ATLANTA — The ghosts of Auburn Avenue still haunt the storied Atlanta street where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and black wealth thrived for decades.
Today, the street is a shell of its former self, the bustling mix of banks, night clubs, churches, meat markets and funeral homes long gone, replaced with crumbling facades and cracked sidewalks.
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Hundreds of thousands of people still flock to Auburn Avenue to see King’s birth home, the church where he preached, and the crypt where he and his wife, Coretta, are buried – all located along the street. But tourists have little reason to linger.
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While King’s legacy has been preserved, Auburn Avenue’s business community has never recovered from the exodus of the black community that supported it. The situation represents a decades-old struggle to balance the need to honor the legacy of the neighborhood, while helping the area catch up to the booming development happening across much of the rest of the city. This week, the Sweet Auburn Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places’ 11 Most Endangered list for the second time since 1992 in an effort to spur preservation-oriented development and return the area to a semblance of its former glory.
Some say time may be running out.
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“If we lose any more historic fabric, Auburn Avenue will probably lose its historic designation. You can’t just have a few buildings left,” said Mtaminika Youngblood, chairwoman of the Historic District Development Corporation, which has shepherded the restoration of the area for more than two decades.
Generations ago, much of Auburn Avenue’s prosperity was born out of necessity, a product of segregation. The downtown thoroughfare anchored a community of homes and businesses that depended on each other.
The Atlanta Life Insurance Company was created when blacks had nowhere else to buy insurance. Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Bank was formed so black people could get mortgages.
It was a one-stop shop for the area, said Atlanta historian Herman “Skip” Mason.
“You can touch and see what businesses were there,” Mason explained. “It goes without question that they’re worth preserving because of the history tied to the buildings and the street and what it meant. These historic buildings become living, tangible artifacts of black Atlanta.”
With the disappearance of Jim Crow, as blacks were able to move into different neighborhoods and patronize mainstream businesses, Auburn Avenue languished. Similar scenarios played out elsewhere as integration spread across the South, Youngblood said.
“With desegregation came a one-way street. 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. In the face of all that, Auburn Avenue looks like you would expect it to look like,” Youngblood said.