The City Too Busy to Hate has long been criticized for pursuing economic progress at the expense of history. From the demolition of the Kimball House Hotel to make way for a parking deck in 1959 through the razing of the Art Deco Terminal Station in the early ’70s, and the near-destruction of the Fox Theatre, Atlanta has a pitiful track record when it comes to preserving its past.
Particularly hard-hit are many places of significance to Atlanta’s black community. With the exception of the well-maintained Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site–kept up, it should be noted, with federal dollars–few of the city’s black historic landmarks can be said to be flourishing.
The original Paschal’s Restaurant and Motor Hotel, where King and other Civil Rights titans met to discuss strategy, sits boarded up and decaying. So does the old Atlanta Life Insurance building that housed Atlanta’s first black-owned million-dollar business.
Even as Black History Month strives to focus attention on the survival and achievements of African-Americans, tangible pieces of the city’s black history remain endangered and under-recognized.
There are myriad reasons why the city’s black historic sites are troubled, explains Skip Mason, archivist for Morehouse College and a specialist in Atlanta history. “The city itself has to promote a philosophy that cherishes its history and sees buildings as important to preserve,” says Mason. But there are other, more mundane factors at play, he adds, such as property ownership, community interest, and often, simple economics.
“It takes people with vision and, of course, money,” Mason says.
It hasn’t helped Paschal’s or the other historic sites at the edge of Vine City that they’re located in a part of town that’s woefully underdeveloped, where even tax incentives have not been enough to keep retail properties afloat. “The reality is that even historic buildings have to pay their way,” says Laub.
Still, there have been small victories in the realm of preservation. In 2008, students from GSU’s Heritage Preservation Program helped organize a successful effort to get the Collier Heights neighborhood listed on the National Register. Located just inside the western edge of I-285, it was Atlanta’s first planned suburb built by and for African-Americans, who’d “begun to flex their muscles economically and politically in the post-WWII era,” says Laub.
Which makes it all the more surprising that many of the historic structures on Auburn Avenue have been allowed to slip into disrepair, despite their rich history and proximity to the tourism nexus of the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Historic Site.
The old Atlanta Life building, located behind the company’s current headquarters, has sat boarded up for decades. In recent months, a banner has advertised that the original 1892 neoclassical mansion that housed Herndon’s growing business for most of the last century is available for commercial redevelopment. But with the real-estate market soured and the nonprofit community development organization offering the building all but defunct, the prospect of a rebirth appears dim.