PRC May 12-18, 2002
Hilton Washington and Towers, Washington DC
Kate's StoryThe city of Atlanta has an important place in African-American history. Martin Luther King Junior grew up in the city and preached his message of social change at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Old Fourth Ward. It's an area famous for its once-thriving business district and social scene. But, like many other predominately black neighborhoods across the country, the area known as Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward today is a shadow of what it once was. As Next Generation Radio's Kate Sweeney reports, one organization is hoping to rebuild community in the neighborhood that King called home. fourthward : …soq
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It's a sunny spring morning on Lampkin Street in an area people here call the "Old Fourth Ward." A man wheels a wobbly shopping cart filled with odds and ends up this pot-holed street, past a row of paint-peeling houses. One's porch has caved in, and in another house, sunlight streams through charred window-frames and doorways. Between the two structures, a white fence borders a neatly trimmed yard and a freshly painted house. This is the home of Helene Mills. She's lived on Lampkin Street for more than 50 years. Once a month, Mills and other volunteers clean up the yards and streets.
hddc1a :16 …except me.
"If we didn't, it would not get done. And that's the only reason, because now we don't have any homeowners on the street. Except me." Mills says it's a very different scene from when she moved here as a young woman, when Lampkin Street was part of a prosperous residential neighborhood. A few blocks away was Auburn Avenue, the Old Fourth Ward's bustling business and entertainment district. It was also the spiritual, financial and social heart of black Atlanta. Long-time residents still remember Auburn Avenue as it was in the '20s and '30s. Swing music up/under
hddc4 :26 …long years ago.
"There was Ebenezer's church, you come down half-a-block there was Wheat Street, you go down a little bit further, it was AME Zion Church, there, and then you go down a bit further, it was Big Bethel. There was a theater down there, (Start fading out) it was first called the Paramount. Long years ago.
hddc5 :13 …clapping your hands.
"But they used to have pictures, and they'd have vaudevilles, and people used to come out and dance, and you'd just have a good time, tapping your feet and clapping your hands"
hddc6 :07 …have the dances.
"The Top Hat was on Auburn Avenue, where we used to have the dances.
hddc6a :13 …chaperone us. And my husband, the guy that I married, took me to the dance and my brother had to chaperone us.
hddc6a :20 …wouldn't kiss me.
"My daddy had him to take us to the dance, and we said that my daddy did that to be sure that this boy wouldn't kiss me! (Laughs.)"
It was a bustling era. Those were the times when segregation brought about an enforced closeness in the Fourth Ward. But in the 1960s, Auburn Avenue and all of Fourth Ward, began to change. And its business district began to decline. During segregation, African Americans had little choice but to spend their money within their own community. But when Atlanta desegregated, and the Fourth Ward's businesses were hit hard by competition from stores that were forced to remove "White Only" signs from their windows. With integration, too, many wealthier residents were enticed to leave the crowded Fourth Ward for neighborhoods "opening up" across town that promised more land and larger houses.
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And many Old Fourth Ward residents say the final blow was the construction of Interstate 75/85 and the Freedom Parkway, which now divide the district and cut it off from downtown Atlanta. Freedom Parkway creates a dead-end out of Lampkin Street, where Helene Mills lives.
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When I went to visit, we went out onto her porch to take a look at the Parkway. The view is starkly different from what Mills would have seen before the highways dissected the community.
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hddc10a :33 …not being closed. "Okay, this street went all the way to Highland Avenue. When the argument came on Freedom Parkway, there was no one on this street to fight for. Kate: why. Because people weren't interested in the people who live here, were only renters I could not get the owners to join in with me to fight for the street not being closed."
It wasn't until the mid-nineties that Mills was finally able to recruit fellow homeowners to fix up the area around Lampkin Street. She organized the Fourth Ward Neighbors, a group dedicated to getting rid of drugs and crime and dedicated to regenerating a sense of community.
The group is part of a larger effort by the Historic District Development Corporation, or HDDC. It was created twenty years ago to restore the home where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. But the group soon realized that what tourists saw nearby were boarded-up houses, empty store-fronts and vacant lots. Mtamanika Youngblood is chairwoman of the HDDC.
hddc2 :27 …something about that. "When they came down Auburn, they ultimately would turn down Howell Street and see all this dilapidation and squalor, and the neighbors, along with us, decided this just wasn't representative of who we really were, as people… And we decided we needed to do something about that."
The HDDC decided to expand its revitalization efforts to the neighborhoods surrounding the King home. The intent was to improve housing, increase owner occupation and to attract business, so that people might spend money in their own neighborhood. But most importantly, the group is hoping to restore a strong sense of community and diversity, particularly in terms of income-levels. Youngblood says the process is slow and the results are mixed.
hddc15 :07 …for 22 years. "This isn't just something you do in a flash and go away. It's a long-term commitment. And we've been at it for 22 years!" Using federal grants and millions of dollars in donations, the Historic District Development Corporation is going block-by-block restoring old houses and building new ones. HDDC chairwoman Mtamanika Youngblood says this strategy tries to ensure that residents who buy new houses won't have to live next to dilapidated ones.
Meanwhile, Helene Mills says her Fourth Ward home is the only one she can imagine. hddc 18 :05 …anywhere else, so.
"kate: What makes you proud to live in Fourth Ward?' 'Well, I haven't lived anywhere else, so…[laughs.]" For Fresh Perspective, I'm Kate Sweeney.