When integration pulled the rug out from under Auburn Avenue, it didn't take long for the storied street to begin its long slide into decay. What at the dawn of the 1960s had been a bustling retail and entertainment district -- memorably described by Fortune magazine as "the richest Negro street in the world" -- had by the end of the decade become a stretch of seedy storefronts and half-empty restaurants, the windows decorated with "For Rent" signs and the sidewalks prowled after dark by hookers.
None of which deterred a young Wellington Howard from jumping at the chance to start his insurance business there.
As a Morehouse College student during the early '60s, Howard had spent countless evenings walking from his apartment in the Wigwam building at the corner of Auburn and Randolph Street to grab fried chicken at Ma Sutton's or relax with a glass of Champale at the Pub Grill, a place "James Brown swore served the best pig ears he'd ever tasted," recalls Howard, 58.
When he stepped forward in 1970 to buy the old Consolidated Mortgage and Investment building at 193 Auburn Ave. from real-estate pioneer Bill Calloway, the older man was somewhat incredulous. Most of the other black professionals who'd done business on Auburn already had moved uptown to Peachtree Street or other parts of the city.
"This street is gonna be a dump," Calloway warned.
But Howard wasn't concerned; he wanted to own a piece of history. He dreamed of being an entrepreneur on the same street that had produced such African-American success stories as Atlanta Life Insurance Co. founder Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta Daily World publisher William Scott and the Bronner brothers of hair-care fame.
And besides, Howard figured, like everything else, neighborhoods go in cycles. That which goes down eventually comes back up, right?
It's been nearly 35 years since Howard started waiting for the long-rumored revival of Sweet Auburn, the center of black commerce in Atlanta from the '20s through the '50s -- and now a nearly vacant corridor stretching from Peachtree Street to the edge of Inman Park.
Once surrounded by shops and restaurants, Howard's small Georgia Insurance Brokerage sits virtually alone in a deserted block, flanked on one side by a parking lot and an empty expanse of grass on the other. The only other surviving business on his side of the street is the tiny Silver Star barbershop, tucked into the ground floor of the dilapidated old 49B building.
But it may not be long until Howard has all the company he can handle.
A $45 million redevelopment plan by Big Bethel AME Church and the Integral Group development firm would completely overhaul the south side of Auburn between Piedmont Avenue and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, layering 154 condos, a parking deck and 27,000 square feet of retail space into the block. The proposal calls for the partial demolition of several older buildings, as well as the razing of a former gas station and the long-vacant Palamont Motel, a '50s-era motor lodge at the corner of Auburn and Piedmont.
The Big Bethel project has divided many of the area's longtime advocates and major landowners between those who are eager to see some improvement come at long last to this ramshackle street and those who want to ensure that history isn't erased in a rush to revitalize.
"These buildings aren't grand or glorious, but they are what they are," says Mtamanika Youngblood, co-founder and board member of the Historic District Development Corporation, a 24-year-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving and reviving the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district.
"Auburn Avenue -- the physical place -- has value, and most folks don't seem to recognize that," she says. "We're not against redevelopment, but there are people who want to do it now instead of doing it right. We're swimming against that tide -- and it's a big tide."
Integral Group President Carl Powell concedes he has been surprised and frustrated by the storm of controversy the company's plan has kicked up among preservation advocates, both in Atlanta and across the country. To his thinking, the Big Bethel project is overdue salvation for a famous street whose rich history has too long been marred by urban blight.
"When you kill any effort at restoration, then preservation has gone too far," Powell says.
The Integral Group, a black-owned company that specializes in large-scale urban redevelopment projects around the country, likewise has a stake in the neighborhood -- its headquarters are on the Herndon Plaza campus, around the corner from the Big Bethel project.
On Sept. 8, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission is scheduled to settle the debate by issuing its final decision on the Big Bethel project, either clearing the way for Integral to secure its demolition permits or sending the company back to the drawing board.
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