Where Sweet Auburn meets ‘Real Housewives’
RHOA’s Peter Thomas is investing $400K in future of Atlanta’s MLK historic district for reincarnation of upscale Bar One
- Joeff Davis
- RAISING THE BAR: Peter Thomas of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” is currently renovating the former Black Lion Cafe at 253 Auburn Avenue to the tune of $400,000. He plans to open the reincarnated version of his upscale lounge Bar One in the space this spring.
One week after the long-delayed Atlanta Streetcar opened on Auburn Ave., Sweet Auburn made its debut in season 7 of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
RHOA cast member Peter Thomas is one of the legendary street’s newest commercial tenants, and his investment in its future is creating a unique intersection between largely opposing legacies of black Atlanta — from its storied history as the home of the civil rights movement to current capital of much-maligned reality TV fame.
But 54-year-old Thomas, a longtime club and entertainment entrepreneur, isn’t fronting to extend his 15 minutes. He’s renovating an old Auburn Ave. property to the tune of $400,000, with plans to open a reincarnated version of his upscale Bar One lounge there in April 2015.
- screenshot/Bravo TV/RHOA
- Cynthia Bailey and Peter Thomas survey the patio of Abraham Gebru’s Auburn Ave. location, formerly Black Lion Cafe, in a scene from last Sunday’s RHOA.
During a 30-minute phone conversation this morning, he talked about his love for Sweet Auburn’s history and his intention to help rejuvenate the street. “I’ve always felt some kind of way about Auburn Avenue, knowing that Dr. King gave his life for the betterment of our people,” said Thomas, who characterized the challenged historic district as “crack central” in reference to the open-air drug market he faces across the street. “It always irks me that every time I go down there I see a lot of hustlers hanging out three blocks from the Martin Luther King Jr. National historic site.”
Last Sunday’s episode of the Bravo reality show started with a scene featuring Thomas and his wife Cynthia Bailey, the RHOA cast mate and former top model who is also Thomas’s business partner in his Bar One franchise. The Glenwood Park residents also own a Sports One location in Charlotte, N.C., and plan to open an adjacent Bar One there in the same building later this year. Since closing the original Memorial Drive Bar One in Atlanta last November, following a disagreement over mortgage payments, Thomas has been in the market for a new location. And they’ve settled on the Black Lion Cafe location, which sits at the corner of Auburn Ave. and Bell Street.
Abraham Gebru, owner and proprietor of the two-story brick building that houses the Black Lion Cafe, took the couple on a tour while TV cameras captured the sketchy surroundings and the club interior’s state of disrepair.
- Joeff Davis/CL File
- A complete overhaul of the property is taking place at the future home of Bar One, according to Peter Thomas.
“To put it mildly, it was a dump,” Thomas told me. He’s signed a 10-year lease/purchase agreement with Gebru, which also involved buying out Gebru’s Black Lion Cafe business for an undisclosed amount. The former reggae/hip-hop club attracted a younger, less professional crowd than the 35-55 age-range upscale demographic that Bar One on Memorial Drive appealed to. By the time he’s finished gutting the interior and installing new plumbing, electrical, sprinkler systems and other upgrades, “this is going to be a bigger, better version of that,” Thomas said.
When I met Gebru six months ago while working on the CL cover story “Searching for Sweet Auburn,” he made mention of a potential deal involving the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” production. But he told me to keep it off-record until it was set in stone. The whole thing sounded like wishful thinking, especially as he guided me and photo editor Joeff Davis through the building while pointing out the stray-bullet holes leftover from nearby shootouts that have occurred during the 16 years he’s owned the building.
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- Joeff Davis
- For 16 years, Auburn Avenue property owner and former Black Lion Cafe proprietor Abraham Gebru has found creative ways to hide the stray-bullet holes in his establishment.
Gebru’s own backstory is riddled with a different kind of violence. He’d been a child soldier before emigrating from Ethiopia to Chicago many years ago, he said last July, expressing his hope for lasting change on Auburn. Thomas echoed that sentiment today while pointing out the irony of Sweet Auburn’s fallen state in a city that has had black mayors for 42 years.
“That four-mile stretch of Auburn Avenue should be one of the most prestigious four-miles of blackness in the whole country,” Thomas said. “It’s not empowering to walk Auburn Avenue and see cats selling drugs three miles from the MLK historic site. There’s nothing sexy about seeing abandoned buildings that the city is doing nothing to get rid of. We can’t be the most powerful black city in America and have the most important address for black Atlanta look the way it does. It’s a disgrace.”
- Joeff Davis
- Peter Thomas, who lives in Glenwood Park with wife Cynthia Bailey, paused for a photo this morning while renovating 253 Auburn Ave.
Thomas, a New York native who followed his parents to Atlanta seven years ago after a decline in his father’s health, has also lived in L.A. and Miami, where he formerly ran several successful clubs along South Beach. Best known as the organizer behind the Def Jam-affiliated How Can I Be Down hip-hop industry summits of the ’90s, he also has plans to revamp the conference in Atlanta this year in conjunction with the city’s historically black colleges.
Future episodes of this season of RHOA may show Bailey, who also owns the Atlanta-based Bailey Modeling Agency, knocking down walls in the midst of the couple’s Bar One renovation, Thomas says. “Hopefully, if we’re back for the eighth installment of %22Real Housewives of Atlanta they’ll show the grand opening of the venue.”
In the meantime, Thomas says he’s been talking to area business owners and local law enforcement — including officers with the Atlanta Police Department and nearby Georgia State University Police — about improving the state of the Sweet Auburn District. “It’s not about me, it’s about us on Auburn Avenue. We have to get together to make this thing better,” he says. “We have to reclaim Auburn Avenue.”
??Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the situation involving the Memorial Drive location of Bar One.