McCarty seen as consensus builder CA head evolved from activist to manager

July 12, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- In one of her last public appearances here, Atlanta Parks and Recreation Director Deborah O. McCarty faced controversy over a plan to build a stone path atop a pretty knoll in historic Piedmont Park.

She could have led the meeting about the park, but stayed in the background. That was vintage McCarty, and exemplified the approach she'll bring next month to her new job as president of the Columbia Association.

In a career here that has taken her from community organizer to the City Council to chief of parks and recreation, McCarty has developed a reputation as a quiet conciliator and consensus builder: not a charismatic leader, but someone who develops loyalty by answering the phone and taking care of details.

The move to Columbia, where she will be the planned community's equivalent of a mayor, will complete a personal transformation for the 45-year-old McCarty -- from inner-city activist to suburban soccer mom.

"Debby came here like most of us -- energetic, idealistic and bent on changing the city," said Bill Adams, a longtime community activist and real estate agent in Grant Park, a historic neighborhood where McCarty started her political career -- a white woman representing a mostly black district.

"Then, we all had kids and moved out to the suburbs. The land of wall-to-wall carpet, mini-vans, soccer moms and sameness," he said.

McCarty said of her career: "I started out as a neighborhood volunteer and ended up as a politician, an administrator and then a mom. It's all coming full circle."

Columbia Council members say the management skills she developed in running one of Atlanta's most neglected departments made her attractive for the CA president post -- a $125,000-a-year position running one of the largest homeowners groups in the country, overseeing a $44 million budget for the closest thing Columbia has to a town government.

She will replace the only president CA has ever had, Padraic Kennedy, appointed to the post 26 years ago. As the council talked about finding a successor, its members wondered if Columbia no longer needed a visionary activist in the job, but instead was ready for a professional manager. In McCarty, they seem to have found someone who has moved from one role to the other.

A native of Houston -- the daughter of an electrical engineer and a housewife -- McCarty graduated from Southwestern University Georgetown, Texas, and came to Atlanta as a VISTA volunteer. "I grew up thinking you just participated in your community," she said.

Saving a neighborhood

She worked with a group trying to save the neighborhood of Grant Park, one of the first to attract preservationists in a city that at that time had little interest in saving anything from its relatively brief architectural history.

"We were all renovation-minded, young, naive dreamers," said Eileen Rhea Brown, founder of the Atlanta Preservation Center.

As James Rouse was trying to turn rolling farmland into a diverse, economically balanced community some 600 miles to the north, McCarty had bought a dilapidated bungalow in crime-infested Grant Park.

She led the effort to improve housing codes for the elderly,

launched community groups to encourage people to invest in their neighborhoods and renovate abandoned houses, and lobbied for zoning that protected homes from commercial development.

She and several other newcomers to Grant Park stood in front of a bulldozer to stop the city from tearing down a historic home with housing code violations. They saved the house.

'A lot of compassion'

"She's got a lot of compassion for neighborhoods," said the Rev. Houston Wheeler, a community organizer and head of the Southern Ministry Network in Atlanta.

McCarty helped establish a nonprofit real estate entity that used its commission fees to start a federal credit union and food co-op in the neighborhood.

The accomplishments of those years are McCarty's fondest memories.

"I think the best thing any of us could do is to affect the neighborhoods we live in," she said. "That has been my own little piece of the world."

In 1977, at 25, she was urged by her fellow activists to get into politics. McCarty quit her job helping to end housing discrimination in the city -- she was associate director of Neighborhood Housing Services, a private agency -- and launched a door-to-door campaign for a seat on the Atlanta City Council.

She ran as a Democrat against an incumbent black Republican leader in her majority black district of 35,000. With little money, she spent a sultry summer knocking on every door in Carver Homes, one of Atlanta's largest housing projects.

Railroad tracks divide the district, which covers the southeast corner of the city, from Turner Field to the airport.

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