Life with Gracie: Preserving Sweet Auburn one block at a time

Sweet Auburn had once been considered the wealthiest African-American neighborhood in the world. In 1956, Fortune magazine dubbed it “the richest Negro street in the world.” And for years, it was the epicenter of African-American business acumen, excellence and innovation. The concentration of wealth and influence was unparalleled.

But by 1987, it didn’t look like much. The National Park Service, keeper of the Martin Luther King Jr. legacy, had done a good job of restoring much of the Auburn Avenue block where King had grown up, but making the turn from Auburn to Howell Street was like “falling into an abyss.”

Mtamanika Youngblood hadn’t thought much of it until one day she and a neighbor witnessed the horror on tourist faces as they made the turn onto the street one summer.

The dilapidated houses, the unkempt vacant lots that dominated the landscape, Youngblood said, “was not representative of us and the people who made this neighborhood the great neighborhood it was.”

She and her neighbor agreed that day something had to be done.

And so that year, Youngblood and her late husband, George Howell, joined the board of the Historic District Development Corp. and began the work to change things.

Now some 30 years later, she, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who recently introduced legislation to include the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge building that once housed King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference into the National Historic site, and Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, were honored at a gala for their efforts to preserve and revitalize Sweet Auburn.

Organizers hope the June 2 gala will be the first of many to increase financial support for and spotlight the efforts of Sweet Auburn Works, the organization Youngblood helped found.

At her Auburn Avenue office Friday, Youngblood said it simply seemed like a labor of love, not something for which she needed recognition.

“Recognition is not what drives me,” she said, “but it’s ungracious not to accept the compliment and I don’t want to be ungracious.”

The New York native was living in the suburbs when she and her husband decided to move intown.

When the first house they wanted became unavailable, they found another property just off Auburn on Howell Street.

“In some ways, it reminded me of the street I grew up on in New York,” Youngblood said. “The yards were swept and the sense of pride among the little old ladies that lived there was palpable.”

Over the next year or so, they began a major renovation, painting, replacing, repairing what was broken until finally it was exactly what they’d dreamed.

After the tour bus incident, Youngblood began volunteering, revitalizing the residential portion of the neighborhood, buying property and then building new homes on vacant lots one block at a time.

In 1992, when BellSouth offered her a buyout, she took it and started working full time for HDDC.

Projects included turning a multifamily dwelling that had been a magnet for crime into a unit apartment home called Henderson Place.

“Nobody was going to move into the neighborhood until we changed that dynamic, so we renovated the building and made it a safe place for many of the seniors who’d lived there for years,” Youngblood said.

When an elderly neighbor fell and broke her hip, HDDC purchased her home, told her to hold onto the cash, found her a place, made it wheelchair-accessible and charged her minimal rent. She lived there until she passed away.

In 1999 in, perhaps, her biggest project to date, Youngblood turned a 225,000-square-foot warehouse for $18.5 million into what is now Studioplex, where artists can live, work, and display and sell their work.

“This was a 150-unit mixed-use loft project, and there had been only one project like it in Atlanta and that was King Plow,” Youngblood said. “Part of my body is in that project.”

Then in 2012, she turned her attention to the commercial portion of the Sweet Auburn District and helped organize Sweet Auburn Works, where she is president and CEO of revitalization efforts.

Youngblood had walked many times down blocks like Auburn Avenue, but this was the one that birthed one of America’s most important citizens — civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A million visitors from all over the world visit here each year, and the image of what hasn’t been done to preserve the neighborhood still haunts her, still demands her attention.

“I’d like to think that we would want the generations of young African-Americans who come after us to know their history and the story of incredible accomplishment Sweet Auburn represented at a very difficult time for African-Americans,” Youngblood said. “The lesson they need to take away is — if we could do that then, what can’t we do now?”