The Old Fourth Ward is really divided into two distinct neighborhoods by Freedom Parkway, with the southern half resting on Auburn Avenue. The eastern part of Auburn held a mix of housing, from cheap “shotgun” homes to more elegant two-story residences, such as the home where Martin Luther King Jr lived as a child. As a result of desegregation, many middle- and upper-class blacks moved from the neighborhood, and local businesses failed. The area swiftly went downhill, until one determined black newcomer named Mtaminika Youngblood spearheaded an effort to turn the neighborhood around.
Raised in New York City, where her father was a construction worker, Youngblood moved in 1971 to Albany, Georgia, to help manage New Communities, a large communal black-owned farm that evolved out of the civil rights movement. She eventually attended Atlanta University, earned an MBA, and worked for Bell South. In 1985, she and her husband, with their month-old daughter, moved to Howell Street just off Auburn Avenue, into a big old disheveled house which they rehabbed. “We thought, This is the Martin Luther King Historic District. Surely it will be revitalized.”
But as the older generation died, leaving abandoned homes, things just got worse, rife with crack dealers, prostitutes, shootings, and nightly thefts of building materials. Busloads of tourists would drive east down Auburn Avenue between the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site (run by the National Park Service) and the privately run King Center, go past the King birthplace, then turn left onto Howell Street. “We could see their faces drop, aghast at the vacant, overgrown lots and dilapidated houses,” Youngblood recalls.
She turned the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) into a dynamic volunteer-run organization that developed a “block-by-block” strategy, beginning on Howell Street, fixing up contiguous homes. That way, no one had to live next to a trash-strewn vacant lot or decaying home. Determined not to displace anyone, with funding from NationsBank and other sources, HDDC built in-fill houses and relocated elderly black women there on the same block, while their original home was revamped. Yet no one chose to move back to their old home. “Baby, I done lived there forty years, and that’s enough,” one woman told Youngblood.
I took a walking tour of the neighborhood with Mtaminika Youngblood, and sure enough, block by block, running up north to John Wesley Dobbs Drive (named for the early civil rights leader who lived there), the homes were restored. She winced at one concrete monstrosity that violated historical preservation, but otherwise, they were charming bungalows, shotgun cottages, or more upscale homes. Down Auburn sat Studioplex, another project Youngblood had championed (along with Starling Sutton), combining lofts and artist’s spaces.
“No one was forced out of this part of the Old Fourth Ward,” Youngblood said proudly. “We sold high-quality housing at good prices. But in the late 1990s, people were selling out to white people who could afford them. It happened in two years, doubling what they had paid. By the time we got a handle on it, we did sales differently, putting protective covenants onto homes, providing a subsidy to make a home affordable, but if you sold it within five years, you had to pay the subsidy back.”
As a result of her work, Mtaminika Youngblood was tapped to join the board of the BeltLine Partnership, where she pushed for 20% of the TAD funding to go towards an affordable housing fund, though she had to settle for 15%.