Atlanta 1950’s History Lesson

By Greg Treadway / Posted on May 28, 2015

The top photo, which comes from the GSU digital collections, shows an area on the southeast side of Atlanta’s center in the 1950s. The  demolition was just beginning for Interstate 75 & 85. That bottom half of the top photo shows parts of the Mechanicsville (on the left) and Summerhill neighborhoods. See a larger version here.

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The bottom photo shows what we have today. It’s basically unrecognizable, with a decadent amount of car infrastructure having taken over the neighborhoods, while disconnecting them for pedestrian mobility in the process.

Atlanta has lacked a strong, widespread culture of historic preservation. Big causes with wide appeal – like saving the Fox Theatre – are nice to see, but the more humble buildings that have disappeared over the years have gone down without as much of a fight. The destruction of pedestrian-friendliness by way of car infrastructure has “paved the way” for an inertia when it comes to preservation. If you don’t experience buildings up close, you don’t care about them as much – and you can’t experience them up close if you’re in a car all the time.

The modern-day aerial image shows a big spot of red Georgia clay just south of I-20. This is where the Cooper Street School (built in the 1920s but vacant since the 1970s) stood until sometime last year. The damage caused by interstates is still happening – it took out the housing, which removed the population; and it separated better-off neighborhoods from the worse-off neighborhoods that are still struggling with the economic fall-out of their disconnectedness.

The loss of population and good pedestrian mobility in these neighborhoods – and the way they’ve been geographically and economically separated from the rest of the city – has been acutely felt for decades. It serves as a grim reminder of our past mistakes with the city’s built environment. Can Atlanta leaders find a way to undo the damage?

 

Mechanicsville is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Atlanta. The neighborhood sprang up in the late 19th century, adjacent to several railroad lines just south of downtown. The name “Mechanicsville” comes from the “mechanics” that worked on the railway lines. It was once a vibrant multiethnic community with working class blacks and middle class whites, and home to several prominent merchant families, including the Rich family, of department store fame. Mechanicsville was established in 1870. The mural in the background displays this information from an artists work.

Its decline was caused by urban renewal, migration to the suburbs, and the construction of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and the nearby interstate highways. The movie ATL was filmed there. Big Gee of Boyz n da Hood was born and lives there.

Summerhill is one of two settlements established after the Civil War by William Jennings in 1865. Summerhill’s early inhabitants were freed slaves and Jewish immigrants. Wood’s Chapel and Clarke’s Chapel began offering worship services in 1866 within close proximity of each other. Wood’s Chapel subsequently became Allen Temple AME. Clarke’s Chapel’s congregation was mixed and sought to also promote education which it accomplished by holding the first classes of Clark College and Gammon Theological Seminary in its basement. Clarke’s Chapel was ultimately renamed the Lloyd Street Church.

In 1867 Frederick Ayer founded his school at Richardson and Martin Streets. The Atlanta Board of Education bought it three years later, making it the only public school for Black children in the City. The school was eventually renamed the E. P. Johnson Elementary School.

In 1966 there was a four day riot in Summerhill which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its leader Stokely Carmichael were accused of inciting following an alleged incident of police brutality. The riots resulted in one death and twenty injuries, and revealed the frustrations still present in lower-income black communities despite two decades of growing black political influence. Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. went to the area during the riot, pleaded with rioters, and worked with police and local black leaders to restore order in the area.

During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Summerhill was the site of the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events at the Centennial Olympic Stadium. After the Olympics, the stadium was converted to Turner Field. The previous Braves stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium located next door, was their home when the team first moved to Atlanta in 1966 until its demolition in 1997.

Since 1996, the neighborhood has been the site of rapid development. It is profiled as a case in urban development in Alexander von Hoffman’s House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America’s Urban Neighborhoods. Summerhill is now viewed as one of the most up and coming areas in downtown Atlanta. Home values have continued to rise and more and more upper-middle-class families are calling Summerhill home.

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