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Life returns – slowly – to MLK’s old neighborhood

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Atlanta Streetcar is part of city's efforts to revitalize historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood

While the area rebounds, some are concerned about gentrification

Atlanta CNN —  

Jackson McGrady Smith Jr. remembers the first time streetcars rolled through the streets of Atlanta, connecting his African-American neighborhood on Auburn Avenue to the seat of white leadership downtown.

Not that he had much use for them growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, when Jim Crow ruled the South and restricted where African-Americans lived, worked and socialized. Besides, Smith says, he had just about everything he needed up on Auburn Avenue, then the center of black life in Atlanta. In 1956, Fortune magazine dubbed it the “richest Negro street in the world.”

When the last streetcar rang in 1949, Auburn Avenue and other parts of the Old Fourth Ward brimmed with black-owned grocers, banks, churches, cultural institutions, restaurants and offices. The trolleys returned in late 2014 to serve a different group.

Today, an electric streetcar shuttles tourists from downtown Atlanta to Smith’s old stomping grounds – now a separate neighborhood from Old Fourth Ward called Sweet Auburn – and the nearby King Center, which pays homage to the neighborhood’s most famous resident, the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr.

Smith agreed to hop aboard the new streetcar on Thursday, a day before annual weekend-long celebrations of the civil rights leader kicked off. As the streetcar hummed past the funeral home where King’s body was prepared, Smith launched into his life story, pointing out landmarks from his childhood.

Smith’s journey from Auburn Avenue to Morehouse College to regional division manager of the Federal Aviation Administration is in many ways a realization of King’s dream of upward mobility for African-Americans.

The story of Auburn Avenue, however, and the Old Fourth Ward has not been as linear.

Jackson Smith Jr. was born and raised on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue.
John Nowak/CNN
Jackson Smith Jr. was born and raised on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue.

Much has been written about the decline of Auburn Avenue after desegregation, which led families and businesses to leave the neighborhood, and its struggle to rebuild. In the past five or six years, the narrative has taken a cautiously optimistic turn as new businesses and residential real estate open in the area and Georgia State University’s footprint in the neighborhood expands.

The streetcar has been touted as a crucial piece of this renaissance by bringing visitors to the area. What will they find when they get there?

Smith’s father owned the gas station at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jackson Street, where the family lived. Across the street is Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., baptized Smith at age 5 and presided over Smith’s wedding. Smith watched MLK grow from a young man known as M.L. to Rev. M.L., then Rev. King and, finally, Dr. King. As a teen, Smith mowed King’s lawn and inherited his old suits and wingtip shoes.

Today, the gas station is gone, replaced by a shopping plaza with a barber shop and a store selling homeopathic remedies, both popular with the seniors who live across the street in Wheat Street Towers. Ebenezer is still there, adjacent to the King Center, and King’s birth home is up the street. The landmarks are the main destinations for tourists disembarking at the King historic district. Due to its relatively high foot traffic, the streetcar stop attracts panhandlers offering tour guide services in exchange for donations to get them a bed at the Atlanta Mission. (For the record, an Atlanta Mission spokeswoman said it does not accept any form of payment to stay in their shelters.)

Down the road, derelict buildings now jostle for space with new hipster bars, upscale restaurants and cafes, embodying tension between past and present in an area experiencing gentrification in some parts and stalled development in others.

An irrepressible booster for Atlanta – “the most beautiful city in the world” – Smith proudly holds himself up as a product of Atlanta in the civil rights era, as well as Ebenezer and “Daddy King.”

Will today’s residents of King’s neighborhood benefit from the same supportive environment? Smith has his doubts.

“I think Dr. King would be disappointed in the poverty that’s still showing up on Auburn Avenue,” he said, slowly choosing his words, as the streetcar rolled through the Georgia State campus.

“He would be disappointed in all the violence that still goes on and the crime. He would’ve thought that we would’ve advanced more toward peace and liberty and respecting everybody’s rights. I know we’re not there yet.”

What would MLK’s father, “Daddy King,” make of it?

“He believed in entrepreneurship. ‘Daddy King’ would be disappointed at the slow economic development that we’ve been able to take advantage of,” he said.

Change for the better?

A ride down Auburn on the streetcar bears testament to Smith’s concerns, as well as signs of progress. Plenty of business owners share the entrepreneurial spirit of “Daddy King” along Auburn and Edgewood Avenues. But for every mom and pop shop, there’s a crumbling storefront or empty lot serving as a reminder of what the neighborhood used to be and could be again.

History hides in plain sight; blink and you might miss the explanatory signs hanging on poles and historic plaques on sides of buildings. One block from Smith’s childhood home – past Atlanta’s two oldest black-owned funeral homes, a fast-food seafood joint and a convenience store – is the Masonic hall that was home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s first office and its new Atlanta headquarters. Around the corner is a restored Madam C. J. Walker salon, featuring antique hair care products.

Separating the businesses from the historic cluster is a dilapidated building and a desolate lot offering a view of the former site of the Wheat Street Garden Apartments (not to be confused with the Wheat Street Tower). The homes were a unique partnership between nearby Wheat Street Baptist Church and the city to provide affordable housing to low-income families displaced by urban renewal policies that replaced slum housing with stadiums, civic centers and highways – including Interstate 20 and the I-75/I-85 connector.

Today, it’s home to a community urban garden, which started in 2010 and has proved sustainable through community farming initiatives.

In winter months, however, plants in the ground and barren trees on the lot don’t offer much of a view. On Thursday, a former resident of the apartment happened to be visiting the neighborhood with her daughter and stopped to take it in.

Donyale Printup left the neighborhood for Stone Mountain in 2007, one year before the buildings were demolished. She has fond memories of growing up with her extended family in the homes. But when drugs became rampant in the late 1990s, she decided it was time to leave.

Kasey Printup, 19, lived on Auburn Avenue until her family moved away in 2007.
John Nowak/CNN
Kasey Printup, 19, lived on Auburn Avenue until her family moved away in 2007.

She’s happier in Stone Mountain, where it’s quiet and “I don’t have to worry about all the noise,” she said. Her daughter, 19-year-old Kasey, misses the energy of the city.

Printup said that something needed to change on Auburn but that the neglected buildings are barely an improvement.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if they got a Target or Ross or somewhere nice to shop? The little trolley comes through, but there’s nothing to do. If people are coming here from all over, they should have something to see,” she said.

“I’m just overwhelmed by all the changes,” she added, “but the thing is, what are the changes for?”

Ricci de Forest, proprietor of the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Shoppe Museum, remembers when his salon looked onto the Wheat Street Garden Apartments, recalling with fondness the tight-knit community of extended families living among drug dealers and “crack addicts.”

Ricci de Forest stands by his collection of vinyl inside the famous Madam C.J. Walker Museum.
John Nowak/CNN
Ricci de Forest stands by his collection of vinyl inside the famous Madam C.J. Walker Museum.

A professional stylist who moved to Atlanta in the 1980s, de Forest was enchanted by the abandoned storefront with the salon’s original signage miraculously preserved. Even better were the antique hair care products left behind.

He moved his salon into the shop about 10 years ago and put the antiques on display, transforming the space into a time capsule. On the other side of the room, vintage vinyl fills tall shelves. When he learned that the space above the salon in the Prince Hall Masonic Temple was home to WERD, America’s first black-owned radio station, he was inspired to revive the call numbers and start a radio show.

He said he brokered an understanding with the drug dealers and users that led to peaceful coexistence. Streetcar-related construction was a bigger disruption to his business before it started running in late 2014, he said.