Back in 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district to its list of the country’s “most endangered” historic places. Much bemoaning of Atlanta’s fondness for the wrecking ball followed—just as it had in 1992, the first time that the Trust sounded the alarm on the precarious status of one of the most influential locations in African American history.
Despite the outcry, things slid into even further disrepair on Auburn Avenue, the street where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, former slave Alonzo Herndon ran a multimillion-dollar insurance business, and Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, and Little Richard paid their musical dues. The district had been clobbered by the 2008 tornado and suffered disproportionately during the recession. It didn’t help when Atlanta Streetcar construction dragged over-schedule, leaving sidewalks in smithereens and storefronts blocked. Business owners struggled to stay afloat; Devon Woodson of Pal’s Lounge closed during the construction, while Sonya Jones of Sweet Auburn Bread Company reduced her store hours.
With bars like Church and the Sound Table serving as catalysts, a smattering of businesses have arrived on Edgewood Avenue, which runs parallel to Auburn. But the street that is so central to Atlanta’s civil rights history has generally remained blighted.
Still, this spring brings a few glimmers of hope. In March, renovation was completed on the Atlanta Daily World Building at 145 Auburn Avenue, a circa-1920 brick structure that once housed the country’s first black daily paper. Battered by the tornado, the two-story building was at risk of being at least partly demolished to make way for student housing. The Atlanta Preservation Center and other groups fought to protect the structure, and the Sweet Auburn–based Historic District Development Corporation organized a petition drive. But it remained vacant and in unstable condition. “It was an albatross, frankly,” says M. Alexis Scott, publisher emerita of the Atlanta Daily World.
In January 2014, the Scott family sold the building to real estate developer Gene Kansas. “I was skeptical that it could be saved; it was in pretty bad shape,” Scott says. But Kansas invested $1 million in the building, working with Gamble and Gamble, an architecture firm whose projects include the Tabernacle (a church turned concert venue). The Daily World Building now houses two 1,250-square-foot apartments (monthly rent: $1,950) and two lower-level retail spaces—leased by Condesa Coffee and Arden’s Garden juice shop. Condesa’s presence brings the building full-circle; from 1918 to 1934, it housed Virgil Coffee Co., a roaster.
A block east, entrepreneur Peter Thomas is spending $1 million to update the Black Lion Building and an adjoining lot, which this summer will open as Bar One Auburn Avenue, a new incarnation of his Memorial Drive spot. “I’m bringing Bravo’s TV cameras and millions of viewers to Auburn Avenue,” says Thomas, whose wife Cynthia Bailey stars on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” A native of Jamaica, Thomas says he was “puzzled” when he first witnessed the condition of the street. “To me, as a black man in America, the most significant black man in history is Martin Luther King Jr., and I couldn’t understand why just four blocks from the King Center it looked like a war zone, buildings falling down and drug dealers on the corner.”
A few doors down, at Sweet Auburn Seafood, which opened in late 2014, Sammy Davis Jr. (that’s just a namesake coincidence), former personal chef for Lil Wayne and contestant on the Food Network’s cooking competition “Chopped,” offers a crowd-pleasing menu (shrimp and grits, lobster mac and cheese). The restaurant also attracts diners with Thursday night jazz and R&B. Meanwhile, the storied Royal Peacock lounge is undergoing a million-dollar upgrade and will soon house two clubs: Swig and M-Bar.
For these and other would-be Sweet Auburn redevelopers, the typical risks and hassles of operating in a transitional, historic area (crime, limited parking, ancient utilities) are accompanied by the burden of living up to Sweet Auburn’s legacy. “It is not lost on me,” said Kansas when I called him a few weeks before the Daily World Building’s grand reopening, “that we would not be having this discussion if it was not for thousands of other people who have been working for decades on preservation, the folks who fought to preserve civil rights history, the National Trust, the 1,100 people who signed the petition, and many more.”
Yet that legacy is fraught. Now-legendary institutions clustered on Auburn Avenue because of Jim Crow. Today, Scott points out, Herndon’s business, Atlanta Life, operates in the 191 Peachtree high-rise. That address would have been off-limits for her family and other Sweet Auburn pioneers, she says. “The fight for desegregation was a double-edged sword. It released the confines and the boundaries, and people went elsewhere.” That exodus—coupled with highway construction—hastened the area’s decline.
Kwanza Hall, the Atlanta city council member whose district includes Sweet Auburn, challenges wealthy African Americans to invest in the area. He takes would-be investors on tours and says that, compared with even a few years ago, “there’s a lot more interest and energy.” Thomas is less politic. “Atlanta has had a black mayor for what, 40 years?” he says. “Auburn Avenue should be a showpiece. This should be the most pristine street in Atlanta.”
100 Auburn Avenue
In 2013, Georgia State remade Atlanta Life’s HQ as administrative offices.
Atlanta Daily World Building
145 Auburn Avenue
Reopened in March with apartments and retail.
Black Lion Building
Auburn and Bell Street
Peter Thomas is updating the building and an adjacent lot.
186 Auburn Avenue
The music venue will house two clubs.
Wheat Street Towers
375 Auburn Avenue
The nonprofit is updating 208 apartments.
Auburn and Edgewood
Invest Atlanta made grants to 12 businesses on the streetcar route.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.