OPINION: Reclaiming joy in Joyland

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

For my journey to Joyland, a historic neighborhood on the southeast side of Atlanta, I attempted to follow the directions published in a 1951 advertisement in the Atlanta Daily World .

“Go So. Pryor Rd. about 3-4 mi. beyond University Drive to Groover St. Follow Road to top of hill.”

Atlanta has a penchant for renaming streets, so I should have known better.

There is no Groover Street in this part of town anymore, which is no surprise given that the namesake of this neighborhood disappeared more than a half-century ago.

Now, a collective of residents led by Kenneth Akbar, who recently returned to the home where he was born in 1958, are hoping to re-energize the forgotten neighborhood and create a model community worthy of being emulated.

The Joyland Park neighborhood began as the Joyland amusement park, a 10-acre marvel developed for Black citizens. When it opened in 1921, the Atlanta Constitution called it the “colored Lakewood,” a reference to the nearby Lakewood Fairgrounds that was reserved for white residents only.

After an opening that welcomed local luminaries, including then-Mayor James L. Key who gave remarks to the 5,000 park attendees, the park faced trouble when a windstorm damaged an animal cage and a leopard escaped. After the park closed, the area would be repurposed as farmland. In 1951, it was redeveloped as a community of 50 brick homes that could be had for $6,275 and a down payment of $625.

This culturally rich African American community with grocery stores, businesses and a community center was the neighborhood Akbar remembered when he returned in 2017. But during his years away, the community had declined.

Businesses that had sustained the community were gone. Drug dealers left the mostly older resident feeling like hostages in their own homes. The baseball field and tennis courts were abandoned. And no one seemed to be doing anything about it.

“All those great people that purchased land at the turn of the 20th century and those who built Joyland amusement park, people like my parents who made sure the community was the magical place that it was, I feel their spirit,” Akbar said.

Akbar began reaching out to residents. He crafted a mission statement to bring back civic responsibility and enterprise to the neighborhood. He restored his parents’ home and did media interviews to promote the revitalization efforts.

Some of those efforts are taking root. They got the speed limit reduced to 25 miles per hour. Last year, they changed parking regulations to one side only given the narrow streets. In the spring, they will get speed bumps and anticipate Georgia Power relocating overhead power lines underground to prevent outages.

Nourish Botanica, a greenhouse and eatery founded by Quianah Upton, now sits at the corner of Pryor Road and Thornton Street. Upton recently received a $5,000 grant from Cricket Wireless and WWE as one of their “Small Business Superstars” to grow her business with an entertainment space that will serve as a community gathering spot, and a cafe which has a soft opening on March 4.

Upton did not know about the neighborhood’s history before occupying the space, but her vision to create a place of healing and joy fit the neighborhood ethos and legacy. Upton knows change is coming to the area but she hopes to remain a space where neighbors feel that they belong.

Fred Baughn, 61, has lived in Joyland since 2007 when he moved into the home his late mother purchased in 1996. As he nears retirement, he hopes to pay off the mortgage next year. But the taxes and insurance keep increasing.

He acknowledges the good and the bad in Joyland, and hopes the revitalization comes to fruition. “I like this neighborhood. I have been here for awhile, but I wish it was given the same consideration as the more expensive neighborhoods,” Baughn said.

That’s the dilemma: how to address the inequities produced by concentrated poverty and disinvestment in certain neighborhoods.

I want the residents of Joyland to succeed in their mission and demonstrate that community revitalization does not have to result in cultural displacement.

Akbar said one of the first things he noticed on his return to metro Atlanta was all of the historically Black communities that had been gentrified with no recognition of the sacrifices and contributions of the people who had built the communities.

“I have been the vanguard to make sure that doesn’t happen to this historic community,” he said. Currently, the biggest investor in the community is a couple that live in the neighborhood and own seven properties, he said.

“Some of the homes have lived past their lifetimes. It is inevitable that this takes place .We just want to be at the forefront of it so we can make sure the necessary safeguards are in place,” Akbar said.

The civic league is launching a new website, historicjoyland.org, to share the vision. They have created a nonprofit and will soon be accepting donations from those who want to support them.

“Our efforts have gained so much momentum,” Akbar said. “We want to bring that type of spirit back to the community.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.