The street is a literal history book that unfolds to several prominent African American churches, the once-elegant Royal Peacock Club which hosted top acts such as B.B. King, the Four Tops, and Atlanta’s own Gladys Knight, after opening in 1938. It is also home to Atlanta Life Insurance Co., the second largest black insurance company, and Atlanta’s first-black owned office building, the Rucker Building built in 1904. But the area is also sagging under the weight of its own history.
“It’s a puzzle that we have to put together,” said Kwanza Hall, a former King colleague who in 1999 moved his wife and two sons into a house not far from where King was born. “This is a special place, and we need to honor that legacy.”
Two decades ago, supporters restored Dr. King’s home and thought retail recovery would follow. The King Historic Site run by the National Park Service, is a major tourist attraction. It draws more than 700,000 visitors each year.
“It is almost a travesty that we have not completed the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District and restored it to a level that honors and reflects the level of commitment that he gave to humankind,” said Hall, who was elected to city council in 2005. He champions the area’s survival.
The problem is the celebrated area is transfixed in time, stuck between segregation and integration like many once-thriving black areas.
“With desegregation came a one-way street,” said Mtaminika Youngblood, chairwoman of the Historic District Development Corporation, which has led the area’s restoration effort for more than two decades.
“African-Americans could take advantage of the broader array of housing, services and businesses previously unavailable to them … but white people weren’t coming to Auburn to bank or shop or do anything,” Youngblood said. “In the face of all that, Auburn Avenue looks like you would expect it to look.”
Lack of support and declining investments pushed the area into a state of decline. Many African Americans migrated to new neighborhoods. With no support or investment, Auburn Avenue languished.
Solutions are complex but some have surfaced. Down the street on neighboring Edgewood Avenue – which runs parallel to Auburn – popular bars and restaurants have sprung up in historic buildings, and a $47 million streetcar project aims to attract more businesses and patrons to the area. Georgia State University has expanded its urban footprint through much of the neighborhood and recently announced plans to buy two buildings owned by Atlanta Life.
But the original Atlanta Life building remains abandoned boarded up and decline continues.
“It’s an embarrassment, frankly,” said Youngblood. “Atlanta is the African-American city of the South, and we’ve done a really piss-poor job of preserving our legacy. But it takes leadership, political will, and resources. This is, I think, our last chance.”
In 1976, Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark. However, like many inner-city neighborhoods, Auburn Avenue fell victim to crime and abandonment. A highway construction project split it in two. In 1992 the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized it as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Loyal businesses have had a hard time surviving. The Atlanta Daily World, a black newspaper founded on Auburn Avenue in 1928, left its historic building four years ago after a 2008 tornado ravaged it.
Publisher Alexis Scott said her family held on, but they are now looking to sell the building. The Scott family’s attempt to sell earlier this year resulted in a backlash from the preservationist community.
“It was sad to see it go into decline,” Scott said of Auburn Avenue. “It was even more sad to look across the street and see the old buildings boarded up. I don’t want to see the rest of the buildings fall down from disrepair and people’s inability to do anything about it. That was one of the reasons we were trying to sell our building. It would be nice to be on the historic street.”