Neighborhoods - Old Fourth Ward - 2014
Kwanza Hall, Grant Henry, and Joe Stewardson on the historic neighborhood's revitalization
The corner of Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard in Old Fourth Ward might be one of Atlanta's most striking neighborhood changes in recent years. Today, residents from Sweet Auburn, Old Fourth Ward, and beyond convene on this corner for nighttime drinking, dancing, and a growing number of restaurants aside the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District. The New York Times has published glowing portraits of the neighborhood. Home prices are booming and a streetcar connecting the area to Downtown attractions and hotels will start operating this summer. Just 15 years ago, though, this was a desolate strip of empty storefronts, abandoned houses, and rampant drug dealing and prostitution that inspired songs such as Pill's "Trap Goin' Ham." Sample lyric: "Nines, halves, deuces/Grams, ounces, pounds/Spot jumping so hard it's bouncing off the ground."
On a recent Friday afternoon, three neighborhood residents who've been part of that change got together for a joyride around the block. Kwanza Hall, the District 2 city councilman who represents Old Fourth Ward, Downtown, Sweet Auburn, and other nearby neighborhoods, dropped in from a meeting. Joe Stewardson, the president of the Old Fourth Ward Business Association who first started buying and renovating vacant buildings in the neighborhood in the late '90s, strolled over from his nearby loft. Grant Henry, owner of the wildly successful and somewhat controversial bar Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium, showed up with his most recent purchase: a 1975 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.
Hall, Henry, and Stewardson all have history with the neighborhood, but they're all aware that the neighborhood has more history than them. They're as determined to preserve the historic buildings and style of the area as they are to have it succeed. "Of course, we wouldn't be standing on this street corner together without Dr. King," Stewardson says as the three step into the backseat of the Rolls-Royce. They ask me, the reporter, to drive.
As we pull around the corner past Ebenezer Baptist Church, Hall recalls his earliest memories of the neighborhood.
"I used to come over here as a kid to the King Center," he says (pictured top right). "I can recall a time when Jimmy Carter was president and we were going to Ebenezer Church to meet him. Later, I was a lifeguard over at the swimming pool and that corner pointing at Sister Louisa's Church was a grocery store."
But not all of his memories were fond. "Man, it was serious. You didn't wanna go over there at night time," he says as we pass the gas station at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Jackson Street just a block from where Noni's (pictured bottom left) now stands. "This was called the Quicky Picky and it was all prostitution around here."
Stewardson chimes in. "Even when I moved here in '99, you could go in there and get the works," he says, referring to a code for a crack pipe, scouring pad filter, and lighter.
"Everybody thought he was a fool for buying a place in the neighborhood," Henry says of Stewardson. Of course, Stewardson's commitment to investing in Old Fourth Ward doesn't seem foolish now as we ride over the nearly completed street car tracks in Henry's vintage Rolls-Royce. The success seems to be rolling in, but Hall reminds us that it didn't happen quickly.
"We moved in the neighborhood in '99, as well," he says. "Living here is a risk, but we all felt the energy, we felt momentum, we saw the potential. It surely has taken longer than most people would expect out of an investment, but it's been well worth the time and energy to hold on I would say. It's a labor of love because you can see the progress. We've watched it grow. I mean remember we talked about a streetcar and now we can actually see tracks in the street? It's amazing. Who would've believed that we could pull this off?"
Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium
Grant Henry's two-story bar has an irreverent religious style - a bar stocked with "spiritual sangria" and walls covered in Henry's own brand of kitschy (and obscene) Christian paintings - that hasn't always gone over well in a neighborhood packed with historic churches. But the diverse crowds (who range from neighborhood ping-pong junkies to Hollywood celebs slumming it) prove that it's a place for the whole neighborhood to break bread or booze. 466 Edgewood Ave. 404-522-8275 www.sisterlouisaschurch.com.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site
This strip of destinations along Auburn Avenue provides a variety of ways to learn about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and legacy. At the birth home, tour guides give insights into King's younger years and the discipline that led to his success as a speaker and scholar. At the King Center, historical artifacts and roundtable talks bring his work into the future. Even a nighttime visit to the area should include a stop at King's tomb and eternal flame to pay respects. 450 Auburn Ave. 404-331-5190. www.nps.gov/malu.
Noni's Bar & Deli
Though Noni's is a decent place for Italian food during the week, it transforms into Edgwood Avenue's defacto dance party on the weekends. Come prepared to shake your ass and sweat it up. This place gets packed. 357 Edgewood Ave. 404-343-1808. www.nonisdeli.com.
The Edgewood Corridor still doesn't offer much in the way of businesses open in the daytime, but this quaint coffee shop located near the intersection of Boulevard and Freedom Parkway is your best bet in the neighborhood for a decent shot of espresso and a pastry. 480 John Wesley Dobbs Ave. 404-524-5054. www.condesacoffee.com.
Thumbs Up Diner
This classically styled diner serves up fish and grits, thick waffles, and piles of bacon like any hangover-curing brunch spot should. Prepare to wait on the weekends, as the whole neighborhood seems to descend here to recover from their sins at Sister Louisa's Church. 573 Edgewood Ave. 404-223-0690. www.thumbsupdiner.com.