From Firebombs to Parks: An East Lake Atlanta Woman's Lifelong Fight
Riding the bus from a public housing development to the richest neighborhood in Atlanta changed Shannon Heath Longino’s life.
Longino was just two weeks old when she moved with her grandmother to East Lake Meadows, a newly built public housing community at the easternmost edge of Atlanta.
They were the second family to move into the 650-unit complex in 1971. At first, everyone was pleased with the new development, with its grassy front yards and roomy interiors. But problems soon emerged.
East Lake Meadows’ grassy front yards were neglected and turned to mud. The plumbing was poorly designed, and sewage flooded homes. And the most basic human needs were out of reach: The nearest supermarket and hospital were miles away, and many residents didn’t have cars. “You had to take two or three buses just to get groceries,” says Longino. Her grandmother wasn’t about to take these indignities sitting down.
The go-to of the community
You can’t mention East Lake Meadows without talking about Longino’s grandmother, Eva Davis. She was everyone’s go-to when times were tough, often providing fellow residents with clothes and food. She was elected president of the tenants association, led voter registration drives, and initiated rent strikes to get better living conditions for the community.
Davis was known as the outspoken advocate for her community, fighting—and even risking her life—for better living conditions. When Davis realized some children in Atlanta weren’t given the same educational opportunities as the children of wealthier ZIP codes, she took her concerns to court, suing the Atlanta public school system and helping launch the first majority-to-minority busing program in the city in the mid-’70s. This meant Longino was bused to Atlanta’s wealthiest school district.
Learning to level the playing field
It was that daily bus ride from a public housing development to Buckhead, the richest neighborhood in Atlanta, that changed Longino’s view of the world.
“I went to school in Buckhead from K through 12,” she says, “and I was able to see the different worlds in one day.” As the school bus wended its way through various neighborhoods, “each day was a reminder to me how the demographic quickly shifted. You went from poverty to wealth. Every day it was in your eyes.”
While her bus ride made Longino aware she was on an uneven playing field, she leveled that field by embracing the educational opportunities available, learning multiple languages, and playing several instruments. But the social path was not so smooth.
“You’re not fitting in at school because people knew where you came from,” she says. “Then you go home, and you’re kind of an outsider because you’re not fitting in there either.”
Longino got comfortable with being different. Her grandmother told her, “You have to learn confidence, and you’ve got to learn that doing what’s right isn’t always going to be popular.”
Fighting firebombs with a bullhorn
Longino’s grandmother knew well the discomfort of doing what’s right even if it makes you unpopular. Twice, her apartment was firebombed by drug dealers who opposed her attempts to improve East Lake; they’d be out of business if East Lake got cleaned up. Her response? To get on the back of a pickup truck, grab a bullhorn, and announce, “You’re not gonna shut us down.”
Davis continued her quest for a better East Lake through the 1980s and ’90s, even working with Jimmy Carter to help improve East Lake, as the crime rate skyrocketed. Postal workers were too scared to deliver the mail. “There were decent families there who had no control over the circumstances in which they found themselves,” says Longino.
After high school, Longino joined the Army and then attended college. But she came back to her community just as a plan was forming to dismantle East Lake Meadows and build new, mixed-income apartments in their place.
Longino became the youngest member of that planning committee, working alongside her grandmother from the inception to the redevelopment’s completion. The East Lake community finally began its $125 million residential remake in the late 1990s, with the support of the Atlanta Housing Authority, East Lake Foundation, and developer Tom Cousins, and other public and private partners.
Tearing down hell, living in paradise
The change to the East Lake community is nothing short of transformational. The original buildings were completely razed, and new apartments and townhomes were put in to create the Villages of East Lake, a mixed-income community. The surrounding neighborhood now boasts parks, restaurants, a golf course, and even a YMCA. Violent crime went down by 90%, and employment levels skyrocketed to 70%. In 1995 the average cost of a house in East Lake’s neighborhood was $45,000. Today the average home value is $260,000.
Davis was alive to see the transformation, and she remained a resident of East Lake until her death in 2012. She once said, “They tore down hell, and they built heaven. And now we’re living in paradise.”
Continuing to serve is her passion
Once the new community was established, Longino found her first job in affordable housing, and she has worked in that realm ever since. It’s been more than a career—it’s her mission. Her list of professional designations, the agencies at which volunteers, and the awards she’s received are testament to her dedication to advocating for the empowerment of low-income families.
Longino is chair of the Institute of Real Estate Management’s (IREM) Federal Housing Advisory Board, and she’s on the board of the Rockdale County chapter of the United Way of Atlanta. She received the IREM’s REME CPM of the Year award in 2019. And she was recognized by the PGA Tour Championship for her role in the redevelopment of East Lake and for coordinating with the tour to become a community partner in low-income neighborhoods throughout the U.S., resulting in more than $100 million in donations in support of racial equality and inclusion.
Today Shannon Heath Longino is a senior vice president at Truist Community Capital, the affordable housing division of Truist. She’s heavily involved in volunteer work, including serving as vice chair of Charles R. Drew Charter School, which is located directly adjacent to the Villages of East Lake. The school has an Eva Davis Board Room and has awarded 25 Eva Davis college scholarships.
“Shannon was that stakeholder who was cross-cutting because her history in East Lake is undeniable. And long after Shannon moved out of East Lake Meadows, she’s remained engaged and connected,” says Danny Shoy Jr., president and CEO of the East Lake Foundation, established in 1995 to create new opportunities for the families who live in the rebuilt neighborhood. “Shannon is a diamond who’s been forged by fire.”
A deep caring for others
Like her grandmother before her, Longino is the go-to of that community.
“When things go wrong in the Villages of East Lake, Shannon is the person that a lot of the original residents call. They knew Shannon as a child,” says Shoy. “It’s never just about her, and that’s one of the many things I admire about Shannon. As she works to keep her grandmother’s memory and legacy alive, Shannon’s built one of her own.”
The transformation of East Lake has served as a model for other struggling neighborhoods across the country. Carol Naughton is CEO of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit established in response to the success of East Lake that helps other communities make similar changes.
Naughton is a big fan of Longino.
“Shannon’s commitment is driven by a deep caring for other people,” says Naughton. “Like her grandmother, she’s driven to create opportunities. She knows neighborhoods can be springboards to launch children into a positive orbit. Shannon’s advocacy and leadership continue to support an ecosystem in East Lake that’s designed to help every person thrive.”
Longino’s passion for helping others thrive aligns with Truist’s purpose to inspire and build better lives and communities. “That was one of the selling points in my interview,” she says, “when they told me how involved they were.” In fact, they’ve played a role in enhancing East Lake: Truist has financed the YMCA in the East Lake community, and the bank served as a lender for a recent multimillion-dollar upgrade to the Villages of East Lake.
Not surprisingly, the legacy of caring is now emerging in Davis’s great-grandchildren as well. With her husband Damon, Longino has three grown children: Caleb, Corbin, and Cklya. Shoy has seen this firsthand.
“Her twin boys and her daughter also have this unwillingness to quit. They have this ‘We don’t give up’ spirit about them,” says Shoy.
Like Longino herself, Shoy finds it hard to talk about one generation without the other. But he adds: “It’s a natural thing to talk about Shannon as Eva Davis’s granddaughter. But I’ve been so glad to watch Shannon be intentional about honoring her grandmother yet create her own legacy.”
Case in point: In 2018, Longino was instrumental in getting the street East Lake Boulevard Southeast renamed. Its new name?
Eva Davis Way.
Read more On Purpose stories about how Truist teammates are living out our purpose, mission and values to serve our clients, teammates and communities.