The historic district dominated by Auburn Avenue, once known as “the richest Negro street in the world,” spiraled into decline in the 1980s. In 1992, the National Trust added Sweet Auburn to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Although the residential portion of the Sweet Auburn Historic District has enjoyed a distinct turnaround – thanks largely to the efforts of the Historic District Development Corporation – the commercial area concentrated on Auburn Avenue has not fared as well. Without a preservation-focused revitalization plan, deterioration and inappropriate development may gravely impact its historic character.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, Sweet Auburn is a prime example of the flourishing segregated neighborhoods founded by African Americans during the Jim Crow era in the South. The neighborhood was home to countless businesses, congregations, and social organizations, and was the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. The house in which he was born still stands at 501 Auburn Avenue.
- Craft and implement a plan to revitalize the commercial area around Auburn Avenue.
Ways To Help
Written by Karen Nickless, Project Manager
Earlier this month I attended the National Main Street Conference in Atlanta. The conference was headquartered at the CNN Center, but with Atlanta’s new streetcar system, Sweet Auburn was just a short ride away.
On Monday, March 30, Trust President Stephanie Meeks, gave a speech at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change (located in Sweet Auburn) titled “It’s Time to Tell the Whole Story.” She extolled the value of simple places that have had a role in America, such as the Pullman neighborhood in Chicago and, of course, Sweet Auburn.
I spent some time in Sweet Auburn by myself, but I wasn’t alone. As a historian by training, I tend to see things that are not always visible except to the mind’s eye. For me, the people who built Sweet Auburn are still there, clambering to tell their stories. We only have to listen.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is omnipresent in Sweet Auburn, where he was born, grew up and preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church. As I walked by I could almost hear his soaring rhetoric, but I also pondered the mystery of his mother, Alberta King’s, death. In 1974 she and a Deacon were killed by a man who rose up from a pew and shot them. He never explained why. The King Center is a tranquil place to ponder such violence and the sad fact that many of the same problems remain. Coretta Scott King, who founded the Center, is buried at the King Center with her husband. Their monument is surrounded by a pool of peaceful water.
There are older voices to be heard in Sweet Auburn. John Wesley Dobbs (1882-1961), often called the “Mayor” of Sweet Auburn or simply “The Grand,” was the first to call Auburn Avenue “Sweet Auburn.” His nickname “The Grand” came from his position as Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons and he was a main mover in raising funds for the still-impressive building. His voter registration drives led to a large block of voters willing to support him and the black agenda. He was successful in persuading Mayor Hartsfield to hire a handful of black police officers (who only patrolled black areas and couldn’t arrest whites) and for the installation of streetlights on Auburn Avenue.
On his walks in the business district, John Wesley Dobbs could accomplish all his business. He could get a haircut and a shave, go shopping, eat at a restaurant, go the bank or his insurance agent’s office, listen to the sound of music and smell the aromas from restaurants, all African American owned. Many of the buildings he walked by are still there, some restored and some not yet. The buildings tell his story and that of other long-gone residents of Sweet Auburn. In 1973, Dobb’s grandson, Maynard Jackson, became the mayor, not of Sweet Auburn but of all of Atlanta.
Of course, even historians immersed in the past need food, and the “foodie” in me craved not just fuel, but good food. One of the issues in Sweet Auburn has been that when visitors (a million a year) come to the King Center or the National Park Service’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site it’s been difficult for them to find lunch or a cup of coffee. That is changing every day. At the Sweet Auburn Curb Market colorful fruits and vegetables from local farms are surrounded by a diverse selection of foods, from Venezuelan to down home Southern.
One of the newer additions to the food scene in Sweet Auburn is Sweet Auburn Seafood. There is only one way to describe Sweet Auburn Seafood—it is cool. Cool in a 1940s movie way. Jazz playing in the background, a cool bar with signature cocktails such as the Sweet Auburn Renaissance, delicious seafood.
I could go on and I apologize to the people, restaurants and bars I missed. Go take a look yourself. Just don’t forget to stop by Chef Sonya’s Sweet Auburn Bread Company and get some muffins for the road home.
The effort to revitalize the Sweet Auburn Historic District in Atlanta took an important step forward this week. A developer purchased the historic Atlanta Daily World building on Auburn Avenue on Wednesday and plans to turn the site into a mixed-use space. The building housed the 86-year-old African-American-owned daily newspaper before the publication moved to East Point, Ga. The new property owner plans to begin revitalizing the building in six months.
We are working to help make this project a catalyst and model for more preservation and reuse projects in the historic district. The National Trust is collaborating with our local partners in Atlanta to plan an event at the Daily World building and contribute to the creation of a vibrant Main Street corridor on Auburn Avenue.
Take a long weekend and head to Sweet Auburn Historic District in Ga., the former home of Martin Luther King, Jr., for their 2013 Sweet Auburn Springfest. This outdoor event runs from May 10-12 and is the largest festival in the Southeast, attracting thousands from across the country. The festival includes food, entertainment and a variety of street vendors. For more information visit http://www.sweetauburn.com/.
Senior Program Officer, Teresa Lynch, of the National Trust Main Street Center wrote a blog detailing the work that has been done in the Sweet Auburn Historic District thus far.
Sweet Auburn Works
The working group for the Sweet Auburn National Treasure which consists of National Trust staff, Trustee, Trustee Emeritus, Partner, an Atlanta City Councilman, and a Fulton County Supervisor conducts weekly conference calls in coordinating the vision of revitalizing the historic commercial district with its historic integrity intact. After two visits to Sweet Auburn and many phone calls with stake holders, Teresa Lynch, senior program officer with National Trust Main Street, produced an assessment report. The report which was distributed to every stake holder within the historic district was the focus of a meeting held on Thursday, January 31, 2013 which was attended by an enthusiastic and standing room only crowd. Additionally, the group was addressed by Anwar Saleem, Executive Director of H Street Main Street in Washington, DC. The successful H Street Main Street experienced some of the same opportunities and challenges that Sweet Auburn has, now and will experience, including the addition of a street car.
The newly formed Main Street organization has incorporated within the state of Georgia as Sweet Auburn Works with the non-profit status filed and pending. Sweet Auburn Works is an organization that will guide the revitalization process, develop a strategic plan, promote neighborhood assets, and encourage reinvestment in business and property development, while also protecting the historic character of the neighborhood.
The focus is now crafting a fundraising plan to raise startup funds that can hire an executive director and sustain Sweet Auburn Works for the next three years. This is timely because the infrastructure is currently being laid for the streetcar project which is expected to boost economic activity in the neighborhood by drawing visitors from Centennial Park to the King National Historic Site.
Written by Joseph McGill, Project Manager
I’m Joseph McGill, the National Trust’s project manager for the Sweet Auburn Historic District. I’ll be providing frequent updates as we work with the Historic District Development Corporation, Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, Atlanta Preservation Center, and others to save the historic commercial district of Sweet Auburn.
Joining David Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust, on Auburn Avenue on June 6 for the official announcement of the 2012 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places was a true testament of the need to preserve Sweet Auburn’s place in history. A subsequent meeting with stakeholders reinforced the grassroots support and urgency necessary to revitalize this historically-significant commercial district with its integrity intact.
Over the years, the National Trust's involvement has proven successful in Sweet Auburn. Local preservationists leveraged a 1992 listing as an endangered historic place to successfully revitalize Sweet Auburn’s beautiful residential neighborhoods. That same energy is beginning to take root today in the revitalization efforts for the commercial district through the opportunities presented by a new listing as an endangered historic place and the designation of Sweet Auburn as a National Treasure.
the Alexander Family on July 18, 2012
Our family has owned the Odd Fellows buildings - Atrium and Tower, located on Auburn Avenue for more than twenty years. For most of those years we have solicited the support of the city to invest in businesses on Auburn Avenue, cleaning up dilapidated buildings, making absentee landlords accountable, and providing adeqaute public safety. Those pleas fell on deaf years and now here we are...endangered of disappearing..or, having to sell historically black owned buildings to Georgia State University who is buying (with the help of the State of Georgia), every piece of property along this corridor.
Andy Grabel, Washington, DC on June 06, 2012
Atlanta neighborhoods have experienced many facelifts over the nearly 150 years since the Union Army burned the city to the ground. But Sweet Auburn Historic District has remained a symbol of the city’s thriving African American community in the decades following Civil War. I first visited Sweet Auburn as an elementary school student, and its special significance has stuck with me ever since.