Constructing African American Urban Space in Atlanta, Georgia

Article excerpt

Geographical literatures have long recognized places as imbued with racial significance; that is, places can be "racialized" (Holloway 2000; Tyner 2003, 2006; Melamed 2006; Alderman 2008). The literatures argue that scholars should see the codification of race in North America as contingent on the production of space (Delaney 2002). Building upon these insights, my research focuses on the role that persons of color play in making racialized space through a case study of the Auburn Avenue community in Atlanta, Georgia. Specifically, I examine an urban redevelopment scheme undertaken by Big Bethel AME Church, one of Atlanta's oldest African American institutions, to turn a city block across from its main worship hall into the "Renaissance Walk." The project is a $45 million redevelopment plan that includes 180 housing units and an additional 42,800 square feet of retail space. The research has wider significance because it examines Big Bethel's redevelopment and the place-making activities of segments of the African American community along the corridor.

First, by looking at the racialization of place from the perspective of those who live, work, and organize along Auburn Avenue, I contend that the redevelopment project is emblematic of contemporary black counterpublic spaces. Historically, the black counterpublic spaces included sites where segments of the African American community could come together to develop strategies to combat racism, work out the meaning of black identities, and engage in political debate (Dawson 2001; HarrisLacewell 2004). New York City's Harlem, Washington, D.C.'s "U" District, and Memphis, Tennessee's Beale Street exemplify the kinds of spaces that allowed African American culture to flourish in the face of racial segregation. Beginning in the 196os the significance and economic vitality of black counterpublic spaces began to decline in many communities, including the Auburn Avenue corridor. Many in the community see Big Bethel's redevelopment project as an attempt to recapture the "spirit" of Auburn Avenue--an invocation of the corridor's legacy that closely links to its history as a counterpublic space. Second, the redevelopment project is tied to images of middle-class African American identity and the construction of a unique, protected, progressive urban space primarily for African Americans.

To support the arguments of this article I employ a multimethod qualitative research approach that highlights local and specific knowledge about the Auburn Avenue community. I analyzed archival material housed at the Auburn Avenue research library, including newspapers, print collections, and other sources to familiarize myself with the street's historic development. In addition to its collection of the Atlanta Daily World, one of only two African American daily newspapers and located on Auburn Avenue, the research library has several archived collections from local and regional newspapers. I conducted open-ended interviews along the Auburn Avenue corridor with those who live, work, and organize on the street as well as with city leaders and bureaucrats responsible for urban development. The names of all interview participants cited in this work have been changed to protect their anonymity.


In Western society, for most of history, women, people of color, gay men and women, and people with "disabilities," among others, have been shut out of the public sphere (Fraser 1992). This exclusion has led to the creation of alternative spheres of public engagement (that is, "counterpublic sites"), where marginalized groups form "alternative, oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs" (Gregory 1994, 153). A variety of alternatives to the public sphere have emerged in Western, liberal democracies, providing opportunities to organize and confront hegemony (Fraser 1992; Dawson 2001). Black counterpublics developed because African Americans were historically excluded from the public sphere (Dawson 2001, 24). …