Curbed Atlanta | GSU researcher takes deep dive into Summerhill’s fascinating, turbulent history
With new Summerhill businesses opening, heavy machinery growling at construction sites, and a college football team settled into the former Major League Baseball stadium nearby, Georgia Avenue’s era as an abandoned, boarded-up retail strip might seem distant.
The reality, however, is that those desolate days weren’t long ago.
What might be harder to remember, though, is that Summerhill—one of Atlanta’s oldest African-American neighborhoods—was also once flourishing with retail activity and diverse, communal pride, long before Georgia State University and developer Carter began transforming the area.
“Summerhill has undergone multiple sweeping metamorphoses over the past decades, from which Georgia Avenue was not spared,” writes Dr. Marni Davis, associate professor of history at GSU.
Davis has recently been crafting the “Streetscape Palimpsest: A History of Georgia Avenue,” a website dedicated to chronicling Georgia Avenue’s roller coaster existence. It’s planned to be part of a larger work.
“Before World War II, Georgia Avenue was lined with grocery markets and restaurants, shoe repair shops and convenience stores, butchers and bakers and ice cream makers, even a movie theater,” she writes.
Below are a few key points from Davis’s research that shed light on the ups and downs that have made Summerhill what it is today.
Summerhill used to be two neighborhoods
In the late 1800s, after the Civil War, what’s now considered the east side of Summerhill became “one of Atlanta’s first African-American enclaves” populated largely by freedmen and freedwomen.
To the west and south of that area, wealthy white businesspeople and government officials controlled what many referred to as “the Southside.”
Then, Capitol Avenue was essentially the racial dividing line, with white schools, businesses, and other public institutions to the west and a black community to the east.
Old streetcar lines show how “racial inequality was built into the streets themselves”
A map of streetcar tracks from the early 1920s shows how minuscule the city’s current light rail system is. And it indicates how transportation infrastructure was once designed to favor whites over blacks.
“Georgia Avenue’s streetcar line was one of only two east-west lines serving the city’s southeast quadrant,” writes Davis. “Additional streetcar lines ran from the southern city limits along Capitol, Washington, Central, and Pryor, connecting residents to the city’s political and economic center.”
Summerhill residents didn’t have such ease of access and had to walk blocks and make track transfers to reach public services that more affluent white neighbors visited at their leisure.
“Further, while many of Summerhill’s streets remained unpaved decades into the 20th century, white Southsiders prevailed upon the City Council to regrade and repave Georgia Avenue, then a white residential street, so it might serve as a major artery moving people from Grant Park to the West End.”
Georgia Avenue becomes action-packed in the ’20s and ’30s
Georgia Avenue, stretching through Summerhill and the Southside, became a designated retail district in the 1920s, thanks to new city zoning ordinance maps.
“By 1930, one would find along Georgia Avenue branches of national grocery chains, such as the Great A&P Tea Company, and outposts of local chains, such as Jacobs Pharmacy,” Davis writes. “Eleven grocers, nine general merchandise markets, a butcher, a bakery, several hand laundry and dry cleaning establishments, a barber, and two shoe repair shops amply served the day-to-day household and service needs of the residents of Summerhill and the Southside.”
In 1928, a movie theater opened that even allowed people of all races to purchase tickets. Still, black patrons had to use the side doors and sit up in the balcony, while white folks claimed the floor seats.
The Southside bows to the automobile craze
In the 1930s, the once-wealthy and powerful Southside became known as a “neighborhood in decline,” according to Davis’s research.
As the automobile became popular, the area’s narrow streets and lots without driveways became a turnoff for motorists.
Plus, it didn’t help that many rich white people then sought more modern homes than what the neighborhood had to offer, and were moving to what constituted the suburbs to find them.
“But the primary reason for the neighborhood’s changing status was race,” writes Davis. “Atlanta’s white city leaders believed that mixed-race neighborhoods hurt real estate values and imperiled public safety. So they sought to make residential neighborhoods as racially and ethnically homogeneous as possible, primarily for the protection of real estate values in white neighborhoods.”
Years later, the Southside and Summerhill look (marginally) more integrated
In the 1940s and ’50s, the line dividing the Southside and Summerhill by race was becoming increasingly “porous,” per Davis.
More and more white business owners were opening up shops in Summerhill, “where their customers included the neighborhood’s ample black middle class.”
Black families even made up large portions of residential streets that had long been considered within white neighborhoods, “though they were often relegated to ‘rear’ rentals in the back of homes or apartments, or to makeshift alley shacks.”
Here comes the highway
The late 1950s brought more crucial changes to Summerhill, especially with the construction of the expressway along the Southside.
“Summerhill had already felt the effects of an earlier, massive municipal project, when the neighborhood’s northernmost blocks were demolished in 1940 to make room for the whites-only Capitol Homes public housing project,” writes Davis. “Hundreds of African-American families lost their homes, and were forced to move into increasingly crowded segregated neighborhoods—an omen of the residential displacement soon to come.”
The massive interchange planned to rip through the Southside was to be the biggest of its kind east of the Mississippi River.
Once the razing of the Southside began, damaging “urban renewal” efforts were kicked into high gear.
“By the end of the decade, the Federal Housing Authority had approved Atlanta’s program for ‘slum clearance’ projects in three older, poorer, and primarily African-American neighborhoods to the east, south, and west of the central business district,” according to Davis’s research.
Decades of unending evolution
This roundup, of course, does not paint a comprehensive picture of the times and trials of Georgia Avenue and modern-day Summerhill.
The neighborhood also witnessed the rise and fall of one stadium, the construction and conversion of another, the razing of historic buildings, and the introduction of new developments and businesses.
Summerhill has even weathered an Olympic Games and the complications that came with hosting it.
For a fuller story, venture through Dr. Davis’s treasure trove of history on what’s arguably one of the fastest changing corridors, and overall neighborhoods, in Atlanta.
By Sean Keenan
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