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Sweet Auburn presses Atlanta for action after another violent weekend

A Georgia State University patrol car rolls through the intersection of Edgewood Avenue SE and Jackson Street SE, where tire doughnuts can be seen in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District community on Monday, July 6, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
A Georgia State University patrol car rolls through the intersection of Edgewood Avenue SE and Jackson Street SE, where tire doughnuts can be seen in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District community on Monday, July 6, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

The noise was deafening early Sunday morning in Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn district, where more than 1,000 celebrants took to the streets for fireworks, loud music and the sound of accelerating car engines and screeching brakes.

And then, gunshots. Too many to count. Fourteen people were taken to the hospital. Two would die from their injuries, Atlanta police said.

It was all part of an intensely violent holiday weekend that left 31 people injured in shootings citywide. Five deaths were reported, including an 8-year-old girl shot in the backseat of her mother’s car.

“This type of behavior is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated,” City Council President Felicia Moore said. “A strong message needs to be sent.”

“Enough is enough,” said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

But in Sweet Auburn, which includes the bars and restaurants that line neighboring Edgewood Avenue, the non-sanctioned street parties have continued unabated for six years. Local merchants say COVID-19 has brought even bigger crowds and, lately, more violence.

Just three weeks ago, three people were wounded in a shooting near the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard, according to Atlanta police.

Law enforcement says there’s not much they can do. And that was before Atlanta cops started disengaging, a reaction to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s decision to pursue criminal charges against nine Atlanta Police Department officers.

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Jason Segura, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ local chapter, last week confirmed the pullback, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Officers are afraid to do their job.”

In an email sent in late May to a local business owner, Zone 6 APD Commander David Villaroel said the department lacks the bandwidth to “keep Edgewood under control.”

“There are too many bars and restaurants located in a confined area, the sidewalks are too narrow, and there are not enough lanes to prevent the traffic from being congested,” Villaroel wrote.

Merchants say they don’t want to transform their diverse neighborhood into a police state. They’ve taken their complaints to the city, requesting permission to turn the area into a pedestrian-friendly zone on weekends.

“We’ve been asking for a method to make the streets safer for pedestrians and residents without a militarized Edgewood,” said Johnny Martinez, who owns Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden. “We’re just looking for a different way to get some structure on Edgewood without it looking like the West Bank.”

But the city hasn’t been receptive to the Sweet Auburn business community’s plans. Among the obstacles they face: Atlanta’s Streetcar, which runs along Edgewood.

Ryan Buchanan, general manager of Noni’s, a restaurant located along Edgewood Avenue SE, talks about his and other businesses’ desires for a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District community, Buchanan spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, July 6, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
Ryan Buchanan, general manager of Noni’s, a restaurant located along Edgewood Avenue SE, talks about his and other businesses’ desires for a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District community, Buchanan spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, July 6, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

“Every time we’ve gone to the city for help they essentially blame the bars,” said Ryan Buchanan, general manager of Noni’s. “But these aren’t bar patrons doing the shooting.”

In fact, most establishments along Edgewood have remained closed through the coronavirus pandemic.

Grant Henry, owner of Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, an Edgewood mainstay for 10 years, said his bar will remain closed until the city gets a handle on the street parties.

“When I wake up on weekends, I go to the bar and check the windows for bullet holes,” Henry said. “I’m not going to have any of my staff or customers killed.”

Residents at Wheat Street Towers, a 210-unit retirement community on Auburn Avenue, say they know not to go outside on weekend evenings.

Constance E. Clemons, 67, is seen here outside the Wheat Street Towers Retirement Apartments in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District community on Monday, July 6, 2020. Clemons has been affected by the partying that takes place on weekends in Sweet Auburn. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
Constance E. Clemons, 67, is seen here outside the Wheat Street Towers Retirement Apartments in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District community on Monday, July 6, 2020. Clemons has been affected by the partying that takes place on weekends in Sweet Auburn. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

“I’m on the 14th floor. I can see everything,” said Constance E. Clemons, 67. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You can’t sleep. You can’t hear the TV.”

“I don’t know how they’re going to stop it,” she said. “There’s so many people out there.”

The most recent shootings, which remain under investigation by the APD, started when a car performing “burnouts” at the intersection of Auburn and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive clipped a group of onlookers. APD spokesman John Chafee said that triggered a fight that ultimately led to gunfire.

It’s unclear whether another Sweet Auburn shooting, which occurred about 10 minutes earlier, was related to the street party. A man was shot in the 400 block of Edgewood after confronting another man talking to his girlfriend, Chafee said.

Buchanan said merchants are determined to avoid the fate of other once-thriving hubs for Atlanta nightlife — namely Buckhead and Underground Atlanta — that lost business and ultimately shut down because of surges in crime.

“We’re offering creative solutions,” he said. “We just need to get the city’s help to make them happen.”

But Henry said his patience is wearing thin.

“If they don’t do anything about this, I’m selling my building (on the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard),” he said. “Maybe I’ll get Starbucks to buy it.”