Clarkston

Clarkston (which became the most diverse square mile in the USA with people from 60 countries speaking 110 dialects, following a concentration of refugee resettlement there starting in the 1980s) is changing, and it’s changing fast. I’ve been going there since 2009 for reasons involving urban agriculture and refugees (after my friend Bob and I met and befriended Luma Mufleh, founder of the Fugees Academy, the first school for refugees-of-war in the USA), and I’ve been traveling at the speed of bike there for many additional reasons for the past six years. I’ve published dozens of stories about it.

I first noticed the streetscapes going in a few years ago, but recently things are accelerating at bullet-speed. The fancy bus stop shelters. The houses being remodeled. The fewer people walking. The whitening of the faces I see, including in Thriftown (the supermarket that had changed with the times to accommodate refugee shopping needs). The refugee girls to whom I taught bike skills telling me everyone they knew was moving (are these American success stories, or rising-rent stories?). The Fugees Academy school-for-refugees relocating to another city. The new twee little greenspace where the PATH from Atlanta to Stone Mountain twists into a neighborhood. The new fancy mailboxes and little traffic-calming islands on the road where my bike students live (which include an 11-year-old girl who told me the multiuse path that’s walking distance from her home is just for grownups who ride bikes fast). The first Tiny Home neighborhood in Metro Atlanta, with little bitty houses costing something like $200k. I’ve been following the overall home prices in the city online and they are right at the edge of what might be considered affordable, and rising fast.

I rode the six miles from increasingly-white-and-rich Decatur to Clarkston yesterday (see numbers 7 and 8 for a virtual bike ride of each) to check on the Sharing Garden (which is exploding in growth after less than a month from when I cleared the land; three weeks since my friend Rebecca and I planted the seeds) and I got to talking with two women from the International Rescue Committee (IRC). I’ve been surprised to not see or hear more about the refugees from Afghanistan these past four weeks since the 20-year war ended, since the Taliban took over, since I started cultivating this plot at the Jolly Avenue Garden for a refugee family to take over once I build fully-fertile soil through cover-cropping and woodchip decomposition. I’ve been surprised to see other United States cities, not Clarkston, listed on nationwide job postings for roles relating to resettling the refugees.

Turns out about 1100 refugees from Afghanistan are coming to Metro Atlanta, but not specifically to Clarkston. Some have already arrived, but the majority will be here by the end of October. They will be spread throughout DeKalb County. Clarkston’s days as a veritable Tower of Babel are numbered. Those bed springs the refugee gardeners use as fences on their plots are easily sourced because the departing families leave them as rubbish rather than pay to move them.

On my ride back to Decatur, I turned this over and over again in my mind. Clarkston had become something really special, but was it what the community that lived there before wanted? Is a place that never asked to become a refugee resettlement area (it’s illegal to restrict who can rent in U.S. cities) gentrifying if it changes back? Does a city have a right to invest in itself to raise its property values and increase its tax base? Rebecca and I tossed this around a bit via text. I need to think more about it.

I don’t know if there is protected affordable housing in Clarkston that will move at the same pace as market forces, or any kind of real ongoing commitment to refugees (here’s the link about the 2040 Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which I’m currently reading). I do know there is a brand new global missionary training center in the little downtown area. There’s a new little astroturfed soccer field in the courtyard there (don’t get me going on that). For show? For real? The Global Spokes (for-profit) bike shop will be opening soon. Also, IRC is building a facility on the front part of the land where the Jolly Avenue Garden is.

Perhaps Clarkston will become a place for refugee services headquarters, rather than a headquarters for refugees.

In the meantime, my crops are growing. And they are for sharing with people who are refugees. For as long as that is possible.