From Infamous to Famous: (Re)Constructing Atlanta’s Public Housing Through Rap and Hip Hop

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In a September 2010 review of the mixtape Bowen Homes Carlos for MTV’s Mixtape Daily, Shaheem Reid wrote: “Shawty Lo will continue to salute his projects until the day he goes to that upper room.” It is doubtful that Reid imagined that day would come almost exactly six years after writing those words. In the early morning hours of September 21, 2016, Carlos Walker, a.k.a. Shawty Lo or Bowen Homes Carlos, tragically died in a one-car accident on Atlanta’s I-285. Just as an image of Atlanta’s Bowen Homes public housing project lives on after its demolition in the cover art for Shawty Lo’s Bowen Homes Carlos and in the music video for “Dey Know,” the rapper will live on through his artistic creations.

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These are both screen shots from the video for “Dey Know,” parts of which are filmed in Bowen Homes.

In the music video for “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad),” released in 2000, a shirtless Andre 3000 stumbles out of a Bowen Homes apartment door and onto a lawn of psychedelic purple grass. Playing the role of a pied piper of the ‘hood, Andre 3000 sprints through the dream-like scene with a pack of children hot on his trail while the song, a drum and bass-heavy tune at a frenzied and energetic double-speed tempo of 135 beats per minute, plays and the brick buildings of the Atlanta housing project rise in the background. This track, from the album Stankonia, combines elements of electro, rock, jungle, gospel, and drum & bass music to create a truly new and unique sound, while the psychedelic visual treatment of Bowen Homes invokes Afrofuturism and offers the viewers an alternative vision of one of Atlanta’s infamous public housing projects. While some have described the imagery of the video as “so idyllic…it belies every story ever told concerning one of Atlanta’s most notorious housing projects,” the video, instead, offers the public an alternative understanding of Bowen Homes and Atlanta’s public housing beyond crime and decline.

Although scholars of public housing have examined the designs and policies that shaped public housing, they have given relatively little attention to an examination of how public perception of these places and their residents were shaped in the popular imagination. In addition, most of these studies end with the demolition of public housing and have not examined its “afterlife.” Music scholars have explored the ways that rap and hip hop provide a means of escape from poor living conditions and have examined how this music creates a particular identity for young, African American men. Others have situated the genesis of hip hop in the story of spatial changes in New York, Los Angeles and other American cities shaped by deindustrialization and Reaganomics in the 1980s. Still others have shown how urban space is a central discursive component of African American’s articulations of identity and worldview. However, less attention has been given to the role that rap and hip hop artists have played in reshaping narratives and perceptions of public housing projects and memorializing them by invoking these places in their lyrics and repeatedly featuring them in their music videos. While many artists reference and identify with the housing projects where they grew up, some of the best known examples are Nas and the Queensbridge Houses in Queens, Master P and the Calliope Projects in New Orleans, and JayZ and the Marcy Homes in Brooklyn.

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Beyond serving as a visual reminder of what Atlanta’s public housing looked like, these music videos and song lyrics provide an important tool for understanding how public housing is viewed by the public, constructing an alternative narrative and image of Atlanta’s public housing projects. Since all of the city’s public housing has been demolished, these videos and songs are important cultural artifacts that provide an opportunity to both analyze and commemorate this particular built environment and social program. Although the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) attempted to control the image of public housing while the housing projects were still standing, hip hop and rap artists have shaped the representation of these places since their demolition; these art forms replaced the AHA’s image of public housing’s failure with narratives of home, community, and triumph over adversity.

While the AHA relied on creating a vision of public housing that emphasized crime and detriment to residents in order to gain support for demolishing the projects, rap groups, while still recognizing that crime and violence were a large part of life in housing projects, also created the idea that these communities were foundational to their identity; they were places they were proud to call home and included elements beyond crime and violence. While the physical structure of Atlanta’s public housing has been destroyed, the lyrics and videos remain as cultural artifacts, widely circulated and consumed, so that the image that they create is the image of public housing that prevails. Although former AHA CEO Renee Glover described the plans to demolish the final public housing projects as “closing the final chapter on public housing projects,” the work of Atlanta hip hop and rap artists demonstrates that there was more of the story to be told. Atlanta’s emergence in the mid-1990s as what the New York Times called “hip-hop’s center of gravity” coincides with the AHA’s announcement of their plans to demolish all of the city’s housing projects, making it a place of primary importance in the study of the intersection of music and built environment and how the two work in conjunction to shape perceptions of place.

Cultural historian Murray Forman explains that part of what was at stake during the early period of recorded rap was not merely a retelling of ghetto stories, but recuperation and recasting of the meaning of black life in “the hood.” Forman argues that “the urban spaces most reviled by the mainstream and elite social segments are lived spaces where acts of atrocity and conditions of desolation and desperation are often matched by more promising conditions steeped in optimism, charity, and creativity.” Hip hop artists used lyrical references to public housing projects to cultivate meaningful articulations of their “place” in society – both in terms of situation and geography. The affection and connection these artists express toward housing projects echoes what public housing scholars such as Amy Howard, Sudhir Vankatesh, and Rhonda Williams have argued—namely, that despite the shortcomings and challenges faced by residents of public housing projects, residents formed tight-knit communities that allowed them to thrive politically, socially, and economically.

Through a careful analysis of these videos and songs, I want to offer an analysis of public housing that goes beyond the popular image of these projects as a failed liberal experiment or simply landscapes of crime and violence. The idea that America’s public housing projects were monuments to poor policy, bad management, and misdirected social programming is widely accepted in current political and academic discourse. While these songs and videos do tell of violence and crime and do not directly contradict the narrative that the AHA created as a means to gain support for demolition of public housing, they do offer a different version of the same story and contest the meaning of those events and conditions.

First, it is important to examine the rhetoric that the AHA began to employ in the 1990s. As in earlier time periods, the decisions about public housing were inextricably linked to the overall image of the city of Atlanta. These concerns, though always prevalent, became even more important as the city prepared to host the Olympics in 1996 and became acutely aware that the eyes of the world would be upon the city. Techwood and Clark Howell Homes, which were beset with images of crime and drugs and situated across the street from the proposed Olympic Village, were a potential public relations nightmare with the world media coming to town. Instead of attempting to change the conditions or the narrative that surrounded these troubled housing projects, the AHA decided that demolition would be the better option. These first two demolitions were the catalyst for a program that would lead to the demolition of all of Atlanta’s public housing in favor of mixed-income communities. The city set a new standard nationally hailed as “the Atlanta Model,” and former AHA CEO Renee Glover became an outsized figure whose efforts were praised by officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 2009, Glover was named the Urban Innovator of the year by the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute. AHA spokesman Rick White claims: “There’s not a city in the country that doesn’t look to Atlanta as a model for how to deliver affordable housing more effectively and in a more innovative way.”

Built in 1964, Bowen Homes was part of a sprawling complex of two-story, orange-colored brick duplexes, with an elementary school and a library located on 84 acres in northwest Atlanta off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Just after HUD approved the demolition of Bowen Homes, agreeing with the AHA’s assessment “that the 650 units were irrevocably deteriorated and obsolete,” Renee Glover wrote an editorial for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Glover explained that “the ‘projects’ had become islands of poverty and despair, where Atlantans were trapped in poverty, joblessness and poor education options and structurally locked out of mainstream America” and described Bowen Homes as “the poster child for concentrated poverty.” Indeed, the housing project was notorious for its crime. In 2007, Atlanta police responded to Bowen Homes for 20 robberies, 135 assaults, 83 burglaries, 39 drug offenses and 27 car thefts, and five homicides over a five-month period from July to November. These statistics and the five homicides specifically led to the AHA’s decision to move up the demolition date by almost a full year. Bowen Homes’ demolition was completed in 2011 and was the last of Atlanta’s housing projects to be demolished. Glover and the AHA offer only one, simplified narrative of public housing: the conditions were horrific and people could only succeed and enter mainstream society if and when they were liberated from this housing.

In opposition to Glover’s and the AHA’s one-dimensional image of public housing, OutKast’s images of the urban environment describe the ghetto in all its moral and cultural complexities. As an article in the Village Voice so eloquently puts it, OutKast demonstrates “that there’s more than one way to deal with life’s shit.” In “B.O.B.” there’s the image of a street thug taking on the responsibilities of being a father (“black Cadillac and a pack of pampers”). There’s also the image of a man who is about to start processing cocaine into crack in order to make some money (“a scale and some Arm & Hammer”). But there are also more light-hearted images that reveal that although the ghetto or public housing may not be a great place to call home, in the end, it still is home. One of the concluding verses invokes listeners and residents of these tough neighborhoods to keep a positive attitude (“thoughts at a thousand miles per hour/ hello, ghetto, let your brain breathe/ believe there’s always more, ahhhh!”). Big Boi urges the youth to do something positive with their lives: (“make a business for yourself, boy, set some goals/ make a fair diamond out of dusty coals”). He tells the youth that growing up in public housing is not an excuse.

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Public housing in general and Bowen Homes specifically were fertile ground for rap and hip hop artists. As cultural historian Jeffrey Melnick asserts, “There is no hip hop without the projects…the projects have provided a well of thematic materials and imagery that are central to the history of the form…from urban horror stories narrating life in the projects, to proud ‘shout outs’ to home turf, the projects continue to energize hip hop artists.” The use of Bowen Homes and other housing projects goes beyond a means of establishing an identity for these artists, an argument that has been made by other scholars.

This music memorializes the public housing that has been eliminated from Atlanta’s landscape and not only provides salient information about the physicality of these lost places but also an insight into what life was like for residents. From the origins of rap to present day, public housing or “the projects” have been a central lyrical and visual sign from record covers to videos. With the “death” or demolition of projects such as Bowen Homes, these videos and songs become commemorations.

OutKast demonstrates their connection to Atlanta’s notorious Bowen Homes but also attempts to present an imagined alternative for life in public housing by using elements of Afrofuturism in the music video for “B.O.B.” The term, first coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future,” draws together elements of astral jazz, African-American sci-fi and psychedelic hip-hop into an all-encompassing philosophy, which imagines alternative visions for the future. Ytasha Womack describes Afrofuturism as “the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too…It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to re-imagine the experience of people of colour.”

Running through the psychedelic reimagining of Bowen Homes, Andre 3000 provides the idea that escape is possible. At the end of his run, he jumps into the passenger seat of a waiting Cadillac while the pack of children who have been running after him watch as the car pulls away and leaves the projects behind. The video shows a physical escape, but the lyrics demonstrate that creating one’s own opportunities or rising to the challenges of life’s events can also provide a type of escape. OutKast exhibits an alternative vision for the future does exist for African Americans living in Atlanta’s impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.

At one point during his adolescence, Andre 3000 lived in apartments located across the street from Bowen Homes. When OutKast chose the housing project as the site for the 2000 “B.O.B.” video shoot, younger residents had a feeling of recognition according to Shirley Hightower, longtime Bowen Homes resident and former tenant association president. “They started thinking, we can do this, too,” she says. “Next thing you know it seemed like every rapper in Atlanta was coming out of there.” One such rapper was Hightower’s own son, Rasheed, who was a member of the group Shop Boyz.

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In the song “Bowen Homes,” released by the Shop Boyz in 2007, the group plays homage to the housing project as the place that they called home, the place where their friends lived, but also as a place that was beset with crime. The three members, Meany, Fat, and Sheed, each take terms rapping a verse in the somber, rhythmic song to give listeners their personal view of the housing project. The song begins with the refrain “Catch me in the brick/Bowen Homes, Bowen Homes,” and proceeds with verses about the group’s vision of their home. In one verse the Shop Boyz rap: “Aye you can catch me in the bricks/(in the bricks)/Bowen homes nigga/Sometimes I put my guard down/Cause I’m at home nigga/Neva alone nigga/Hood full of strong niggas/Woods full of bodies/Of them people coming wrong nigga.” These lyrics make no attempt to hide the dangers at the housing project, but the Shop Boyz explain that despite the dangers, they are at home there and even feel a certain sense of safety, enough to put down their guard. Going on to explain that their neighborhood is the “hardest” or most dangerous, they claim to be “ready for whateva” because at “Bowen homes we stick together/At the end of all this/Boy my hood is so strong.” The verse ends with “Shots out to everybody/That done came from Bowen homes.” The song concludes with “Yeah we from the hood/Where the shit ain’t all good/And gangstas leave u layin/The last place that u stood/Let’s get it undastood/U know I kick that real shit/It is what it is/And what it was/It still is bitch!” In the concluding idea of “what it was,” the Shop Boyz bestow Bowen Homes with an afterlife. The physical buildings are gone, but the spirit of community still lives and so too does the housing project in their rap lyrics.

When the Shop Boyz released this song, Bowen Homes was already slated for demolition, and the serious tone of the song reflects a sense of loss. While promoting his album, Bowen Homes Carlos, which was released on August 17, 2010, Shawty Lo described the project as “one of the most important mixtapes of my life because I took it back to where Shawty Lo first started. I kept it gutter. My projects have been torn down, rest in peace to the bricks. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly.” He continued about the Bowen projects being demolished, saying, “Good thing is, there was a lot of murders going on in Bowen Homes. The crime rate was high. It’s bad for the people who lived there and are unfortunate and do not have anything. There were no extra bills. Zero rent. Now they gotta get out there and try to make it. It’s getting harder and harder these days.” Shawty Lo reveals the complicated narrative that surrounded public housing projects such as Bowen Homes. The ways in which the housing project is called out and told to rest in peace adds to the sense that this is a place that is being memorialized.

Shawty Lo continues this memorialization in the cover art for his album Bowen Homes Carlos. Showing Shawty Lo and some scantily clad women, one of whom is draped on the hood of a bright red Porsche, along with the trademark Bowen Homes sign that marked the entrance to the projects, this cover shows a different side of the housing projects than OutKast did. Shawty Lo aligns more closely with both the stereotypical tropes of public housing as well as rap – weapons, cash, possibly from illicit activities or possibly the spoils of his music career, and the fancy sports car. Shawty Lo offers a narrative more typical to rap – the rags to riches ‘hood tale. Yet, he gives Bowen Homes a role of central importance in that story and keeps the project alive in his lyrics and in the album cover art. He also shows Bowen Homes in an imaginative light, invoking the idea of a “paradise lost” by framing the Bowen Homes scene with palm trees.

In a 2002 online article on the site governing.com which honored Renee Glover, the organization proclaimed: “Since taking over as AHA’s executive director in 1994, Glover has done nothing less than transform the way Atlanta, and much of the country, talks about public housing.” While Glover and the AHA transformed the way that Atlanta and the city talked about public housing from places that had the potential for rehabilitation to places whose only option was demolition, the impact of artists such as OutKast, Shawty Lo, and Shop Boyz has had a more lasting impact on the image of Atlanta’s public housing. These videos and lyrics remain as an important cultural artifact that immortalizes and memorializes the Bowen Homes public housing project long after it has been demolished. These songs and videos allow for the making and marketing of an identity of place as well as a voyeuristic opportunity for those outside of public housing to get a glimpse of what life in “the projects” was like. Public housing was not a place that non-residents visited. These videos and lyrics give their audiences insider information, which becomes all the more valuable with the complete disappearance of this building form from Atlanta’s landscape. At the same time, they also give agency to African American residents over the narrative that surrounds public housing. Thus, the AHA was not the only voice in shaping an understanding of these places; the voice of former residents lives on in song, providing a lasting monument to public housing and the last word on life in Atlanta’s projects.

Katie Marages Schank is a Fellow at Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. She earned her doctorate in American Studies at George Washington University and is currently working on a book project titled Producing the Projects: Atlanta and the Cultural Creation of Public Housing.

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