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'Endangered' Atlanta historic district seeks rebirth
At Wheat Street Gardens, farmers see a line connecting their work with that of Auburn Avenue's most famous residents.
August 25th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

'Endangered' Atlanta historic district seeks rebirth

By Emma Lacey-Bordeaux, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) - Monday through Saturday John Harris holds court at the Silver Moon Barber Shop on Auburn Avenue. There, amid the whirring fans and TV soaps, he greets clients, many he's known for decades.

Cutting hair is a family trade, one he took up after serving in the Army. It puts food on the table, he says, but more important, it affords Harris the opportunity to visit with people. In between clients, he sits reading the paper, looking up to share words with passers-by.

Silver Moon opened in 1904. It was one among many businesses run by African-Americans, for African-Americans, along Auburn Avenue. During the period of segregation this street was called the "richest Negro street in the world." The street existed because of the bleak realities of segregation, but in those days the corridor had a vibrant feel.

"This was a street full of people on Friday and Saturday nights. If you were in a car it would take you perhaps 15 or 20 minutes to go a block," recalls Wellington Cox Howard, a small-business owner on Auburn Avenue.

When Howard first arrived in Atlanta in the 1960s he made a beeline for the street. He had his first meal on Auburn, resided on the street, and when he graduated from college in 1970s, he decided to open his insurance business there.

But by that time, change had already arrived on Auburn. Howard recalls telling a friend about his decision to open up shop there.

"He said why do you want to go to Auburn Avenue? He said the city has integrated. He said we've all left."

Before integration, Howard says, Auburn was a city unto itself. African-Americans would come here for doctor's appointments, they'd come for entertainment, they'd come for banking and to start large construction projects. When integration came, African-American businesses spread throughout the city and the corridor lost much of its vibrancy.

This year, for the second time, the Sweet Auburn District was listed as endangered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit organization. This designation does not mean automatic funding for improvements, but the group says the attention often galvanizes efforts at preservation.

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