Spread the love

Sweet Auburn, “the richest black street in the world” turned “drug zone” in Atlanta

Photo: Sébastien Tanguay Le Devoir The sidewalks of Auburn Avenue, once busy, now appear deserted and abandoned to homelessness.

Sébastien Tanguay in Atlanta

Published at 0:00

  • United States

For half a century, Atlanta's Auburn Avenue served as the brightest economic, spiritual and community beacon of the African American community. This was before the construction of the Downtown Connector, a 14-lane highway that scarred this historic district and reduced it, even today, to a shadow of its former glory.

< p>Seeing the boarded-up buildings and vacant spaces that disfigure this avenue located east of downtown Atlanta, it is difficult to imagine that this street was once the pride of the black population of the southern states -United.

In the first half of the 20th century, despite the advent of the Jim Crow era and its segregationist policies, an all-African-American bourgeoisie managed to prosper in this neighborhood called Sweet Auburn.

During this golden age, the economic and artistic elite converged on Auburn Avenue. The smartly dressed men adjusted their suits before entering the Rucker Building, which when it was built in 1904 became the first office space in Atlanta to be entirely owned by an African-American owner.

Some had under their arm a copy of the Atlanta Daily World, the daily newspaper on Auburn Avenue which became, when it was created in 1928 , the world's first newspaper owned and edited by black people.

Many unwinded in the evening at the most prominent cabaret in town. The Top Hat Club — which later became the Royal Peacock — welcomed the biggest names in African-American culture: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Little Richard and Mohamed Ali were, among others, among the regulars.

On Sundays, the faithful went to the two historic churches in the area, Big Bethel and Ebenezer, to commune with a certain Martin Luther King Jr., a local boy who spoke his first sermons here — and sowed the seeds of a revolution in Sweet Auburn that culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

The Downtown Connector: Beginning of Decline

At that time, Auburn Avenue embodied the economic resilience of the African-American community despite a regime that worked to inferiorize it. In 1956, with the presence of Citizens Trust, the city's first African-American bank, and two life insurance companies also founded by blacks, the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and Standard Life, the vitality of the The thoroughfare was such that Fortune magazine called it “the richest black street in the world.”

Less than a decade later, the Downtown Connector bisected the avenue, dealing a “death blow” to the neighborhood, according to Daniel Henry, head of the Remerge studio, which uses art as a way to patch together the frayed community fabric of Sweet Auburn.

Sweet Auburn, “the richest black street in the world” turned “drug zone” in Atlanta

Photo: Sébastien Tanguay Le Devoir Looking at the boarded-up buildings and vacant spaces that disfigure Auburn Avenue, located east of downtown Atlanta, it's hard to imagine that this street was once the pride of the black population of the southern United States. United.

“This highway is a horror that completely disfigures the district,” he laments. It was its construction that marked the decline of Sweet Auburn. »

Inaugurated in 1964, the immense snake of concrete and bitumen which still tears through the neighborhood was part of an ambitious network of highways promoted by the Eisenhower government. The construction of the latter devastated many densely populated areas throughout the United States, in projects that the authorities euphemistically called “urban renewal”.

As soon as it was inaugurated, as soon as it became congested: the Downtown Connector went from 6 to 14 lanes in the 1980s. Today, the section is among the most congested in the United States, and Atlanta, with its incessant traffic jams, ranks among the tenth in the INRIX ranking of cities with the most serious trafficking problem in the country.

“It’s a drug zone”

If the highway that crosses the neighborhood is saturated, the sidewalks of Auburn Avenue, once busy, now appear deserted and abandoned to homelessness.< /p>

“It’s my 43rd birthday today,” says Ayesha Patrice Levitt on a porch on the thoroughfare. But I really don't have the heart to celebrate. » Pregnant with twins, she explains, her only possessions are a few objects piled up pell-mell in her grocery basket. She lives and sleeps on the streets — one of hundreds who populate Sweet Auburn.

Also read

  • Kennesaw, where guns have ruled the roost for 42 years

“This neighborhood is fucked up, it’s a drug zone,” she points out. Walk a little, and you will see: we are drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill. People are afraid of us because we are “black-skinned homeless people”. »

Atlanta has tried to restore luster to this district listed on the register of national historic districts, without succeeding in curbing the exodus of businesses and population for the benefit of the suburbs. The area continued to decline to the point where the city, host of the 1996 Olympics, publicly discouraged millions of tourists from visiting Sweet Auburn, burdened by crime and poverty.

Attempts at renewal

The establishment of a tram station in the heart of the district and the crowds generated by the monuments erected in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. have failed to reverse this decline.

The White House, six decades after the inauguration of the Downtown Connector, is today striving to heal the urban wounds inherited from the past. The US Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, launched in 2022 a program dedicated to reconnecting neighborhoods divided by these vast infrastructure projects, launched by administrations that are unscrupulous towards often deprived local populations.

“We cannot ignore a simple truth,” Mr. Buttigieg admitted. Some urban planning has directly destroyed vibrant communities, sometimes in a desire to reinforce segregation, sometimes in a direct effort to replace or eliminate black neighborhoods. »

This neighborhood is “fucked up”, it’s a drug zone. Walk a little, and you will see: we are drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill.

— Ayesha Patrice Levitt

The output, referred to as “woke» by the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, nevertheless highlighted the devastation that these construction sites have caused in the social fabric of many African-American communities. Today, the few business owners who remain in Sweet Auburn are optimistic about the future.

“I hosted President [Bill] Clinton here in 1999 , says chef Sonya Jones, founder of the Sweet Auburn Bread Co. “He tasted that,” she adds, pointing to the craving-proof dessert that made her famous: her famous cheesecake. and sweet potatoes.

Established in the neighborhood since 1997, she has often seen its downs — but also some ups. “I like it here. It’s not always easy, that’s for sure, but I’m still starting to see businesses opening here and there. »

Jatrice Owens and his Atlanta Breakfast Club is one of them. Opened three years ago, it welcomes a trendy clientele hungry for lattes and hearty Southern cuisine. “We are definitely in a period of transition,” explains the cook. We are emerging from a period of defeatism and letting go. »

Sweet Auburn, “the richest black street in the world” turned “drug zone” in Atlanta

Photo: Sébastien Tanguay Le Devoir Jatrice Owens

She notices a timid revival on the avenue. “A restaurant is going to open around the corner. An apartment building too: that will bring us people. » In this neighborhood that she chose for its rich history, however, the highway continues to darken the future.

“Until the city bury the Downtown Connector, I doubt the avenue will return to its former glory. It was the community that built Sweet Auburn and it was a white governor who destroyed it, she said of Marvin Griffin, the openly segregationist governor who approved the construction of the highway in the heart of the neighborhood. Today, it is up to the community to come together to make it prosper — as those who came before us did. »

This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir~60 International Journalism Fund ~i>.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116