Former Bowen Homes residents recall events from Oct. 13, 1980, when a gas boiler explosion at the Gate City Daycare left five dead.
A gas boiler explosion at the Gate City Daycare on Oct. 13, 1980, left five dead, shaking the close-knit Bowen Homes community. (Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center)

The day was normal, as far as Venida Harris could remember. 

On the morning of Oct. 13, 1980, she was a fifth-grader in class at A.D. Williams Elementary School, across the street from the Bowen Homes housing projects in west Atlanta where she and her family lived, off the former Bankhead Highway, which has since been renamed Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. 

The Bowen community, one of Atlanta’s largest low-income housing communities at the time, was close-knit and filled with love, like any family would be, Harris said.

“My neighbor or my mom would walk all the kids to school on a daily basis,” Harris recalled. “I remember going to school with me and my friends, we got to school, did everything normal as a child. Just a normal, average day.”

But Harris said life quickly changed after the ground began to shake in her classroom that  October afternoon. That day, a gas boiler explosion at the neighborhood’s day care, Gate City, led to the tragic death of five Black people — one teacher and four young Black children. At the time of the explosion, 82 children were inside the facility. The elementary school Harris attended also received a bomb threat that day. 

“We just heard a shaking, like the whole ground just shook. Nobody knew what it was,” Harris said. “When they realized what had happened, everybody was just running. … I remember coming down the steps and my second-grade teacher, Ms. Price, fell. She was like, ‘Just go, kids.’ They were trying to get us in a safe place until our parents could come and get us”

43 years later, Capital B Atlanta spent time with former residents to learn more about what it meant to call Bowen Homes “home,” how their sense of community was threatened and changed forever and what the following days, months and years have looked like since the tragedy.

The beginning of a new life

Built in 1964, Bowen Homes was part of the Atlanta Housing Authority’s Low Rent Housing Program. Named after Bishop John W.E. Bowen, the project would become the settling site for more than 4,000 Black people who were displaced as a result of the razing of Buttermilk Bottom, a legacy Black Atlanta neighborhood, to make way for the construction of the Atlanta Civic Center.

Duwon Robinson’s family was among the first wave of residents to call the new complex home after settling in the community in 1967.

Growing up in the ’80s at Bowen Homes, Robinson recalls the community as a family-oriented place before public health crises like the crack cocaine epidemic rolled in. But, at the time, Robinson says the community’s biggest concern was protecting children at the peak of the Atlanta Child Murders. Beginning in 1979, approximately 29 Black children, teens, and young adults were kidnapped and killed across Atlanta, sparking local and national attention until the case was closed following the arrest of a 23-year-old Atlanta native, Wayne Williams.  

Williams is currently serving a double life sentence at Telfair State Prison after he was convicted on two counts of murder associated with two adult victims. He was never convicted in connection with the 22 child deaths, but in 2021, the Atlanta Police Department reopened its investigation, citing new technology related to DNA testing.

“Everybody was making sure the kids got home safe,” Robinson said. “Other people were helping out with other kids, making sure they were home safe or watching over just making sure kids ate.”

But life was still fun, Robinson said. Gate City, the day care located at the center of the complex, was a beacon in the community for all its residents, he said. 

“When you are in the projects, anytime you can get somewhere and play music and dance and have a good time is a big deal,” Robinson said. “So that’s what that day care was mainly for after hours, after all the kids got out of there — it was like the event hall space.”

Jamekia McMullen, Venida’s daughter, echoed Robinson, saying that life in Bowen Homes was centered around children, with everyone welcoming one another as members of one’s own family through community-focused events like basketball tournaments and socials. 

“Cars were always lined up and down the street,” McMullen told Capital B ATL. “Everyone’s always … buying the kids snacks from the ice cream truck, giving them dollars.”

Life was good, Robinson said, “until that day.”

One October afternoon in 1980

At the time of the explosion, Robinson was 3 years old and one of the 82 children present in the facility at the time. He says family members have told him about the day and speculation about why the tragedy occurred in the first place. 

“When it happened, it sent shock waves all through the community because at that moment, you’re already on eggshells due to the Atlanta Children Murders,” Robinson said. 

Just a short 4 months after the explosion, 13-year-old Curtis Walker, a seventh-grader at A.D. Williams, was reported missing on Feb. 19, 1981. His body was later found in the South River near River Road in DeKalb County on March 6. His death marked him as the 21st victim in the rash of killings. 

He lived in an apartment on the same street as the day care.

Harris said that in the weeks, months and years that followed, the explosion tore apart the close-knit nature of the community and the sense that it looked out for its own. 

“It broke the family relationship,” Harris said. “People started moving out of the community, going to different places.”

Robinson said fear and uncertainty was rife among residents. Many wondered if the explosion was truly an accident or a targeted attack during a time of racially motivated violence and unrest across the city that he attributes to Bowen Homes’ aid in reelecting Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1978, and APD’s legacy association with the Ku Klux Klan.

“Bowen Homes was the biggest voting base at the time,” Robinson said. “Our parents and grandparents had just got displaced from Summerhill and Buttermilk Bottom. That added tension on top of the fact that we can’t trust the white police.”

As a result, Robinson said, many were left feeling unheard by the officials they helped elect as the community continued to speculate on whether the gas boiler explosion was the result of a bomb.

“When this happened, to not have the support of your police chief, mayor, and city council, it led the people to believe that … we got to police our own community,” Robinson said. “They were telling us they saw two white guys out there earlier pretending that they were working on the boiler. I was in there. … That wasn’t an explosion of a boiler. That was a bomb.”

The day care was later rebuilt in its former location in 1981. 

What’s next for Bowen Homes

Following the explosion, Bowen Homes was eventually demolished in 2009. The complex was the last large family housing project operated by the Atlanta Housing Authority, and its razing made Atlanta the first American city to completely do away with the concept.

In July, the AHA and the city of Atlanta announced that they received a $40 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to revitalize the former site of Bowen Homes. The ambitious plan for the redevelopment of Bowen Homes promises a revitalized and thriving future for current and former legacy residents, according to AHA.

“This grant will be transformational for the Bowen Choice Neighborhood, as public and private resources are combined to create new affordable housing, improve neighborhood amenities and provide new opportunities for current and former residents,” Eugene E. Jones, president and CEO of Atlanta Housing, previously said in a written statement.

The entity, which oversees more than 26,000 properties citywide, is one of eight recipients of the grant that has paid out $370 million nationwide. Atlanta’s dollars will specifically be used to transform the barren site into mixed-use development that boasts retail, green spaces, civic amenities, and high-performing schools.

“The City of Atlanta and Atlanta Housing Authority have demonstrated their commitment to neighborhood revitalization, having undergone a comprehensive planning effort to redevelop Bowen Homes and the entire Bowen area,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said in a statement when the news was announced. 

The funds will also cover revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods of Carey Park, a portion of Almond Park, along with the neighborhood-related segments of Donald Lee Hollowell and James Jackson parkways and, collectively, be known as the Bowen Choice Neighborhood.

Robinson has been an instrumental and vocal part of community engagement around the project, joining forces with other former residents who have asked the city, AHA, and HUD to authorize funding for a memorial to commemorate the lives lost in the explosion as a part of the redevelopment. 

There has been some pushback from local stakeholders who say the project is not reflective of its promises to create truly affordable housing for the legacy residents, Robinson said.

“I’ve been getting calls and meeting with people that don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Robinson said. “They think it’s all media driven and lies once again about how many affordable units are going to be there and what is actually going to happen.”

In its current state, the project promises 2,000 residential units, with 825 apartments marked specifically for Atlanta residents who make 80% or less of the area median income An additional 251 apartments are also marked for people making under 60% AMI. 

The first phase of the development is expected to be completed in 2025, with the final phases pushing until 2032.

If possible, Harris and Robinson agree that they would return to their neighborhood — if the project delivers what it has promised. 

“I wouldn’t mind going back just to be part of it,” Harris said. “The community, from what I see and visualize, it would be a beautiful community and to bring history and to revitalize, I think that’d be great.”

For McMullen, the sense of family that was created at Bowen Homes decades ago, before the explosion, is worth returning to the neighborhood. 

“Bowen Homes was really a community,” McMullen said. “It was one big family, and it was a beautiful thing.”

Sydney Sims is the community engagement reporter for Capital B Atlanta. Twitter @bySydneySims