Feature Story

Catalyzing Change through Parks

A small cracked and faded mural sits on the brick wall of a West Atlanta home, the dark outline of a woman sitting in a rocking chair in front of a small white house sits on a corner. The woman in the mural seems to be faced towards the street, where a childlike figures dances in a green space and two larger figures accompany him on either side. Behind them is a small brown square with green shapes coming out of them. The outline of a city in the far background frames the mural before your eyes travel to largely written words, ‘We have dreams’.

Opposite of the mural and across the street, a few planter beds, one adorning the phrase ‘We Are Better Together’, surround a small sitting area with tables and chairs. At the forefront of the greenspace, a wooden sign stands stating, “Mattie Freeland Community Garden”. After seeing the mural, your eyes travel from one to the other quickly realizing the similarities between the two. The mural, although fading and cracking, seems to envision the space across the street.

The house is surrounded by overgrown vegetation and tall grass, yet the mural remains completely visible. A neighbor of the house explains that it’s the now vacant home of Ms. Mattie Freeland, the former matriarch of the community. Known for sitting on her rocking chair in the front yard of her home, she would watch over community members keeping the space safe. Once she passed, the community felt so moved by her love and kindness, they created a mural with a vision of a garden in her name. Now, just a few feet across from where the rocking chair once stood, stands the garden in her name.

With an unemployment rate of 33% and one fourth of the community being below the poverty level, Atlanta’s English Avenue faces many challenges surrounding poverty, as well as crime and drug use. Chanay, a neighbor of the park, states that she often felt unsafe letting her child play outside of her sight until the discovery of the park.

Until recently, this has been an issue for many neighbors of Mattie Freeland Park, but now they are combating these challenges with the space. Research from the Trust for Public land supports that cities with the largest percent of green space and parks have significantly lower crime rates, illegal drug use, and lower poverty levels than those with less green space.

While parks can be sought out as the token of reducing crime, drug use, and poverty of struggling communities, the English Avenue neighborhood is challenging that notion. By giving neighbors a place to gather, they believe that building a stronger relationship with each other is what will turn their neighborhood around. With the recent surge in support for Mattie Freeland Park, the community is seeing a change in their community culture.

Previously, the space across from Ms. Freeland’s house was used as a lot filled with abandoned vehicles, large hardware, and litter. Community members rallied together to clean up the space and repurpose it as a park; since, bi-weekly cleanups, cookouts, ice cream socials, and movie nights often take place in the small space.

Since the creation, many organizations have come to participate and support the transformation of the neighborhood. Local partners such as Park Pride, the Conservation Fund, Trees Atlanta, or even the communities own Friends of Mattie Freeland park, see the immense sentimental and community value placed on the space, evident through their donations of time, money, and resources on the space. On October 22nd EarthShare of Georgia held their fall volunteer day at the park, hoping to aid the community with their efforts to upkeep a greenspace for the community.

Madeline Reamy, the current executive director at EarthShare of Georgia, explains the importance of parks in communities and how EarthShare’s work at Mattie Freeland affects the community environmentally and physically.

“When you get outside, particularly in parks, you are breathing fresh air, clean air, so you have an opportunity to really get exercise and benefit from play. I think play is a unifier I think it’s great for children, [and] it’s also great for adults.” She additionally boasts the environmental benefits of trees, plants, and other native vegetation, stating they all increase oxygen production, in addition to clean air, and keep spaces cooler for the kids to play.

This is especially important in Atlanta due the prominence of chronic disease. The Georgia Department of Public Health states that about 13 percent of children under age 18 are obese, compared to the national average of 8 percent. Additionally, they also state that the leading cause of death in Georgia is heart disease, with its biggest indicator being obesity.

“The health benefits to me are obvious, because you’re getting out, you’re encouraging play, you’re encouraging activity, but you’re also providing things that you might not find indoors.” Reamy furthers. While community members appreciate the environmental and health benefits as well, they also recognize the community benefits that Reamy mentions.

Stephen Causby, leader at Friends of Mattie Freeland park, stresses the importance of building community around the space rather than relying on the park itself to fix their problems. Through having a gathering space, Reamy and Causby both state that children and adults are given the opportunity to interact, play, and come together.

He explains, “…I really think that people being present in the park is what kind of sends a signal to other neighbors and folks who might use the park for negative purposes. It kind of sends them the message that this is our space, that we are claiming this for a positive community purpose that it’s here for them.” Causby also states the importance that these changes need time to take place and that they won’t stop struggling with daily challenges overnight.

Mattie Freeland holds events each week in efforts build community and gather. Most recently, they had a movie night where families came out and watched Kung Fu Panda 3 and had ice cream. The Friends of Mattie Freeland park, an organization that supports the space, are now working on a community cook-off before winter comes, seeing it was one of the most requested events to be done in the space. Causby states that the more often they host these events, the more consistent turnout they see at the park daily, which also combats the struggles surrounding the community.

John Ahern, the volunteer manager at Park Pride, says that Mattie Freeland park is a great example of how parks can transform communities. He also states that Mattie Freeland park and the neighborhood is on the right track to challenge these issues. Ahern explains that the space is not only giving an opportunity for children to safely play outside, but is also allowing community members to interact and discuss issues or concerns around the community as well.

“We are better together” planter, Mattie Freeland Park, Photography by Travis Franch

He states, “I think the park provides kind of a platform for hosting more community events so your neighbors can get to know each other. You know you can have conversations about all those other issues and how best to engage folks and help them out.” Ahern celebrates the work that Causby and his team are doing around community building in the English Avenue community.

Even over the last 5 years, the changes within the community is being seen. Dontario Wilson, an intern at Friends of Mattie Freeland Park and resident of the community, explains the changes he has seen growing up in the community. Wilson remembers that he was never allowed out of his yard when he was little because his grandma would be concerned for his safety. Now, he says, parents in the community love taking their kids to the park to play and participating in community events.

And the space is still developing, Causby exclaims. The company doing construction at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium, HHRM, is donating their time and materials to repurpose Ms. Mattie Freeland’s old home into a small community center. Here, neighbors will be able to take courses on healthy eating, resume building, and interview skills as well as classes on reading, computers, and other educational activities for kids.

Causby states that once the new center is up they will really be able to view change within the community. Additionally, Causby states that having this physical place where neighbors can rely to build skills is going to be essential for their future development. He also explained that having a park in the community has encouraged homeowners to stay put and invest with these organizations, rather than abandon it.

With continued future growth, Causby and Wilson hope that within the next couple of years they can be a part of a community where parents don’t have to worry about their children playing outside or at the park. With their continued efforts to build community around the spaces being created, neighbors will start to feel a sense of responsibility and pride towards the park.

Wilson exclaims, “Now that I’m a part of it, I see more people coming out and responding to what we are doing [is positive] and they are able to come here and [be] one with the community…this is a safe environment now and it’s something beautiful. It has color and it has purpose.”

Feature Image: Mural, http://newlifecovenantchurch.org/garden/