Atlanta community development nonprofit embraces the legacy of MLK

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Since 1980, the Historic District Development Corporation has worked to preserve Old Fourth Ward’s history and residents.

For Cheneé Joseph, revitalizing historic Black communities includes ensuring residents in those communities aren’t left behind.

“Our mission is to really set the standard and be very passionate about what that standard in revitalization and community development looks like — to really ensure the non-displacement of individuals in the Old Fourth Ward,” said Joseph, 43, president of the nonprofit Historic District Development Corporation. “At this point, we’re really expanding that mission so that it’s not only the Old Fourth Ward, but any place where we can be instrumental in ensuring the non-displacement of Black people in their important spaces.”

Founded by Coretta Scott King in 1980, the Historic District Development Corporation is among the oldest community development organizations in Atlanta. The corporation was created to preserve the history and cultural relevancy of the area where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. The late civil rights leader was raised in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, which was once a thriving epicenter for Black-owned businesses. It housed the headquarters for the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s oldest Black newspaper.

In recent years, the area has seen clashes between developers and preservationists. But with new projects underway, the Historic District Development Corporation wants to continue uplifting the lush history and culture of the Old Fourth Ward — a mission that becomes more pertinent during Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I feel confident in saying that we are the original beloved community,” said Joseph, who lives in Mableton. “You hear that thrown around a lot, but we are his neighborhood. We’re the neighborhood where he grew up, the neighborhood that shaped him and the neighborhood that framed his thought around how we truly have to love one another and take care of each other. We receive significant input from our neighborhood and from the community.”

Credit: Donna Permell

Credit: Donna Permell

One of those developments is Front Porch. Joseph said the project, which broke ground in July, is the first mixed-use revitalization development along Auburn Avenue in 15 years. Front Porch comprises more than 100,000 square feet of space that will include four retail units, 22 affordable co-living rental housing units and a community garden, among other components. Construction for the roughly $32 million project is slated to be completed early next year.

Restoring the historic Haugabrooks Funeral Home into an art gallery and event space is a highlight of Front Porch. Established in 1929, the Black-owned funeral home was founded by civic leader Geneva Haugabrooks. The space, which officially opened in 2019, now features and celebrates the work of artists across the African diaspora from curators-in-residence AkaziATL.

Charmaine Minniefield, an Atlanta-based visual artist and activist, serves as the art director for Haugabrooks. The Old Fourth Ward resident said she’s worked in the King Historic District throughout her career and understands the importance of maintaining its legacy, so partnering with the Historic District Development Corporation felt necessary.

“At the turn of the century after Reconstruction, we were creating institutions all along here ... eventually the area was targeted by a white mob in the 1906 race massacre to interrupt Black potential, so by the time the civil rights movement came, all of that was a direct resistance to white supremacy,” said Minniefield.

“That whole narrative continues today. We are facing a lot of disinvestment in this area,” Minniefield said. “There’s flight that ebbs and flows based on gentrification and property values. Commercial real estate is unheard of. A lot of historical Black communities have been erased just for the convenience of development. What the Historic District Development (Corporation) does is stand in the way of that. It works with the community to secure historic spaces, preserve them, repurpose them and allows for development with their interests in mind.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Minniefield said she plans to feature more artists in the space and open it on a regular basis for the community (it’s currently open by appointment only). The basement of Haugabrooks will become a co-working space for artists to utilize new tools for their designs and collaborate with their peers.

“It feels right that we are holding (our ancestors’) memory and their legacy and what they stood for … Geneva Haugabrooks was one of those luminaries, grand ancestors of Atlanta, and to stand in what she built for our community and preserve it and to make it relevant means everything,” Minniefield said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

The Historic District Development Corporation is also working to redevelop the Henderson Place apartments, located at 514 Irwin St. NE, to include 76 units (it currently has 58 units of affordable housing). Joseph said the organization plans to add a community grocery store on the first floor. She said current residents will be relocated to spots within a mile radius of Henderson Place when construction begins. Financing for the roughly $30 million project is set to close in April.

Joseph said ensuring that residents are returning to their homes instead of pushing them out of it is crucial to the work of the corporation.

“Gentrification is revitalization with displacement,” Joseph said. “People sometimes will say that gentrification is not that bad. Well, yes it is because it’s displacement. Revitalization is great as long as we can keep that core community in place.”

Although Joseph cites the lack of investment in their projects as a challenge for the Historic District Development Corporation (she said less than $500,000 for the Front Porch project came from philanthropy), she’s hopeful that the nonprofit will continue to redefine what community-oriented revitalization looks like.

Thoroughly engaging with and supporting the people who comprise a neglected community is a practice that Joseph wants people to remember beyond Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I think it’s great that we have a day and people are actually working and giving back to their communities on that day, but you don’t build a house in a day, so you can’t think that we’re going to fix our issues in one day,” Joseph said. “Let that one day be your inspiration to doing more every month, every week, making sure that you’re giving back on a regular basis and really supporting the neighborhoods and the communities and the entities that are trying to improve this world.”


Historic District Development Corporation

522 Auburn Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-215-9095,