Can struggling Dome neighborhood ever Rise Up too?

- When the lights in the Georgia Dome fade to black after the final Falcons game there Sunday, some people who live in its shadow will still be asking the same question: will they ever be able to rise up, too?

They're the ones who remembered the major investments promised to their neighborhood when the Dome was first built 25 years ago.

"They were promised millions of dollars and it did not materialize," agreed John Gordon of the group Friends of English Avenue.

So will the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Dome be any better for the people who live across the street?

There are some signs -- measured in inches, not yards -- that things could be changing in the right direction.

"This is my neighborhood. I live here," Benjamin Wills, 30, pointed out as we walked along North Avenue near Lindsay Street. "So I'm a neighbor just as much as I'm the principal of this school."

The school is Peace Preparatory Academy, the first school to operate in this neighborhood in the last 20 years. Right now 36 children spend at least part of the day inside a converted church, getting three meals and a safe education.

For years though this has been a place on the map largely known for two things: first, a cheap, overflow parking destination for Falcons fans, including those who will be back again Sunday.

"We won't be tailgating but there will be people parking in front of our home for sure," Wills predicted. "So we'll get to be part of the fanfare whether we want to or not."

But mostly this has been a place the feds once called the largest outdoor heroin market in the Southeast, where a largely white customer base from outside Atlanta kept dealers hustling around the clock.

In the summer of 2015 local and federal authorities decided to try something new here. They invited 20 people the community identified as low level drug dealers and gave them a choice to turn their lives around or face federal charges if they returned to selling heroin. Police say four of the 20 didn't think they were serious.

They were. All four face federal drug charges. The busy streets seem quieter now. We noticed it. The people who live here noticed it, too.

John Gordon spent the last decade trying to make life better in the English Avenue neighborhood, ever since the Atlanta businessman was moved to action by news stories about corrupt cops killing an elderly woman, Kathryn Johnston, inside her home.

His non-profit helped create two community gardens in places where only drug dealers and weeds once thrived. They also bought homes to provide for police officers now trusted by the neighborhood.

In fact, a tip from someone in English Avenue led Atlanta Police and federal authorities to bust up a heroin network here using Facebook to advertise its wares. Four pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to distribute heroin.

"I think there's ample evidence to support the belief that things are on the upswing," Gordon observed.

"You still wouldn't come over here after the sun goes down, would you?" I asked.

"I would not," Gordon replied without hesitation. "I've been here and left that church at night and you can hear gunfire."

The US Attorney's office says arrests have dropped nearly 40 percent here since they started the Drug Market Intervention program. They admit some of the drug dealing may just not be as obvious as the guys dealing on the streets or through social media.

"Do you feel safer, do you think your kids are safer walking the streets in this area now?" I asked principal Wills.

"I think in some ways it's just shifted and changed. When you're talking about the trajectory of someone's life, I mean that's going to take a long time."

Falcons owner Arthur Blank's Foundation has pledged a minimum of $15 million on the Westside communities, with millions more coming from other groups. The idea is to attract investment to create new jobs and businesses. You can click here to see where the money has gone so far.

"Are you comfortable with the Blank Foundation's commitment to this neighborhood?" I asked Wills.

"I don't question the intent. I do question the implementation."

Little things, like the wooden planters we sat on during his interview. Wills says Blank company volunteers dropped them and a picnic table across the street from his school one day without ever asking what he thought.

"As you can see, it doesn't look very beautiful because there's no ownership to it," Wills pointed out as we looked at the dead plants inside. "I'm not sure how many people would sit here and have lunch at the picnic table in front of this house that looks like it's about to fall into itself."

Gordon saw it differently.

"I have every belief that Blank's commitment is real," he stressed.

"So in five years when the Falcons are celebrating their third or fourth Super Bowl Championship, what is this neighborhood going to look like?"

"I hope to see middle class people who work downtown or may walk to work or ride their bike, raising their families here," Gordon predicted. "Fifteen million dollars is real money. And this neighborhood needs it."

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