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Atlanta Avenue Of Black Culture To See Rebirth

City leaders plan renovation of district where King was born and business thrived

Atlanta's ``sweet'' Auburn Avenue is the third-most-visited national historic site in the National Park Service system, after Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty. It's also an area where buildings are boarded up, houses are falling down, and vagrants wander the street.

But now, the thoroughfare that Fortune magazine in 1956 called ``the richest Negro street in the world'' is about to get a make-over. Atlanta leaders and neighborhood groups hope to improve the area significantly by the 1996 Olympics, when an estimated 2 million visitors will stroll up and down its sidewalks.

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``Auburn was once a thriving, bustling, happy place,'' says Howard Spiller, president of the Sweet Auburn Area Improvement Association, Inc., a community-development corporation. ``We need to make it attractive again for people.''

In its heyday during the first half of this century, Auburn Avenue was the hub of black entrepreneurship and entertainment. It was here that Alonzo Herndon, a former-slave-turned- millionaire, founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Co., the country's largest black-owned stockholder life-insurance company. The At-lanta Daily World, the first black daily newspaper (see article below), started its presses rolling in 1928. the nation's first black-owned radio station, WERD, set up shop in 1947. Bookstores, groceries, pharmacies, banks, a business college, and other establishments filled in the storefronts. Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway were among the famous musicians who performed at the Top Hat, a local club. Auburn was also home to Martin Luther King Jr., who became pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The opportunities available to blacks here inspired black political leader John Wesley Dobbs to call the area ``Sweet Auburn.''

But in the 1960s, Auburn Avenue began losing its sweetness. An overhead freeway that bisected the community was built; businesses and residents moved out, and the area became dilapidated.

Today, scattered among the historic sites and boarded-up buildings are bars, beauty parlors, and insurance offices. Dilapidated homes, vacant lots, and housing projects surround much of the neighborhood. The main draw for tourists are the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and King's Queen Anne-style birth place, both about a half-mile from the avenue's commercial district.

Over the years, city and community leaders talked about renovating the area, but talk was never turned into action. The Olympics seem to have been a catalyst to initiate a revitalization effort.

The Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta (CODA) has put together a comprehensive redevelopment plan for two adjacent neighborhoods - the Auburn Street commercial district toward downtown and a residential neighborhood that borders it. The plan is a community-based effort that has the neighborhood's and the City Council's approval, says Clara Axam, president of CODA.

The plan includes the rehabilitation of 750 housing units, the building of 1,120 new houses and offices, and improved street and sidewalk infrastructure in order to attract private investors.

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IN addition, individual organizations have proposals for their own improvements or expansion that the CODA proposal supports. Ebenezer Baptist Church, for example, would like to build a sanctuary, and the National Black Arts Festival has been looking at establishing a permanent headquarters in the area. The African-American Panoramic Experience Museum, which has a small exhibit space on Auburn, is planning a larger facility.

Other projects that are part of the plan have already received funding and are under way or slated to begin:

* The National Park Service, which has been renovating the Martin Luther King Jr., preservation district since 1980, will spend another $11.8 million on the historic site. The money will go toward creating a visitor center, landscaping, and restoring homes. So far, about 18 of 27 houses have been completed.

* NationsBank and the city have allocated $2.6 million to the Historic District Development Corporation, a neighborhood group, to build 30 homes and rehabilitate 10 others on a residential street near the King district. The project is scheduled for completion in late 1995.

* A $7.7 million package of city and federal funds will be used for creating new sidewalks, a curbside market under the interstate, and other streetscape improvements. Construction will begin this spring.

Community leaders like Mr. Spiller emphasize that the revitalization effort must be considered more than a temporary touch-up. ``You have to talk about safety, the environment, housing, jobs, youth, senior citizens,'' he says.

``We've never had any illusion that we'd get all of this done by 1996,'' Ms. Axam adds. ``These are long-term plans'' that will continue for 10 to 15 years, she says.

To residents such as Paul Sherwood, a revitalized Auburn would be a welcome change. Mr. Sherwood, who has spent all of his 71 years in the neighborhood, lived here during its glory days. ``It used to have streetcars,'' he reminisces. ``We had a theater, several eating establishments, a library.''

According to Axam, the community lacks neither vision nor energy for the project. ``we're rolling up our sleeves and saying `How do we fund it?' '' she says. The community is seeking public- and private-sector money.

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