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Commentary: Can Atlanta save the World?
Our fair city’s romance with the wrecking ball and bulldozer is well documented. So it seemed like cause for huzzahs when the Atlanta Urban Design Commission denied a request to demolish the Auburn Avenue building that once was home to the Atlanta Daily World, the country’s first black-owned daily paper.
The Integral Group — a developer with a track record of working on urban projects, including the redevelopment of Grady Homes — planned to preserve the World’s facade and replace its guts with new apartments, affordably priced and presumably appealing to Georgia State University students. Critics said saving the façade wasn’t enough, and more than 1,100 people signed a petition protesting Integral and GSU (never mind that the school wasn’t formally associated with the project).
But the story’s more complex than a developer being thwarted by the outcry of plucky preservationists. Don’t get me wrong, I think the World is a crucial part of Atlanta’s past, and I want to see its home (shown above) preserved. The real problem, however, is far greater than one building. The World sits in the center of Sweet Auburn, a once thriving center of African-American commerce and a testament to perseverance under Jim Crow horrors. To honor that legacy, Atlanta needs to save more than one building. We need to save a couple blocks. Across the street from the World building sits the historic headquarters of Atlanta Life Insurance, the company founded by former slave Alonzo Herndon. That building has been vacant far longer than the World offices. Boarded up and overgrown, it was named to the Georgia Trust’s “Places in Peril” list in 2010.
The Historic District Development Corporation, the same group that circulated the petition against the World demolition, owns the Atlanta Life building (shown right). “I sat at work in my office at 145 Auburn Avenue looking at that building for ten years,” points out M. Alexis Scott, publisher of the Atlanta Daily World and one of the four family members trying to sell the World building. She’s not pointing fingers at HDDC; “they don’t have resources, either,” she notes quickly.
Scott and her staff vacated the World building when it was damaged by the 2008 tornado. They tried to figure out how to restore the structure and move back in, but “there was nothing we could afford to do,” she says. The World moved to East Point while Scott looked for ways to renovate the building — “the tornado damage raised environmental issues like asbestos and mildew that our insurance didn’t cover” — before reluctantly concluding she had to sell. “We were hit by the recession and changes in the industry,” says Scott. The granddaughter of World founder W.A. Scott, she also had to sell her family’s paper; it was acquired in March by Real Times Media, which owns historic black papers such as the Chicago Defender.
Integral was the second prospective buyer for the World building. The first deal fell through because of lack of financing. The Integral purchase had been contingent on approval for its development plans, so now Scott and three family members who co-own the building are back looking for buyers. When I asked her what her dream scenario would be, she said: “Someone to buy the building, restore it, and let us rent out the bottom half.”
(A detail lost in the drama is that 145 Auburn isn’t even the paper’s original home. When the World was founded, it was at 210 Auburn, a building owned by Big Bethel church that also housed legendary Citizens Trust bank. In 1971, Big Bethel demolished that building to create apartment homes. The World moved up the street, and Citizens Trust moved to Piedmont Avenue, in a building that was since bought by — wait for it — Georgia State.)
“The Atlanta Daily World Building has served as a flashpoint that raised awareness and brought to everyone’s attention not just this particular building, but the entire street,” says Jesse Clark, executive director of HDDC.
Sweet Auburn was declared a National Historic Landmark site in 1976, but since then, more than a dozen structures have been demolished. HDDC does admirable work to slow that kind of destruction. Its mission is to preserve and redevelop the area in a way that is sensitive to its history — without displacing longtime residents. When asked what his dream scenario would be, Clark said development and preservation that would “leverage the cultural value that brings 600,000 people a year to the district” while “creating jobs and opportunity.”
Last Friday, my husband and I walked up Auburn Avenue, a trek we regularly make from our home on Boulevard to the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Just a block past the spiffed-up, tourist-packed King Center and Ebenezer Baptist church, you run into boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. There’s trash everywhere. People sleep under the highway overpass. The few new or renovated buildings seem to be mostly vacant. “John Lewis for Congress” signs cover up some of the empty windows and storefronts.
At 145 Auburn Avenue there’s a historic marker denoting the building’s place in journalism history. Standing in front of that building, I knew what my dream scenario would be. I’d love to see Atlanta do more than sign petitions. I’d love to see a real “Save the World” campaign to raise cash to save that landmark in the way the 1970s “Save the Fox” effort rescued the theater. I’d want to see that “Save the World” effort extended, preserving neighboring structures like Atlanta Life and the rest of Sweet Auburn.
If that happened, we’d be doing more than saving national historic treasures. We’d be preserving the heart of Atlanta. You can’t put a price on that.