening the space where the garden had been located right behind him in order to make it a Beltline construction access point:
Through it all, there was Ezra. His son.
Years have passed since then. I’ve crossed paths with Shawn a couple of times, and I’ve been following him on Instagram. I rode over occasionally and passed the corner by the farm and school.
The corner shopowner had been shot to death a few years ago. A nearby two-way protected cycletrack had been removed because perhaps the community saw it as a sign of gentrification. But Shawn’s Instagram feed started getting filled with talk of a hub named Everybody Eats Together right there on that corner. His ten-year dream was starting to come to fruition.
A mural got painted.
The community developed a plan to buy not just the building but the block and create a food hub with affordable housing, a grocer, a central meeting place, and a cooperative space for small businesses.
Energy started swirling. People started getting fed, including the drug dealers, whom Shawn treated with compassion. (Most of them have now moved on from that corner, by the way.)
And then dollars started coming in. As Shawn told me yesterday during an hour-long phone conversation:
“The people in this neighborhood are poor. And yet they are coming to the corner and giving me a dollar at a time because they have lived here for years and they want to see these positive changes continue.”
Those dollars have added up to 22,585 of them so far. But Shawn and Meagan only have until the end of March 2021 (next month) to raise $500,000 to buy the block and build a self-determining way forward for this community.
The community is still mostly Black, Shawn told me yesterday. Although rents have risen due to the Atlanta Beltline’s presence, Holderness Street is still mostly duplexes. There are still children. There is a chance this community can prosper, on its own, without outside leadership or external determination of its goals and potential. Shawn believes it will, a dollar at a time. In fact, Shawn believes it must.
You are needed. Not with your own corporate foundation’s plan. Not with a seat at your table. But with belief in the continuation of Ashview Height’s own legacy, and its own people, at its own table.
Please donate a dollar (or ten) here or via a cash app at $EverybodyeatsATL.
Shawn laughed a lot as we talked about the past and the future. He seems lighter. He told me he is no longer angry, that he in fact feels like he is thriving because he feels particularly essential right now in his service to his community. Plus, he is hopeful after this summer’s protests that there is greater momentum to remove barriers for Black communities to achieve their own goals.
There is a little seven-year-old boy who attends that elementary school, who was Star Student of the Month in December. Who passes this corner. Who will one day need to make his way uphill on a street named Fair, perhaps even to attend his father’s alma mater.
His name is Ezra. And he, and other children like him, are the future in which you would be investing.
Here was the final post in my series about Shawn and the Ashview Community Garden. If interested, you can see the longitudinal photo essay here. Here’s my free self-guided HBCU tour via bike, and my longitudinal photo essay about Truly Living Well at three different locations. The founder of Truly Living Well, my friend Rashid, is featured in one of the murals that was part of the legacy art project commissioned as part of the Super Bowl when the City of Atlanta hosted it two years ago right now. Mercedes Benz Stadium, not far from Ashview Heights, is currently being used as a COVID-19 vaccination site.