Urban Living - History lesson

Sweet Auburn Springfest connects past, present and future

The Sweet Auburn Springfest is one of Atlanta's many highly anticipated annual events, attracting hundreds of thousands to this historic street for one of the largest street festivals in the Southeast. But for the merchants who are there every day, it's more important that people visit Auburn Avenue on a regular basis.

Our vision is that the Auburn Historical District be the Beale Street, Bourbon Street, Church Street Station of Atlanta. Rich with nostalgia and historical landmarks, Auburn Avenue holds a special place in Atlanta's past. Starting at Auburn Avenue and Courtland Street there's the Atlanta Life building, home of the nation's largest black-owned insurance company. Across the street is the Auburn Avenue Research Library that archives African-American culture and history. Next door is the African Panoramic Experience (APEX Museum) that houses so much history.

Three doors down is the home of the first black-owned and -operated daily newspaper in America, the Atlanta Daily World. The Royal Peacock was the showcase for the talents of Stevie Wonder, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Bobby Blue Bland and many, many more. During the days of segregation, the Peacock and the Casino were some of the best places for nighttime entertainment for blacks.

Odd Fellows Tower and Annex is another place where past, present and future connect. In 1914 it was an office building and auditorium where Count Basie, Sam Cooke and Cab Calloway, just to name a few, displayed their talents. This building was designed and renovated by the late architect Robert "Skip" Perkins, whose wife, Janis Perkins, completed the massive renovations he never got to see.

The Butler Street Y – one of the oldest YMCAs, established in 1894 in the basement of Wheat Street Baptist Church – still operates today, serving Atlanta families and youth. Many of the city's leaders spent their youth being nurtured by the Y.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change takes up about two blocks. There's also the King Community Center. The National Park Service Visitor Center is a multimillion-dollar addition to the historical district. It vividly tells the story of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. At the east end of Sweet Auburn Avenue is the birth home of Dr. King, totally refurbished to its original splendor.

The elders built Sweet Auburn as a legacy full of pride and dignity. They built a place where black culture, business and history could flourish. The past and the future are right here in Atlanta.

Great things are on the drawing board for the future of Auburn Avenue, the epicenter of the soul of Atlanta. There is a quiet revolution taking place; it is nonviolent and economic.

Recently completed developments include the $45 million Renaissance Walk mixed-use project, the National Headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the renovated offices of First Choice Credit Union. The sheer number of additional projects under development accounts for our continued enthusiasm. To list just a few: the Auburn Pointe major mixed-use development, Alexan Cityscapes – Trammell Crow Residential Co.'s 600-unit luxury apartment complex – and Edge Lofts.

There are also a number of young, creative entrepreneurs who have opened shop along Auburn and Edgewood avenues. Bombay Gay and Controversy Boutiques, Young Jeezy's 8723, Café Circa, Javaology, Corner Tavern, Over Da Edge, Desserts by LaTrell and the Sweet Auburn Bistro bring new excitement to the district.

From Peachtree to Randolph, Edgewood to J.W. Dobbs, a positive sweeping change is taking place. Sweet Auburn is on its way back to reclaiming its place as the "richest Negro street" in the world. It will be one of Atlanta's primary attractions and will make Atlanta all the better with this influx of positive change. Not only will Auburn Avenue be known for its history, but for its shops, nightlife, restaurants, coffee shops and theater. It will be the place to be. We're committed to the fulfillment of this vision.


Charles E. Johnson is the founder of the Spirit of Sweet Auburn and the organizer of the Sweet Auburn Springfest. This year's festival is May 9-11. For details, visit www.sweetauburn.com.

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