Sunday, May 22, 2011

Unlikely Neighbors

Posted by Chandra Ward, OLD FOURTH WARD, ATLANTA, GA – This is a story of unlikely neighbors across time and space. It is one about a once segregated middle class black neighborhood – which just happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. -- evolving into an increasingly affluent white neighborhood over the last few decades. Through this process new identities compete with the old, and some are left in between.

I really didn’t anticipate engaging in a cultural-historical moment, but that’s exactly what happened.  Early one evening not long ago I was walking my dog and we ventured into the neighborhood next to mine called Old Fourth Ward. We normally don’t walk this way so the neighborhood was unfamiliar to us. On our walk, I began to notice stark inconsistencies in the neighborhood environs. I saw young, white hipsters biking around, and a couple of flip flop-clad white men walking their dogs, one of whom stopped to talk to me about our respective pets.  I also saw a hunched over old black man in something like a trench coat pushing a cart. I ran into him twice.  And I saw a sistah talking on her cell phone outside a rather run-down apartment building.  We exchanged smiles. 

The most dramatic incongruence I noticed concerned the residences.  New or newly renovated houses stood beside or across the street from what looked like low-income red brick apartment buildings similar to the one where the sistah was standing.  These apartments had old window air conditioning units, while many of the houses next to them had enclosed porches with beautiful ceiling fans.  The sizes of these houses were literally as large as the entire apartment building next to it.  While several families lived in these multi-unit buildings, single families lived in equivalent-sized houses.  The tenants of the apartment buildings were black and Latino, while those of the large houses were white. What I was observing was a neighborhood of interdictory spaces, a neighborhood deep into transition.

I came back a few days later with my camera and began taking pictures on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue.  The fact that I was on John Wesley Dobbs is ironic. The man John Wesley Dobbs (1882-1961) was considered the “unofficial” black Mayor of Auburn Avenue.  Auburn Avenue is a street in the Old Fourth Ward that was once a thriving business district for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.  The street was considered to be “paved in gold” because it was home to more financial institutions, entertainers, professionals, educators, and politicians than any other in the segregated south.  Mr. Dobbs helped start the Atlanta Negro Voters League.  In 1936, he started a voter registration drive.  In 1948, he helped integrate the City of Atlanta Police Department.  He was also the Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, the first African-American Free Masonry group in the United States, and he was the grandfather of the late, Maynard Jackson, two-time Atlanta mayor and Atlanta’s first black mayor.  John Wesley Dobbs passed away in 1961. His death occured on the same day the Atlanta School System became desegregated. 

That’s the history but this is now and as I stood on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue I felt like I was watching two unequal worlds colliding: on my right, stood a renovated large blue house and on my left, an old apartment building.  As I walked closer to the apartment building, I could hear the sounds of Black gospel music.  There were about five of these apartment buildings along John Wesley Dobbs.  Their presence amidst the ‘silent’ large and immaculately-groomed houses was like a pebble in a shoe: an uncomfortable reminder of something important left behind and perhaps forgotten in an otherwise upscale neighborhood.
The photographs of the apartments tell their own story with tattered blinds shading the windows and Latino children playing soccer in the parking lot next to the garbage dumpster.  What was life like behind those tattered blinds?  What was life like behind the solid and neatly finished wood door of one of the large houses?  Though presumably different, these lives spatially intersect for at least a moment everyday.  But instead of gang tags marking their spatial territory, the homeowners have signs in their yard reading “O4WP” (Old Fourth Ward Patrol).  I wondered if any of the residents of the apartment buildings were part of this patrol.  Or were they patrolled by the patrol?  I saw trendy O4W bumper stickers on the vehicles parked in front of the large houses.  Did the apartment residents have these trendy bumper stickers as well? I didn’t see any. Did their kids go to the same schools as those living in the large houses? My hunch was probably not.

I then came across a small African Methodist Episcopal church with peeling paint.  I wondered to myself, “an AME church in a white neighborhood?”  Is this a relic of African-American history?  The family home of John Wesley Dobbs, purchased in 1904, still stands at 540 John Wesley Dobbs Avenue. Fifty years after his death, I am walking through John Wesley Dobb’s neighborhood, a neighborhood that had to have been all black during his time.  So where have all the black people of Old Fourth Ward gone? What would Dobbs and King think if they were accompanying me? What would scare them more, the striking neighborhood change or my digital camera?

Chandra D. Ward is a Doctoral student in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University. She is also Social Shutter’s Assistant Editor and a Team Leader on the GSU Urban Health Initiative, a project examining the impact of public housing demolition and relocation in Atlanta. You can contact Chandra at and view more of her photographs on her Flickr page.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting piece. I do find it ironic and sometime very disturbing to see the current conditions of Auburn avenue and the 4th ward area considering both their historical backgrounds that is near a complete opposite of what stands today in these areas.