Author: Charles McNair

Published

Warren Buffett and Tom Cousins
(from left) Legendary investor Warren Buffett was so impressed with what Cousins achieved in revitalizing Atlanta’s once-notorious East Lake community that he signed on as a partner and financial backer of Cousins’ new organization, Purpose Built Comm

Sobering words opened a news report on the afternoon of March 8, 2007. David Faber, host of CNBC’s video news magazine “Business Nation,” looked into the camera and introduced the country to the chilling story of Atlanta’s East Lake Meadows.

Robbery. Prostitution. Murder.

A generic 650-unit brick housing project known to locals and law enforcement personnel as “Little Vietnam,” East Lake Meadows manufactured an outsized percentage of the criminal population in The City Too Busy To Hate.

Then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin aired a candid confession in the CNBC feature. “I would never go into East Lake alone,” she admitted. “It was a completely dysfunctional community.”

The crime rate in East Lake Meadows ran at 18 times the national average. The employment rate — not the unemployment rate — stood at 14 percent. The average age of a grandmother? Just 32. Only 5 percent of the children in the prison-like, windowless elementary school could pass the state math test, and three out of four kids left school with no diploma. The one thing that flourished in East Lake Meadows? An illegal, open-air drug trade worth $35 million a year. It must have been a sore temptation; residents averaged $4,000 a year in income, with 60 percent of them on welfare.

East Lake Meadows was a crime factory, the urban nightmare every city fears — and most face, in one form or another. Still, stories like East Lake Meadows were old news. Too many housing projects had doomed the people they were built to serve. Human potential and billions of dollars had been squandered. It was a story so familiar and depressing that it begged for a quick click of the remote.

But then CNBC offered a twist.

Right there on the screen, East Lake Meadows fast-forwarded in time. Images of broken windows, piles of trash, and crack houses magically transformed into landscaped, two-story apartment buildings, brightly painted, immaculate. The dreary elementary school — formerly a Guantanamo for children — morphed into a dazzling new charter school, bright with glass walls and skylights, thrumming with the energy of children wild about learning…instead of just wild. A weedy lot where angry men once glared over burning barrels was now a playground vibrant with families and pets.

What happened? What magic touched East Lake?

Not magic. A man who sparked a movement.

The renaissance of East Lake — and likely its enduring legacy — can be traced to the efforts of an iconic Atlanta business leader with University of Georgia and Terry College of Business roots. A man hardheaded and iron-willed, who took a stand like a one-man Alamo against every practical reason to do absolutely nothing, to simply let East Lake be what it had always been — a dead end, from the very beginning.

The CNBC report held out the possibility that this man and his remarkable team had not only revived East Lake, but in the process come up with a workable national model for dealing with one of the most intractable problems of modern cities — how to transform slums into purposeful, productive communities.

It would come to be called The East Lake Model.

Its inventor was Tom Cousins (BBA ’52).

In days following the CNBC report, hundreds of queries and letters of support arrived at the offices of the East Lake Foundation, the organization behind the makeover of the distressed Atlanta project. One note, characteristically short and simple, surprised everyone. A businessman in the Midwest made an offer:

"I have seen a lot of attempts to do what you did. Most failed. You and your wife are to be really congratulated. If there are any projects you are working on at East Lake or elsewhere where you could use a little financial help, just let me know. I like to back up talent."

Uber-investor Warren Buffett was putting his name and money — earnest money — on The East Lake Model. The Wizard of Omaha saw a concept that just might revitalize frozen communities all over America.

Today, The East Lake Model is going national. Guided by Purpose Built Communities — founded, like the East Lake Foundation, by Cousins — replication began this spring in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where the Bayou District Foundation team has spent four years preparing. Planners are also busy customizing the concept for projects in bustling urban settings like Memphis, Charlotte, and Indianapolis, and in smaller communities like Rome, Ga.

Tom Cousins, Atlanta developer and the driving force behind the miracle of East Lake, has good help on the way.

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