Great Fire of 1917

The Old Fourth Ward, which lies on the inner west side of the Eastside Trail, south of Ponce de Leon Avenue and north of Auburn Avenue, gets its name from Atlanta’s pre-Civil War era, before the city was divided into city council districts. For most of its history, it was an African-American enclave, much of it wet, low-lying land, including Buttermilk Bottom, probably named for the sour smell of the sewage that accumulated there. The area was devastated by the Great Fire of 1917.

By the 1960s, many streets remained unpaved, and the poorest residences had no electricity. As part of “urban renewal,” the homes in Buttermilk Bottom were razed, the land leveled, and a new Civic Center – now dated and rarely used — built there in 1967. Because various springs provided a convenient water supply, light industries such as laundries, dairy processors, and paper manufacturers were located there.

Although Ponce de Leon Avenue, its northern border, had once been home to some of Atlanta’s wealthiest families, they had moved north long ago, leaving a decaying commercial zone and once-elegant apartment buildings going to seed. Ponce became notorious for drugs, panhandlers, and prostitutes. Crime reached “absurd levels,” according to one reporter. Crack dealers openly conducted business on sidewalk couches.

The area began to improve, however, as whites moved back to the city in the late 1990s and early 21st century. Kit and Stuart Sutherland were among them. In 1984 they had moved to the traditionally white Virginia-Highland neighborhood, north of Ponce, which was fraying around the edges, with little old ladies subdividing their homes into apartments. During the time we were there,” Kit Sutherland recalled, “the neighborhood took off” with remodeled homes, nanny clubs, park restoration, and upward mobility. This was one of the BeltLine neighborhoods that threw a fit about Wayne Mason’s planned towers.

In 2001, the Sutherlands moved south of Ponce to the Glen Iris Lofts in the Old Fourth Ward, across the street from the derelict old Sears building. “I was 41. We sold for a handsome profit, came south and invested here, to be urban pioneers. We might not have come if we had children.” Her husband’s job as a lawyer allowed Sutherland, who had a master’s degree in historic preservation, to become active in Old Fourth Ward affairs, and she was delighted to watch the creation of the park and restoration of Ponce City Market outside her window.

Gentrification of the Old Fourth Ward was well underway even before the Eastside Trail was completed. In his 2007 novel, Them, African-American Atlanta journalist Nathan McCall wrote about the neighborhood, with his black protagonist riding “past the ash-brick factories now being converted into trendy lofts to make way for the chi-chi Yuppies swarming in.” McCall portrayed blacks and whites as equally fearful of them, the opposite race. “Among blacks, the mounting influx of whites was eventually viewed like the notion of death: a grim inevitability.”

It is certainly true that rents and property taxes in the Old Fourth Ward soared, and that many long-time black residents sold for a profit or were forced to move to a more affordable neighborhood. But it is not a one-sided story, as even McCall admitted. “With all the hemming and hawing about the perils of ‘whitey’ coming in, there was no denying that the neighborhood was slowly flowering into a more attractive place.”

Princess Wilson, an African-American woman who grew up in nearby public housing, loves the BeltLine and the blossoming neighborhood, and she welcomes her new friends, including Kit Sutherland. Born in 1948, Wilson was the third of four children. Her father owned a shoe repair shop in Buttermilk Bottom. As a child, she remembers daring to take a drink from the whites-only water fountain at the Municipal Market down on Edgewood Avenue, to see if it tasted any different, and then dashing away. In 1962, she was one of five black students to integrate St. Joseph’s Catholic High School. “It was terrible,” she recalls. “There was no blatant racism, but the white students you knew in school would ignore you when they saw you in town. I couldn’t be a cheerleader – that was for the long-haired blond girls.”

I interviewed Wilson in her small, neat home on East Avenue, just north of Freedom Parkway and a short walk to the Historic Fourth Ward Park and Eastside Trail. She served on the board of the park’s conservancy, and when we walked down Ralph McGill Boulevard to the Bantam Pub, a new community gathering place, she greeted many friends in what had become one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in Atlanta.

Yet Wilson admits that she is in a fortunate situation. A retired travel agent, she inherited the mortgage-free home and was able to refinance improvements. Property taxes have gone up, and new $450,000 homes have sprouted across the street. “Those townhomes they’re building on the corner will start at $500,000,” Wilson says. “People knock on my door with offers all the time. I tell them it’s $2 million, I’m not interested, I like where I am.”

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