An artist's rendering shows the Big Bethel AME Church/Integral Group's proposed $45 million project for the Sweet Auburn section of Atlanta.
By Louise Chu
updated 7/16/2004 3:39:38 PM ET 2004-07-16T19:39:38

Rows of pictures and artifacts tell the story of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and a commercial haven for blacks from the 1920s to 1950s.
But step outside the exhibit at the King national historic site, and the Sweet Auburn of today seems far removed from its past.

Activists have tried for years to revitalize the area, but agree that battles over the direction of its rebirth have hindered significant progress.

“The pace has been painfully slow,” said Charles Johnson, founder and president of Friends of Sweet Auburn, a nonprofit group committed to reviving the area. “There have been many, many, many, many false starts.”

Knocking down buildings
Current efforts could meet the same fate.
A proposed $45 million commercial and residential project has been criticized because the developers want to knock down buildings in a nationally designated historic neighborhood.
“It’s a national registered district, which implies that it’s something important to the entire nation,” said Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. “They’re important buildings, regardless of what one’s taste may be.”

Others, like Johnson, say what the area needs is development.
“No one comes to Auburn looking for those buildings. They have no historical value,” he said. “The historical heritage spirit of Auburn Avenue is not so much in the dilapidated buildings; it’s in the people.”

Back in the neighborhood’s heyday, Sweet Auburn was dubbed by Fortune magazine as “the richest Negro street in the world.”
The Top Hat Club featured the likes of Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, the Atlanta Daily World became the first daily newspaper to serve the black community, and Alonzo F. Herndon, a former slave, built his Atlanta Life Insurance Co.

Longtime residents “talked about a real close-knit community, where everyone knew everyone,” said Melissa English-Rias, chief of interpretation and education at the King Historic Site. “They had the opportunity to live free from everyday harassment or having the cloud of segregation over them.”

Decline started in the 1960s
The area’s decline started in the 1960s, when desegregation allowed middle-class and wealthy blacks to move to other parts of Atlanta and highway construction cut through the neighborhood.

Businesses boarded up, and homelessness and crime spread through the area, until local activists stepped in to reclaim the once-vibrant community.

Housing preservation has been a priority for several decades — starting with the restoration of King’s birth home and the surrounding block in the 1980s — but recent efforts have put a greater emphasis on invigorating the business district on the west end of Auburn Avenue.
Georgia State University and the Butler Street YMCA have started mixed-use development projects, but the most contentious effort was spearheaded by Big Bethel AME Church.

The project would create about 150 condominium units and 27,000 square feet of retail space, and has riled preservationists because of plans to raze old buildings.

The Integral Group, Big Bethel’s partner in the project, has proposed the partial demolition of a block in the historical district, citing the exorbitant cost of restoration.
W.C. Howard, owner of the Georgia Insurance Brokerage, has seen development proposals come and go in the 34 years since he purchased his building in the heart of the old commercial district.

So when Integral approached him with the newest proposal for his block, Howard couldn’t hide his skepticism.
“Hey, here it comes again,” he said, with a bit of a smirk.
The 58-year-old Howard said he welcomes development in Sweet Auburn — but not at the expense of its history or its black-owned businesses.

Many have latched onto the models of Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., to transform Sweet Auburn into a leading tourist and entertainment destination while keeping its historic flavor.
Just how much of that flavor is up for debate.

“The entertainment piece of it is certainly worth trying to capitalize off, but there’s more than that,” said Mtamanika Youngblood, board chair of the Historic District Development Corp., which focuses on restoration and preservation.

Johnson said history could be holding Sweet Auburn back.
“We’re on the brink of the true revival of bringing Auburn Avenue back to its glory,” he said. “What these projects do is that they’re writing a new history.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments