Let’s save Morris Brown before gentrification does it in
by King Williams
Despite the foul weather last Tuesday, I joined maybe three dozen others on the vacant campus of Morris Brown College.
We were all there standing in front of the historic Fountain Hall on the campus waiting for the unveiling of a new piece of public art for the university. The piece would be – a large format photo of the prominent faculty, scholars and contributors to what was then called Atlanta University.
This piece is the latest in Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado’s public art campaigns.
She’s widely known for her curatorial outdoor exhibitions on historic Black Atlanta on both the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside trail near Jake’s Ice Cream Shop – a 4-mile exhibit that touches from Monroe Drive to Krog Street Market. The exhibit contains important photos of Civil Rights icons such as Martin Luther King and moments in Atlanta’s Civil Rights history.
The new exhibition, a 17 by 8 foot photo, includes prominent figures in the history of black Atlanta including Adrienne Herndon, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Towns, President Horace Bumstead and E.A. Ware.
The work of Dr. Sims-Alvarado comes at a much-needed time as gentrification and lack of historic preservation have reached critical levels across the city over the last ten years.
While the piece itself is historically significant, its location provides a culturally relevant backdrop. Morris Brown, the location for this particular piece was even more interesting as it sits relatively vacant since 2002, when it lost its accreditation.
The vacant campus of Morris Brown College and the rest of the Atlanta University Center (AUC) sits on the westside and is just a half-mile walk to a slew of new developments taking place. From new properties in Castleberry Hill, the Gulch now named Centennial Yards, the new Hard Rock Cafe, the new Norfolk Southern headquarters revamp and the billion dollar Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The historic site of Morris Brown sits in the crosshairs of many wondering the school will remain as encroaching development and gentrification has surrounded the campus on all corners.
Morris Brown College has already lost the historic Jordan Hall to the YMCA of Atlanta,Vine City offices which destroyed over 80 percent of the building to make way for the building and it’s surface parking lot, despite being about 1,000 steps away from the Vine City MARTA Station.
This type of development is dangerous for historic places. It’s my fear that continued gentrification, combined with bad suburban planning and Atlanta’s penchant for kowtowing to developers will doom this campus, despite its incredible potential.
The college is one of the few multi-modal districts in Atlanta, as its interconnected by bike, bus, train, car, the highway and is Atlanta Beltline adjacent. Morris Brown and the entire AUC are nestled directly between the neighborhoods of Vine City, English Avenue, Ashview Heights, Washington Park and the 2019 poster child of gentrification in Atlanta, the West End.
We could do great things at Morris Brown, but its potential won’t be realized without strong economic and political leadership.
If the city and state political leaders are serious about leading the charge to promote affordable housing, historic preservation, inclusive economic development and revitalizing communities, it should start at Morris Brown. Their plans needs to should include the entire Atlanta University Center and the adjacent parcels of land and homes.
Mass scale-community redevelopment in Atlanta is hard to reach because of the challenges of scaling, proximity to multi-modal transit, basic density requirements and affordable housing. Morris Brown College and the entire land surround the AUC meets all of these requirements.
Because of its location and proximity to these elements, Morris Brown and the surrounding campus can be developed thoughtfully – it’s just a matter of political will. With careful planning, the city could turn the campus into a true community asset.
Nathaniel Smith, the subject of my last interview, said it best when it comes to Atlanta’s ethos for planning.
“People say that Atlanta is a “city too busy to hate” but it’s not too busy to plan. All we do is plan in this city. We have community benefits agreement plans, we have equitable development plans, we have affordable housing plans, so we do a lot of plans in the city but not a lot of policy in the city.”
“We need to begin the process of creating more policy that will enable the plans that we come up with because time is ticking away to truly build an inclusive city.”
And I couldn’t agree more. Let’s put action behind these words and let’s start at Morris Brown.