Forget Buckhead, Atlantic Station, Little Five Points and Midtown. Atlanta’s latest hipster destination is the MLK Historic District — especially Auburn and Edgewood avenues. It fact the neighborhood is almost groovy.
For years “Sweet Auburn” Avenue and the parallel Edgewood Avenue formed the heart and soul of African-American life in Atlanta. Then the area fell into decades of decay and destruction.
The once derelict streets are now home to stylish bars, restaurants, clothiers, and music venues, all within a stone’s throw of the final resting place of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King.
The juxtaposition of the reverent with the trendy can be jarring. Back to back with the MLK Center for Nonviolent Change is a bar named Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium. Across the street is Our Lady of Lourdes, the first African-American Catholic church in Atlanta. Next to Louisa’s is the Edgewood Corner Tavern, a pool hall.
Three blocks west of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. were pastors, Devon Lee owns the R&B, blues and jazz lounge Pal’s. His place is currently being renovated for a spring reopening.
“It’s going to be a great year,” Lee said. All my neighbors are opening at the same time as well. So the block should be pretty active with the warm weather approaching.”
The new Atlanta Streetcar ginned up some of the development in the district but it was a difficult birth. Courageous early investors in the neighborhood like the Sound Table, Noni’s Deli, and Pizzeria Vesuvius opened their doors just as construction began on the 2.7-mile streetcar line. The project disrupted Auburn and Edgewood traffic for several years. All three businesses survived to see the boom days.
The streetcar began running on Dec. 30 and now connects the MLK District with Centennial Olympic Park. It promises one day to link to the BeltLine, Atlanta’s visionary 22-mile transit parkway, and that will connect with the existing MARTA rail system. Sooner or later Atlanta is going to break the onerous shackles of carbon fuel vehicles.
A local personality Benjamin Graham, who calls himself Big Mouth Ben, has witnessed a personal rebirth that mirrors the renaissance of the MLK neighborhood.
“I went from sleeping under the Auburn Avenue bridge to owning a store on Auburn Avenue,” he told me.
You’ll find the former drug addict and homeless person pedaling his trademark yellow bicycle around the neighborhood to promote his business. The bike demonstrates use #99,999 for duct tape. Ben’s store is located at 376 Auburn Ave. Go by and purchase bottled water and snacks when you’re in the area. If for no other reason, it will make you feel good.
Public art abounds in the King District. Patrick Morelli’s sculpture Behold rises on the lawn of the new Ebenezer Baptist Church. It depicts an African male lifting a child toward the heavens. “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” reads an inscription.
On Edgewood Avenue, almost out of sight, an impressive two-story black and white portrait of a man creates a spellbinding image of moire patterns called stencil graffiti. Italian street artists Sten & Lex installed the work during the 2012 Living Walls Festival when 30 female street artists added 18 works of art to Atlanta’s urban landscape.
To add hyper-hipster cred to the neighborhood Sten & Lex were two of the artists “called” by Banksy to exhibit their art in a tunnel in London. That is cooler than vinyl.
I recently spent two afternoons walking along Auburn and Edgewood avenues. Besides the spiffy blue streetcar, the über chic night spots, and the explosion of world-class art, I was struck by something else, the absence of color lines or any other form of discrimination. Visitors to the King Center range from foreign tourists to octogenarian Mississippi grandmothers. A diverse group of Bradenton, Florida elementary school students were touring the MLK Center on my last visit. Edgewood’s entertainment district attracts the young and old of all colors, creeds, genders, and sexual orientations. There’s nary a whiff of privilege.
“I have a dream,” Dr. King declared, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
Now that the historic has melded with the hip that dream of inclusion has become richly evident just one block from the home where Dr. King was born and the tomb where he was laid to rest.