The rain came in July 2012. It poured down in sheets.
In Peoplestown, the pipes backed up—as they so often did—and foul-smelling water rose fast. Unbidden, it gushed into homes along Atlanta and Ormond avenues.
About four feet of water seeped into Bertha and Robert Darden’s basement, transforming the packed dirt floor into a stew of churning mud. But they counted themselves lucky; the main level of their house was spared.
Neighbors suffered far worse. Drenched belongings littered the sidewalks. Stains from water damage crept up walls. Cars which had floated down the street were unsalvageable.
The awful stink still lingered when, on a sweltering day soon afterward, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed arrived to take stock. Bertha Darden asked the mayor a simple question: Will we have to move out of our home?
No ma’am. No one will have to leave their home. No one will be displaced, she recalls him saying.
“That,” Darden says now, “was a lie.”
Almost a decade later, the fight is still raging in Peoplestown. And it may have helped deny Reed a third term as mayor.
Two years after Reed’s visit to Peoplestown, his administration decided the best way to solve the chronic flooding was to raze the square block of homes and install a retention pond and park. They reasoned it would turn a problem into an appealing green space initiative. The city would buy out the homeowners who agreed to leave. Those who stayed? The city would seize their homes through eminent domain.
Most of the affected homeowners took the city’s money and moved on, happy to leave the chronic flooding behind. Philippe Pellerin, now a real estate developer living in Grant Park, was one of them.,
“It was a godsend, honestly,” he said. “I was underwater both literally and figuratively.”
But four families–the Dardens among them–chose to stay and fight. The legal battle has been dragging on ever since. But in recent weeks, it has picked up steam. Two of the other holdouts, Dwayne Adgar and Tanya Washington, received eviction notices in September and October and respectively.
Bertha Darden said she felt betrayed. And at a mayoral candidate forum in Southeast Atlanta on October 22, she let Reed know it.
“I want to know why you trying to get back in office again? To lie some more?” the 66-year-old asked, shaking with anger. “Because we have heard all the lies we can from your administration. It’s not right. It’s not right.”
Looking like a man condemned, Reed listened, his jaw set. “What I’m going to do is apologize to you from my heart,” he responded, arguing that city was worried about the toll of severe weather on the neighborhood.
A video of the encounter went viral, attracting more than 50,000 views on YouTube. Reed seemed to recognize the bad optics and scrambled to negotiate a $1.5 million deal for the homeowners the day before the election. It didn’t work. On November 2, Reed placed third in the race for mayor, missing a spot in the runoff by just 612 votes.
Did Darden’s emotional four-minute tirade make a difference? It’s hard to know. But one can infer a lot by looking at a November 10 rally in Peoplestown supporting the holdout residents. Among the few dozen people who showed up were the two candidates facing off in the November 30 mayoral runoff.
Both Andre Dickens and Felicia Moore called on the city to halt the eviction proceedings and leave the matter for the incoming administration to handle.
“Don’t evict anybody in November or December. It’s about to get cold,” Dickens said.
Moore followed, saying that, “the first thing is to make sure these families stay in their homes if at all possible.”
“It’s possible!” came a shout from the small crowd of protesters.
“And it is possible,” Moore replied.
In a statement, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, “Our Administration has negotiated in good faith with the parties and remain supportive of any efforts that get us one step closer to final resolution of this long and complicated matter.”
But for all its twists and turns, the battle in Peoplestown boils down to one thing: home.
Robert Darden still recalls looking at the three-bedroom brick bungalow for the first time in 1989.
He knew the house was solid as soon as he walked inside. He rapped the walls with his knuckles and felt the reassuring thud of plaster. His work boots echoed on the hardwood floors.
Darden had hauled trash cans on his back for the City of Atlanta, earning $2.25 an hour. He was proud to become a homeowner. Now, at 71, he’s spending his pension fighting his old employer to keep that home.
“We’re not leaving,” he said. “I prayed on it. And the Lord said, ‘Stand still.’”