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Crime Case Study Marietta Georgia

MARIETTA, Ga. - Down past the Big Chicken, the 56-foot-high, steel-beaked beacon of extra crispy that may be this town's most prized landmark, the wedge of dirt hard by Interstate 75 is notable only for its lack of notability. Stopping here, Rabbi Steven Lebow leaves the engine running and car door open.

Nearly ever since the South Florida native came to this Atlanta suburb three decades ago, this spot - or, more specifically, the tale of murder and vengeance that has stained its ground and local history for 100 years - has weighed on him.

But with transportation crews readying to build over the place where Marietta's leading citizens lynched a Jewish factory superintendent named Leo Frank a century ago, Lebow talks only of what's worth preserving.

"There's nothing to see here," Lebow says. "That's why we need to be the memory."

As this community prepares to revisit that tale, though, there are reminders that it remains unsettled as well as unsettling.

In 1913, Frank was convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked in his Atlanta factory. The case, charged with race, religion, sex and class, exploded in a national media frenzy. When Georgia's governor commuted Frank's death sentence, citizens took matters in their own hands.

The case established the Anti-Defamation League as the country's most outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism. It also fueled the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Until ADL lawyers pressed officials to posthumously pardon Frank in the 1980s, the case was hushed in Atlanta's synagogues, the homes of Old Marietta, and among Phagan's descendants.

Though granted, the pardon was less than conclusive. Now, in a summer that has seen Southerners wrangle with the best-known symbol of the region's embattled past, Lebow and others want to re-open a chapter some would prefer to let be.

But their effort to right history, as they see it, has renewed charges that, in doing so, they are unfairly trying to rewrite it.

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Soon after Dan Cox turned a Civil War-era hotel into the Marietta Museum of History, he knocked on the door of a 96-year-old resident, who regaled him with stories until Cox asked about Leo Frank.

"You could see the iron curtain fall," Cox recalls. "I said, 'Why won't you tell me?' But she said, 'We were told not to talk about it,' and they never did."

Even so, actors and academics, reporters and playwrights have repeatedly delved into the story.

Frank, raised in New York, ran a factory in industrializing Atlanta. In 1913, Phagan, her hair in bows, stopped to collect her pay.

That night, a watchman found her bloodied body in the basement. Police arrested several men before settling on Frank, who proclaimed his innocence. His conviction rested on the testimony of a custodian, Jim Conley, a rare case of a black man's word used against a white defendant.

Frank's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a climate of anti-Semitism had resulted in an unfair trial. The court upheld the verdict, 7-2. In 1915, Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank's sentence to life. A furious crowd hanged the politician in effigy.

Months later, a group of Marietta men took Frank from prison. On Aug. 17, they hanged him outside town. Nobody was ever charged.

"The Frank case was like a lightning strike," says Steve Oney, who wrote "And the Dead Shall Rise," a 2002 book on the case. "Everything in the South stood briefly in relief and then it was dark again."

Substantial evidence points to Frank's innocence, Oney says, but "there are imponderables that are always going to be imponderables."

And so the century-old case stays alive.

The ADL is marking the anniversary with a push for Georgia to pass a hate-crime law. In nearby Kennesaw, the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History is opening a Frank exhibit. A musical about the case, "Parade," is being re-staged in Atlanta. The Georgia Historical Society is bringing Oney to Marietta to talk about the case.

And on August 16, Lebow will lead a memorial service at which he and some current and former Georgia Supreme Court justices plan to call on state lawmakers to declare Frank's exoneration.

"This is a story that won't go away," says Cox, 76. He leads the way through exhibits detailing Cobb County's past - Cherokees banished on the Trail of Tears, Confederates and their Unionist neighbors. The only nod to the Frank case is a single placard and an old historical marker.

"I don't want to minimize the event," Cox says. "But it needs to be put away, like the flag, in its proper place."

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When Roy Barnes came home after losing re-election as Georgia's governor, a fascination with the Frank case followed him.

Barnes, 67 and raised on a Cobb County farm, recalls the hush around Frank's name and how, as a legislator, he borrowed books on the case from the state library to pass time when debate dragged. Among details that surfaced: The lynching party included Cicero Dobbs - grandfather of Barnes' wife, Marie. Other lynchers included a judge, a former mayor turned state prosecutor, a leading lawyer, and the scion of one of Marietta's wealthiest families. They're all long gone, with many descendants who acknowledge what happened.

But Barnes says some people tell him that, while they agree Frank didn't get a fair trial, he was still guilty.

Barnes is certain that's wrong. But the Frank story needs to be studied to remind people of the dangers of mob rule "so that we never let that happen again."

Reminded that he lost the governorship in no small part because he pushed to eliminate the Confederate battle flag from the state banner, Barnes paraphrases the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

"You know, the arc of history does bend toward justice," Barnes says. "And for Leo Frank, justice hasn't been given yet."

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Just off a gravel road in North Georgia's hills, Mary Phagan Kean opens a room filled with family photos and files detailing the life and death of a 13-year-old girl a century ago.

"She's my history. History is what makes you who you are," she says.

Phagan Kean was 13 herself when a teacher asked if she was related to the girl murdered at the National Pencil Co.

Her father confirmed she was the victim's great niece, sparking years of research that produced a book and confirmed Phagan Kean's certainty of Frank's guilt.

When the ADL sought Frank's exoneration, Phagan Kean's protest saw the pardon limited. When a historic marker was proposed for Phagan's grave, she asked for wording making clear the pardon was based on the state's failure to protect him, "not Frank's innocence."

That marker, now retired to the Marietta museum, was replaced by one Lebow lobbied for, noting only that Frank was pardoned. Phagan Kean bought the empty plot just below Phagan's a few years ago. If Lebow and others keep pushing, she says, she'll erect her own marker, reminding visitors of the verdict.

"They're swaying the truth their way," says Phagan Kean, a retired teacher who acknowledges anti-Semitism played a role, but only in the lynching.

She and Lebow voice frustration over each other's repeated insistence.

Phagan Kean, noting she's long dismissed inquiries from white supremacists seeking to publicize the case, says she acts as her namesake's voice because "there's nobody to protect her but me."

And Lebow, noting that time has taught Jews the danger of forgetting the past, recalls hearing about the case at a Kiwanis meeting years ago and realizing he had, by accident, become Leo Frank's rabbi.

"We've got to be the memory of this guy," he says, "because no one else wants to be."

Imagine this: A city government takes $65 million in public money and buys up more 1,300 units of aging but affordable housing, which is home mainly to low income and minority residents. It demolishes the housing, and plans to sell the land to private developers for office and retail development.

A pretty cut-and-dried case of gentrification and displacement, wouldn’t you say?

Or maybe it’s a tale from the bad old days of “urban renewal” when cities fought poverty by bull-dozing “blighted” neighborhoods?

Actually this story is unfolding now, in one of the nation’s largest metro areas.

But while it seems that every move in the gentrification battles in Brooklyn and San Francisco is broadcast nationally, this egregious case of direct government displacement is being ignored. Maybe if it happens in the suburbs and doesn’t involve hipsters, it isn’t worthy of media attention.

Here are the details: Last month Mayor Steve Tumlin of Marietta, Georgia sat at the controls of an excavator and took the first swipe at knocking down the Woodlands Park Apartments. The city of Marietta, just outside Atlanta, has acquired – and demolished, or plans to demolish – four apartment complexes on Franklin Road containing more than 1,300 apartments. The demolition is funded by a bond issue approved by city voters in November 2013 by a 2,740 to 2,307 margin. The city has additional bond money and is in the process of acquiring more apartments, with plans to demolish them as well.

(Top: The entrance to Woodlands Park Apartments as it appeared in 2011. Bottom: The shuttered complex in May 2015. Source: Google Maps.)

Marietta officials take a dim view of the apartment complexes on Franklin Road on the city’s southeast side. They describe it as a blighted, high crime area. US Senator Johnny Isaakson said: “I go by Franklin Road as fast as I can every day.”

(If Marietta is a familiar name as a flashpoint for the problems of low income citizens living in suburbs, it should be. You may recall the case of Raquel Nelson, a single mother of three, who was convicted of manslaughter when she and her children were hit by a drunk driver when crossing a suburban highway from a bus-stop to their home.)

One Atlanta commentator described the project as removing ten “ancient” apartment complexes and “ushering” the residents to different locations. Most local citizens echo this view. The mayor sees it as clear cut opportunity to assemble land and develop new business. The city feels that it spends a disproportionate share of its tax revenues providing services to the neighborhood. One “benefit” of the demolitions, then, is lower enrollments at local schools. In just the past year, school officials reported a decline of 250 students from the Franklin Road area.

The project has produced little outcry. One of the few outspoken opponents is a local resident, Marty Heller, who argues that the demolitions are “class warfare”: “The people who voted for it want to eliminate the population on Franklin Road and raze the apartment complexes and replace it with commercial development. They want to eliminate the poor people on Franklin Road, they want to get the Hispanics out of the school system so that their test scores will go up, and it will make it easier for the school system.” The bond measure’s proponents respond that they are helping the poor who are now “trapped in high density crime-ridden slum like apartment complexes.”

What happens to the former residents of these apartments is far from clear. They will have to find housing elsewhere, and their children will have to be educated somewhere else. The demolitions are substantial, amounting to about 10 percent of all the multi-family housing in Marietta. The city says it will help relocate residents, but in press accounts at least, details are scant. Whether residents can continue to afford to live in Marietta, and whether students will end up in some other school district, doesn’t seem to be the city’s chief concern.

The apartments in question date from the 1960s, and when they were constructed were a desirable location for young couples and singles in suburban Atlanta. But as the region has sprawled and the the apartments have aged, they’ve gradually moved downmarket. Apartments.com reports that the Marquis Place complex – which the city plans to acquire and demolish – offers 1 to 3 bedroom apartments for rents of $660 to $940 monthly.

It’s interesting to look back at the history of the neighborhood along Franklin Road. We’ve assembled some data from Brown University’s Longitudinal Tract Database that tracks Census data from 1970 through 2010. We examined data for Census Tracts 304.11, 304.12, and 304.14, which include the apartments in question. In 1970, when the apartments (and most of the housing in the surrounding areas) were still quite new, this was a high income, predominantly white area. The poverty rate was just 4 percent, and the median household income was about 70 percent higher than the national average. In each successive decade, the economic status of the area has slipped. Today, the poverty rate in these tracts has increased to 28 percent – just shy of the 30 percent threshold we use to define neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and median household incomes are about 25 percent below the national average.

Over past four decades, the racial and ethnic composition of this neighborhood has changed even more dramatically. In 1980, the residents of these three Census Tracts were nearly 95 percent white. Today, only 14 percent of the residents are non-Hispanic whites. The area’s population is now four-fifths persons of color: about 52 percent black and about 30 percent Hispanic.

As we’ve pointed out before, public interest in gentrification seems to be highly focused in just a few large – and generally liberal – metropolitan areas. The poster children of gentrification are hipster neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Washington, San Francisco and Portland. The data and scholarly research on the subject show that even in these areas, displacement is far less than imagined, and previous residents are less likely to move away from gentrifying neighborhoods than non- gentrifying ones, and benefit from neighborhood improvement.

Still, the narrative about urban gentrification is full of vitriol and conspiracy theories: city officials, in league with banks and developers, look to exploit poor neighborhoods. Often these theories overlook, or entirely discount, the growing demand for urban living, and the shortage of housing and neighborhoods created by restrictive single-family zoning. So it’s a bit surprising that no one calls it “gentrification” when the demolition of affordable multi-family housing and the displacement of low income residents is the explicit, stated strategy of a local government.

That no one uses the term “gentrification” to describe Marietta’s plan to purposefully de-populate the low income residents of the Franklin Road apartments says a lot about how we think about poverty, class and place in urban areas. It’s apparently acceptable for suburbs to actively discourage – and in this case, actually relocate – low income renters. This is may be a by-product of our obsession with neighborhood change in just a handful of neighborhoods in New York, San Francisco and Chicago: we don’t even notice when the absolute worst-case scenario of low-income displacement for private development takes place in a major metropolitan area, because it doesn’t fit the sexy narrative we’re used to. By pretending this sort of thing only happens in Brooklyn or the Mission, we leave the low income households who used to live in these now-demolished Marietta apartments vulnerable to very real displacement.

What’s next for Franklin Road? Marietta officials are hoping to persuade the Atlanta Falcons to build a new practice facility for their professional soccer team on 50 acres formerly occupied by hundreds of apartments.

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