Commentary: Atlanta’s neglect of the Sweet Auburn district is a civic shame


A century or so ago, if a black resident of Atlanta wanted to stop for a drink after work, he’d have to go to the basement of a saloon, or sit behind a curtain or screen in the rear of a bar. Jim Crow laws, which controlled everything from what African Americans could wear (no capes) and how they got to upper floors of the Candler Building (the freight elevator), kept the races from sharing a cold beer or shot of rye side by side.

However, if our hypothetically thirsty Atlantan stopped by the Vendome Lounge at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Piedmont in the early 1900s, he could sit at the front of the room, watch passersby, and enjoy not just a beer or bourbon, but a Champagne cocktail, the latest craze imported from New York. “There are no screens or discriminations,” promised ads that ran in the Atlanta Independent touting the establishment run by Charley Moseley, the only legally licensed black bar owner in Atlanta in 1906.

Auburn Avenue evolved into the center of black Atlanta business, cultural, and civic life in the early to mid 1900s as strongwilled entrepreneurs like Moseley overcome the forces of legal and de facto discrimination and built a thriving community. (If you want to learn more about the area’s roots, I recommend Allison Dorsey’s rich history To Build Our Lives Together, UGA Press.)

Yesterday, at the intersection where the Vendome once stood, a press conference was held to announce that Sweet Auburn had been named one of 2012’s “Most Endangered” historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That would seem like good recognition of the area’s importance in Atlanta—and America’s—history. Except that the National Trust made the same announcement twenty years ago, placing the historic district to its list in 1992. Naming something endangered might draw attention to its plight, but that attention doesn’t generate will to act. At least not in this city.

In the intervening two decades, a big chunk of the residential stretch of Auburn Avenue (those beautifully restored shotgun shacks and Victorians near the King birth home on the eastern edge of the district) has been preserved and restored, thanks in large part of the efforts of the Historic District Development Corporation (HDCC) and its visionary founder Mtamanika Youngblood. I suspect efforts have been buoyed by the spotlight on the area due to the millions of tourists visiting the King district.

But the commercial stretch of Auburn Avenue is still in decay. And decaying. The National Trust statement says that “inappropriate development” is a threat. That may be part of the story. But the real threat is decay through inertia.

I live nearby and walk that stretch of road frequently. It’s a mess of boarded windows, graffiti covered walls,  broken sidewalks, and scattered struggling businesses. For every building that’s being saved—like Odd Fellows hall—there are a half dozen collapsing or bulldozed ones.

When the 2008 tornado damaged the Atlanta Daily World building, the city should have rallied with a “Save the World” campaign on par with the “Save the Fox” effort of the 1970s. When the historic Atlanta Life headquarters (shown right) was named to the Georgia Trust’s “Places in Peril,” list in 2010, the business community should have gotten together to raise cash to preserve a monument to capitalistic success.

Atlanta should preserve the district for the right reason: it’s an important piece of our city’s history.

But if nothing else, image-focused Atlanta should preserve the area for the pragmatic reason Atlanta has done so many other things: the way it makes us look to the rest of the world. When those tourists who visit the King crypt and historic Ebenezer walk a few blocks west, they will see that Atlanta is treating this corner of town with neglect that is far too close to the attitudes of a century ago.

If we want to live up to that “too busy to hate” label, we need to get busy doing something about Sweet Auburn. Those endangered structures aren’t going to hold out another twenty years.