In the early 1960, the City of Atlanta decided to expand their street system by adding the I-75/I-85 Downtown Connector. For many, this new ramp was a sign of a growing city and a chance to ease transportation needs. However, for the predominantly Black residents who live near Auburn Avenue, this construction has left a lasting impact on the community and businesses for generations.
Sweet Auburn is a historically Black neighborhood, once known as the Black business district and home for many upper and middle class Black people. When the Downtown Connector was built, it divided the neighborhood in half; displacing homeowners, businesses and African American culture from the community.
On July 28, 2023 four Sweet Auburn Community members, Princess Wilson, Bessie Sellaway, Devon Lee Woodson and Neka Gillim, shared their experience and relationship with the Downtown Connector during a panel discussion conducted by The Center for Black Health & Equity in the Auburn Avenue Research Library. Executive Director Delmonte Jefferson opened up the session with a thanks to our funders at The Office of Minority Health (OMH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and represented The Center.
Princess Wilson says she remembers living in a small home with her parents and siblings before having to move across the street due to construction displacement. Bessie Sellaway spent most of her life advocating for the civil rights of Black people, recalling her work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Sweet Auburn community she calls home. Devon Lee Woodson, the fourth generation owner of Pal’s Lounge, says he has watched the community around his restaurant lounge become displaced and lose a sense of unity as a result of the Downtown Connector.
As the panel discussion unfolded, there was a common theme among the speakers’ experiences. The Downtown Connector restructured more than the city landscape. “When you remove a block full of businesses, income, and community, then it has a huge impact socially and economically on the neighborhood, “said Woodson. “The construction portion of it – that is one part you have to survive. And if you do survive that displacement, then you have to embrace a new identity.”
This ‘survival’ works twofold – surviving the tactics of the city but also overcoming the thought that your voice does not have value.
“Over time, it seems like the Auburn Ave community has been replaced by removing the Black ownership. We have transitioned from owning to renting and are more transient, rather than a neighborhood rooted by generations,” said Woodson. “When you have a foundation of where you come from, it gives you a roadmap and a way to go forward.”
Homelessness and crime have risen in the area. Goods and resources that were once a part of the neighborhood are now miles away. Residents who returned to Sweet Auburn are back as renters and tenants, not owners.
“Bring back majority Black businesses that we can use and afford. Business owners and not business renters,” said Gillim. “We need something to help the community, not a place that is going to give unhealthy food or alcohol,” said Wilson.
The future will require knowledge and meetings with people outside of Sweet Auburn to talk about what can be done next and fix Sweet Auburn.