Posted by Deirdre Oakley, ATLANTA, GA -- Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and celebrations will be in full swing all over Atlanta, his birthplace, and a city wholly identifying with his Civil Rights legacy. Known as the Black Mecca, or most recently as BET’s ATL, and Tyler Perry’s ATLwood, Atlanta’s reputation is one of African American opportunity. City Hall has been Black-run since the 1970s and more than 60,000 Black-owned businesses are located here. The city’s six historically Black colleges along with GeorgiaStateUniversity produce more Black graduates than anywhere else in the country. So the name fits well – how many other U.S. cities can boast such impressive post-Civil Rights credentials?
However, in recent years Black Mecca has become a lot whiter. New information from the US2010 Project (drawn from the American Community Survey) indicates that since 2000 the city’s white population has increased by almost 10 percent (from 31.3 to 40.8); while its Black population has decreased a little bit more (from 61.6 to 50.1). At the same time, Atlanta’s surrounding suburbs have experienced declines in the white population (from 77 to 63 percent) and an upsurge in the Black population (from nearly 19 to 26 percent). While moving to the suburbs typically implies greater economic prosperity, these trends do not. Atlanta’s suburban poverty has increased by three percent (from 8 to 11) at same time as city poverty has decreased by seven percent (from 28 to 21). The emerging geography is one of urban core revitalization along side near-suburban decline. This is happening in other U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago and New York as well, although none of them have ever laid claim to the Black Mecca label.
So why has Black Mecca lost some of its color? The Olympic Legacy Program initiated massive redevelopment as Atlanta prepared to host the 1996 Olympic Games, including the elimination of public housing. Spurred by the Games, real estate developers flocked to the city, as many Black working class residents were forced to leave.Older apartments and homes belonging for decades to these moderate income residents appeared to morph into luxury condos and lofts for “in-town living” overnight. But then came the housing bust. Now the city is littered with half empty and half finished high end real estate slowly falling into ruin.
Private real estate developers aren’t the only contributors to a whiter Atlanta – ironically keeping MLK’s legacy alive as played a role as well. Congress established the Old Fourth Ward, MLK’s childhood neighborhood, as a National Historic Site in 1980. Since then the social fabric of this famous historically Black neighborhood has been noticeably altered because the National Park Service bought up old homes and land surrounding MLK’s memorial. On Auburn Avenue MLK’s birth home as well as the surrounding properties have been refurbished and attract a steady stream of tourists, although no one lives in them. On nearby Edgewood Avenue empty and for sale commercial buildings sit, not unlike parts of Detroit. In fact, Detroit 1-8-7, a new TV cop series, was filmed right there on Edgewood.
Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at GeorgiaStateUniversity and Editor of Social Shutter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To view more “Is the Black Mecca Losing Its Color?” photographs, log on to our Facebook page.