Auburn Avenue is our most important street. Here’s what we should be doing
By King Williams
As we close out Black History Month, I think it’s time we show some love towards the most important street in Atlanta – Auburn Avenue. A few weeks ago, I co-led the Movers and Pacers Running Club’s annual Black History Month Youth Run on Auburn Avenue.
It was during this time, that I posted a video to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram detailing our day on Auburn Avenue.
This particular post and subsequent comments on my various social media accounts helped me realize I wasn’t alone in wanting to see more from Auburn Avenue.
What I’m most concerned about is Atlanta’s current development and gentrification trends are threatening the character of our most important street.
Auburn Avenue emerged as a center of black commerce following the 1906 Atlanta race riots, which left dozens of black people dead, hundreds more injured and the retail district around Decatur Street completely destroyed.
The race riots also caused dramatic shifts in population in the city of Atlanta as Blacks moved across the city. Black migrations further southward into current day South Atlanta, Peoplestown; westward, the Atlanta University Center area, West End, Cascade Road; and eastward, to now [Old] Fourth Ward, in the city.
This also led to one of the earliest known examples of “the Atlanta way of doing things,” a coalition of Black bourgeois and white business elites working behind the scenes to ensure Atlanta’s public face is never stained by social strife.
Partly because of the destruction of Decatur Street during the race riots, Auburn Avenue emerged as not only a stronger black central business district, but as one of the most important centers in the United States.
Throughout the next nearly 50 years, Auburn Avenue routinely received national attention for its success. Fortune magazine named it “the richest Negro street in America” in 1956.
But the urban renewal movements of the 1950’s, and interstate highway developments of the 1950’s-70’s would be a one-two punch that systematically destroyed Auburn Avenue.
Urban renewal efforts and interstate highways were explicitly developed in Black neighborhoods, permanently suppressing economic mobility. The ensuing expansion of the highways led to the white flight of Atlanta during that period, and Blacks moved to those formerly white neighborhoods.
Every year between 1950 and 1990, the city’s white population shrank from a peak of over 330,000 to under 140,000. During that same time period the Black population rose from 120,000 to over 260,000.
These migrations have been accompanied by decades of ‘Black Flight’ and increases of national Black in-migration waves into metro Atlanta. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the most economically-mobile Blacks moved further into South Fulton and South DeKalb. And after 2000, there was an influx of Black migration into Cobb, Gwinnett counties as well as the outer exurbs – following patterns of white flight.
Auburn Avenue throughout these periods has seen promises of revitalization with most not panning out. This has left Auburn Avenue in a precarious position as cars have made it easier to bypass the district as people have left the city for the suburbs.
Recently Atlanta has experienced its strongest uptick in economic activity and population increases since the 1950’s and 1960’s. I’m concerned about what will happen to Auburn Avenue. Most of the current buildings and surface-level parking (eye roll) are in a state of disrepair.
That makes it easier to demolish buildings and buy large lots, which benefit large developers. It makes the area vulnerable to developers who aren’t keen on historic preservation, economically-inclusive contracting and public input, often preferring gargantuan parking facilities and suburban-styled developments.
It is my hope that Auburn Avenue future revitalization will follow the tenets of historic preservation, density and good urban planning. I’d like to see Auburn Avenue be hub for newer black businesses, nonprofits and tech organizations within Atlanta.
I think this area would benefit by becoming a 24-hour district that is capable of hosting a variety of businesses, restaurants, nightlife and office spaces. Recently two new Black-owned spaces have opened – For Keeps Books, a rare Black bookstore and Sweet Stack Creamery, a new late-night ice cream and donuts desert – both offering the high-quality types of businesses needed on Auburn Avenue.
Also “the Guild” recently opened on Auburn and Hillard, serving as a social entrepreneurship vehicle for creative “changemakers.” The same building also houses the woman-only co-working space – Open For Business, which was created by Atlanta public relations trailblazer Dr. Nicole Garner-Scott.
While these show promise, there still are concerns. When Georgia State University purchased the former headquarters of the Atlanta Life Building in 2012, little has been done to highlight the historic nature of the building.
There are currently efforts on how to revamp Auburn Ave taking place with organizations such as Sweet Auburn Works and the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC). There is still much to be done and the current Tax Allocation District (TAD) funding was in a bit of a quandary as recently as last summer a debate on the Eastside TAD funds, to which Auburn Avenue was to be a recipient caused a bit of issues.
As that deal was tied into the then-underway Gulch deal, it caused issues – which eventually resulted in changes to the Eastside TAD.
It’s in my hopes that this revitalization prioritizes, no-parking lots, density in buildings including mixed use affordable housing and types of buildings.
I hope to see the restaurants be all local ownership including a third being owned by women, a third by first time owners and half of all being owned by people of color. I would like to see the retail, service contracts and office tenants of the new Auburn Avenue all be local proprietors as well with the same ratios as those of restaurants.
And lastly, most of the original historic Atlanta Life buildings along Auburn Avenue remain vacant. Though there is talks of one of the buildings being opened as a boutique hotel but no details of who will own that particular building. Here’s to hoping its Black Owned and historic preservation minded.
We need to bring new life to Auburn Avenue – activities that contribute to the street’s historic contributions while fostering an inclusive new urban community.