After decades of neglect, Inman Park is being painted, polished, swept and sanded back into the kind of neighborhood where people want to live.

Developed in the 1880s just outside Atlanta's city limits, two miles from downtown, Inman Park attracted wealthy families who built large Victorian homes. Smaller homes were built later as development expanded.

But as more distant suburbs attracted the wealthy, Inman Park began a long decline. By the 1950s, many of the big old homes had been bought by absentee landlords -- "slumlords," according to today's residents. Many homes were divided into as many apartments as the owner could squeeze in; upkeep was minimal.

Inman Park's recovery is a tale of people eager enough for clean, comfortable, in-town living to fight city hall, the statehouse and Washington to get it. And its metamorphosis -- symbolized by a butterfly on the neighborhood banner -- can be traced in part to a soggy, cold November day in 1968.

Robert Griggs was in Inman Park that day to appraise stained glass in the home of a local judge fighting condemnation of his stately old house for a highway that was to split the neighborhood. One of the houses caught his eye.

"It was very decayed, but still very proud. It was just romantic beyond hope," he said. And like most of the old homes in the neighborhood, it also was a wreck.

The big oak doors of the three-story, Queen Ann-style house were nailed open. The hallway was "like a public street," Griggs recalled. Kids were playing basketball in it; derelicts wandered through it.

The front yard was a sea of red mud. Broken glass, three abandoned cars and great piles of garbage littered the back yard.

But Griggs saw hints of beauty that defined the ravages of neglect: a handsome, curving main stairway; oak and mahogany floors; flowers carved in some of the woodwork.

"I fell instantly in love with the house," he said. He told a real estate friend he wanted to buy it. His friend told him he was crazy. But he bought it anyway.

Gradually others followed his example. A wave of renovation -- in its final stages today -- began.

The first banner used by this group of urban "pioneers" -- a red flag with a white stripe -- later was replaced by the butterfly. Almost unnoticed in the butterfly are the silhouettes of two faces: one looking backward at the neighborhood's past, the other looking ahead to its future.

Today, butterfly banners hang from windows or flutter from porches throughout the roughly three-by-eight-block neighborhood.

Many of the early renovators were far from rich. When they arrived in the early 1970s, they had no assurances their investments ever would pay off. What they sought was in-town living in homes they liked enough to overhaul.

But Inman Park's restoration during the 1970s involved more than just fixing up houses.

"The fabric of the community had disintegrated," Griggs said. People just were not working together, he remembered.

Besides the threat of the proposed highway, the neighborhood was beset by zoning regulations that discouraged families owning homes, a high crime rate, rubbish everywhere, rats, and the refusal of many local financial institutions to make loans at normal rates to Inman Park property owners.

"It was a slum -- any way you cut it," Bill McMurry, a longtime resident of the area, said.

Virtually every problem that can face a neighborhood was faced by that neighborhood," Joe Drolet, an assistant district attorney in Atlanta and past president of Inman Park Restoration, said.

IPR, which Griggs helped form in 1970, is the neighborhood improvement organization that became the focal point for volunteer resident action to reclaim Inman Park as a decent place to live.

Assessing one of the major Inman Park victories -- getting the city to zone the neighborhood for less density -- IPR activist Holly Mull said: "Looking back, I can't believe we did it. It was crazy, but it worked -- and other neighborhoods followed suit."

She and others organized meetings with hundreds of property owners to develop a land-use plan. This was presented to the city council along with the signatures of many homeowners endorsing the plan. The "slumlords" opposed it, she said. After heavy lobbying by the neighborhood organization, the Atlanta City Council in 1973 endorsed the plan. Inman Park zoning was changed from primarily low- and high-rise apartments and industrial to low-rise apartments and single-family or duplex homes.

That same year, much of the oldest part of Inman Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places, again after hard work by local residents.

Today the neighborhood is home to about 1,700 people, according to preliminary U.S. Census figures.

Ten years ago, the census showed 3,148 persons living in the area in 1,276 homes or apartments. But that may have been an undercount, said a Census Bureau official here. Getting everyone to respond to census questions is difficult in crammed, inner-city neighborhoods such as Inman Park was, the official said. (more)