The community of East Lake, a neighborhood just east of downtown Atlanta, has a storied golf history. Links legend Bobby Jones learned to play at East Lake Golf Club in the 1920s — long before the club and the surrounding area fell into hard times.

And they were extremely hard times. A public housing project called East Lake Meadows became the focal point of the neighborhood, which began to face what seemed to be insurmountable challenges. Crime and the school dropout rate skyrocketed while income and employment rates plummeted. The area was nicknamed "Little Vietnam" because it was considered a war zone. Community statistics from just 20 years ago are startling:

  • The crime rate was 18 times the national average. The average family could expect to be the victim of three felonies every year.
  • Annual income was about $4,000 a year with about 60 percent of families on welfare.
  • Only 5 percent of students could pass the state math test and the dropout rate was almost 75 percent.
  • The employment rate (employment, not unemployment) was only 14 percent.

In 1993, local real estate developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins read a story in the New York Times that said nearly two-thirds of the men in the state's prisons came from just eight neighborhoods. He asked the Atlanta police chief if the same held true for his city and found that it was only two or three neighborhoods that delivered the most inmates — and the worst by far was East Lake.

Cousins set out to change that statistic, and one of the first things he did was purchase and restore the East Lake Golf Club. Then he created the East Lake Foundation to run a $120 million community revitalization.

How golf came back into play

Golf became an important part of the changes. The TOUR Championship is now held at the East Lake Golf Club, attracting the biggest players in the game every fall. The tournament may bring the famous names, but it's kids in the community who have changed the conversation. The First Tee of East Lake is the local chapter of a national golf instruction and life skills program that teaches character-building values such as honesty and integrity while teaching the game of golf.

Of course some other changes were easy to see.

East Lake housing projects and apartments then and nowThe housing project was razed and replaced with a 542-unit apartment complex. But the goal was not about gentrification and revitalizing the community with new people. Former residents were encouraged to move back in if they met a few requirements. They had to be working or enrolled in school, 30 percent of their earnings had to go toward rent, and everyone over the age of 16 had to pass a criminal background check. Half of the units were rented at market rate to middle-income families.

When the rundown school was replaced with the state-of-the-art Drew Charter School, golf became part of its fabric, included in regular PE classes, as well as activities before and after school. Drew originally served only younger children, but in July, Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy opened, setting in motion the community's cradle-to-college education plan. Today, students take golf lessons and go on golf outings during the summer and on weekends, often meeting up with professional golfers and corporate executives. The program has produced strong junior golfers who have gone on to compete, often earning scholarships for their skills.

The PGA Tour Championship donates several million dollars each year to charity; the primary beneficiaries are the East Lake Foundation and The First Tee.

By the numbers today

These days, as the East Lake Foundation celebrates its 20th anniversary, the statistics show that the area's revitalization has been jaw-droppingly successful.

  • Violent crime is down 95 percent.
  • Only 5 percent of residents receive welfare (and they are all elderly or disabled).
  • Three-quarters of students now pass the state math test.

Eva Davis, former head of the East Lake Meadows' tenant association, worked with the foundation on the revitalization. They way she sums up the transformation puts it in perspective:

"They tore down hell, and they built heaven. Now we are living in paradise."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

How golf helped transform one Atlanta community
As East Lake morphed from 'hell to paradise,' golf was the game-changing thread.