February 18, 2013

From Questions to Action: How Sweet Auburn Is Reviving Its Historic Community

  • More: National Treasures
  • By: Teresa Lynch, Senior Program Officer, National Main Street Center

Streetscape in Sweet Auburn. Credit: Stan Kaady

Sweet Auburn

I consider myself privileged to be part of the National Trust’s National Treasure team working to preserve and revitalize one of the most significant historically African-American commercial areas in the South -- Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Sweet Auburn neighborhood is particularly distinct in that it was the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is where he was raised, worked, and worshiped, and it is where he is buried, within the 10-block Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site centered on Auburn Avenue. (It was also listed as one of our America's 11 Most Endangered Places in both 1992 and 2012.)

Back in the early part of the 20th century, in the era of Jim Crow, African-Americans developed and owned the properties on Auburn Avenue, operated the businesses, and lived in the adjoining neighborhood. In 1957, when Fortune magazine dubbed Auburn Avenue as “the richest Negro street in the world,” the district was thriving -- even said to be “paved in gold” according to the community’s civic and civil rights leader, John Wesley Dobbs, who coined the phrase “Sweet Auburn.”

By the early 1980s, both the residential and commercial areas of Sweet Auburn had fallen into steep decline. The good news: In the past 20 years, thanks largely to efforts of the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC), the residential portion of the neighborhood has enjoyed an amazing renaissance.

But the businesses and commercial buildings concentrated on Auburn Avenue have not fared as well. Many of those properties are seriously deteriorated, a large number of storefronts are unoccupied, vacant lots exist where proud buildings once stood, and public spaces are unkempt -- placing the historic and cultural fabric of the community’s commercial core in serious jeopardy.

Sweet Auburn stakeholder meeting. Credit: Jesse Clark
Sweet Auburn stakeholder meeting

A large cross-section of the community -- organizational leaders, business and property owners and other neighborhood stakeholders -- are volunteering their time to help craft a strategic revitalization plan for the neighborhood’s commercial areas, as well as create a Sweet Auburn Main Street organization to manage activities, implement projects, and move the revitalization process forward.

The National Main Street Center is helping provide the guidance, technical assistance and training to advance the Sweet Auburn project. We are seeing tremendous progress in the few months that we have been involved. A steering committee composed of district stakeholders has adopted a mission, identified project area boundaries, established bylaws, and incorporated a nonprofit organization to be known as Sweet Auburn Works.

Recently, National Trust Field Services Officer Joseph McGill and I returned to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood to present, at a community forum, a report based on findings from an assessment of the commercial district we had done on an earlier visit to Sweet Auburn. The report identifies the neighborhood’s many assets; summarizes property and business development issues; and recommends actions and projects to be undertaken by Sweet Auburn Works. It can serve as a roadmap to guide the organization as it begins the historic, cultural and economic revival of the neighborhood’s commercial district.

The co-chairs of the Sweet Auburn Works steering committee: Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City Councilman; Mtamanika Youngblood, HDDC Board President and former National Trust Trustee; and Joan Garner, Fulton County Commissioner. Credit: Jay Tribbey
The co-chairs of the Sweet Auburn Works steering committee (l. to r.): Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City Councilman; Mtamanika Youngblood, HDDC Board President and former National Trust Trustee; and Joan Garner, Fulton County Commissioner.

At the community presentation, we were fortunate to have with us Anwar Saleem, who is executive director of the H Street Main Street program in Washington, DC. Anwar described the amazing turnaround of the commercial corridor in that historic African-American community. Once one of the top highest grossing retail districts in downtown DC, the H Street corridor fell into decline in the late 50s; was devastated when urban riots erupted there in 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King; and continued its downward spiral for the next 20 years.

Anwar explained to the Sweet Auburn audience how the work of the Main Street program during the past decade had resulted in a renaissance of the H Street commercial district -- now a showcase of restored buildings, new businesses, new jobs, and major infill projects. H Street is a revitalization story that is being acclaimed in the national media. To say that the Sweet Auburn crowd was motivated at the conclusion of Anwar’s presentation would be an understatement.

Sweet Auburn now has a draft of a commercial revitalization plan in place, an organization established to implement the plan, and plenty of excitement and energy. We can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the next year. Stay tuned for further posts on their progress.

By: Teresa Lynch, Senior Program Officer, National Main Street Center

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Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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