From Vision to Reality: Reviving Two African-American Main Streets

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In 2012, the National Trust named the Sweet Auburn Historic District in Atlanta, Georgia, a National Treasure and listed Sweet Auburn’s commercial district as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places®. I consider myself privileged to be part of the National Treasure team working to preserve and revitalize this district—one of the most significant historically African-American commercial areas in the South. The Sweet Auburn neighborhood, which abuts downtown Atlanta, is particularly distinct in that it was the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is where he was raised, worked, and worshipped and it is where he is buried, within the 10-block Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site centered on Auburn Avenue.

Back in the early part of the 20th century – during 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 “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 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) – a community-based organization whose mission is to preserve and revitalize the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic District − the  residential part of the neighborhood has enjoyed an amazing renaissance. The synergy created by HDDC’s work has also generated private reinvestment in several of the neighborhood’s commercial nodes.

On the other hand, the businesses and commercial buildings concentrated on Auburn Avenue have not fared as well. Many of those properties have 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.

A primary goal for the Sweet Auburn project is to create a volunteer-driven organization that can guide the commercial revitalization process, develop a strategic plan, promote neighborhood assets, and encourage investment in business and property development, while also protecting the historic character of the neighborhood.

A large cross-section of neighborhood stakeholders – organizational leaders, business and property owners, residents, church leaders and local government officials – are committing their time and resources to this project; and the National Trust Main Street Center (NTMSC) is working with them to provide guidance and training to assist their efforts.

In the few months that the NTMSC has been involved, we have seen tremendous progress. A steering committee — composed of district stakeholders — has adopted a mission, identified project area boundaries, established bylaws, and incorporated a nonprofit organization to be named “Sweet Auburn Works.” The steering committee is moving to the next step of nominating and selecting board members for the new organization, putting a fundraising plan in place, and making plans to hire management staff.

Just recently, Joseph McGill, National Trust Field Services Officer, and I returned to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood to present, at a community forum, a report based on our findings from an earlier needs assessment visit to the commercial district. The assessment report identifies the neighborhood’s many assets; summarizes property and business development issues; describes the steps for organizational development; and recommends actions and projects to be undertaken. It will serve as a guide for Sweet Auburn Works as it tackles the historic, cultural, social, and economic revival of the neighborhood’s commercial areas.

At the community forum, we introduced Anwar Saleem, executive director of the H Street Main Street program in Washington D.C. I’m going to digress a bit here and explain how Anwar came to be at the meeting.

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Rising from the Ashes: The Rebirth of H Street

When I first became involved in the Sweet Auburn project, I contacted several of our urban Main Street programs to see if I could find a “match” for Sweet Auburn – a district with similar issues, history, and background that could illustrate how use of the Main Street approach had turned their district around. One thing that is clear about Main Street is that you learn best from those who have been through similar struggles and have come out a winner. I was looking for a district that could serve as a model for Sweet Auburn and I struck gold when I contacted Anwar and he described the history of the H Street corridor and told me the story of its revitalization.

Here was another historically African-American neighborhood, whose vital commercial core had hit rock bottom. Once one of the highest-grossing retail districts in downtown D.C., the H Street corridor fell into decline in the late 1950s; 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. The opening paragraph in a brief history of H Street posted on its Main Street program’s website tells the story of how far the district had fallen and how a corps of community volunteers started to believe that change could happen:

“It seemed an improbable wish born on a fire-charred street where empty buildings and cracked sidewalks had loomed for half a lifetime. Yet in our persistence, we grew to love H Street NE as far more than a symbol of broken-window urban decay which was frozen in time and left behind. This place became a frontier for our collective imaginations to flourish and for the doubtful city itself to stand up and take notice.”

Today H Street has literally risen from the ashes to recapture its glory days and become, once again, a commercial district powerhouse.

Anwar’s personal Main Street story began 12 years ago when, as a business and property owner in the district – a cosmetologist with a beauty salon – he led the charge to find a way to turn the deteriorated H Street commercial corridor around. As Anwar began his neighborhood organizing effort, then Mayor Anthony Williams was launching the DC Main Streets Program. In 2002, H Street submitted an application and was designated a Main Street program, one of the initial seven selected commercial corridors in the District.  From its startup, Anwar served as the organization’s board chair; five years ago, he became H Street’s executive director.

When I learned about H Street and Anwar, I knew immediately that he and his program would be a great example for Sweet Auburn and that the community forum would present a perfect opportunity to introduce him to the neighborhood.

Showing a slide show of H Street, Anwar illustrated the remarkable changes that have taken place. He explained how the work of the Main Street program spurred in a renaissance of the H Street neighborhood district — now a showcase of restored buildings, new businesses, new jobs, and major infill projects. During the past 10 years, said Anwar, H Street has attracted 180 new businesses and more than 2,000 jobs. It has seen $54 million in streetcar and streetscape infrastructure improvements, more than $100 million in property acquisition from the private sector, and nearly $75 million in building rehabs.

Anwar talked about the massive streetcar transportation project that the D.C. government has undertaken. For several years, infrastructure improvements have been ongoing along the H Street corridor to accommodate the streetcar and enhance the public spaces. It is expected that the streetcar will be running down H Street by early 2014. The City of Atlanta has also embarked on a streetcar project that will course throughout its downtown and include a route that will traverse a major portion of Sweet Auburn’s commercial district. While both of these streetcar transportation projects are expected to boost the economic vitality of each district, the H Street Main Street program’s experience and the strategies it used to handle business disruptions along the corridor route will prove invaluable to the Sweet Auburn Works organization.

To say that the Sweet Auburn crowd was motivated by Anwar’s story would be an understatement. In short, the community audience was inspired and, when Anwar finished his presentation, I heard several people whispering – “We need our own Anwar.”

Sweet Auburn now has beginnings of a commercial revitalization plan in place, a Main Street organization established to implement the plan, the Trust’s commitment to provide continuing technical assistance and other resources to support the commercial district’s revival, and – thanks to Anwar’s presentation – the community is totally excited to begin its work. I personally can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the next few years.

If you would like to read more about the Sweet Auburn revitalization project, click here to download a copy of the assessment report.