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Torpy at Large: Who says MARTA West End doesn’t need Abernathy name?

It seemed like a fine idea, an effort by MARTA officials to honor Juanita Abernathy, wife of a civil rights leader and a civic treasure herself.

It also sounds like a mouthful: The Juanita Jones and Ralph David Abernathy at West End Station.

In January, MARTA’s board voted unanimously — and quietly — to honor Mrs. Abernathy and name West End rail station after her and her late husband, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr.

Mrs. Abernathy had just stepped down from MARTA’s board after a lengthy stint, and her colleagues figured, “Hey, there’s already Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard right by the station. Why not go all in on the Abernathys?”

Not so fast, say some longtime West End residents.

Changing the names of streets and other entities is an Atlanta tradition and it isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s done with the best of intentions, sometimes it’s done to stroke egos, and sometimes it carries a struggle for history — like changing street names from those that honor Civil War generals to those that honor civil rights lions.

Kay Wallace, a former Atlanta Olympics executive and West End resident of 20 years, said there’s déjà vu here. In 2001, MARTA wanted to change the station name to honor the masculine half of the Abernathy duo but backed off after community pushback.

“We’re asking them to do it again,” said Wallace. “This is not about not respecting them (the Abernathys). It’s about respecting the community and its history.”

Wallace was repeating the same argument trotted out by residents 17 years ago, that West End is an important chapter in Atlanta history and should remain as it is.

The West End MARTA station, exterior shot.
Photo: Bill Torpy/AJC

In 2007, MARTA returned with the idea, wanting to change the names of four rail stations:

» The Ashby stop was to become Joseph E. Lowery station because Ashby Street, named after Confederate Gen. Turner Ashby, was changed to honor the civil rights leader in 2001. (In 1992, the city toyed with the idea of changing Ashby Street to Malcom X Boulevard.)

» Bankhead station was to be named for Donald L. Hollowell because in 1998, Bankhead Highway was changed to Donald L. Hollowell Parkway in an effort to upgrade that road’s image. It didn’t work.

» The Civic Center station was to be named the Ivan Allen Jr. station for the former Atlanta mayor who had recently gotten a downtown street named for him.

» And West End was to become the Abernathy-West End station. In 1991, the city changed Gordon Street, named for a Rebel, to honor Rev. Abernathy, who had died a year before.

Longtime West End residents (from left) Kay Wallace, Joanne Rhone and Karl Barnes oppose adding the names of Juanita and Ralph David Abernathy to the local MARTA station.
Photo: Bill Torpy/AJC

But renaming those four stations would have cost $1 million for signs, maps and brochures. So the board did nothing.

I met with Wallace and two other longtime West End residents, Joanne Rhone and Karl Barnes, outside the West End stop.

Rhone, a retired Clark Atlanta University professor, and Barnes, a retired marketing exec, fought successfully to have the West End designated as a neighborhood historic district in 1991, and they are fiercely protective of their handiwork.

“Names mean something. It is who we are,” said Rhone. “The name has a sense of place for me. They are taking away the identity of our neighborhood. It’s been West End forever and a day.”

How long has that been?

Barnes has all that at the ready. It was founded as White Hall in 1835 by an English immigrant. After the Civil War it was changed to West End, named after the theater district in London. It became Atlanta’s first trolley suburb in 1870 and later was annexed into Atlanta in 1894.

The street that bears the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy’s name.
Photo: Bill Torpy/AJC

When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Barnes in 1991, the neighborhood was fighting urban decay and crack dealers. Later, it was the epicenter of mortgage fraud and absentee landlords. Now, it’s on a segment of the Beltline and its Victorian-style homes (the Wren’s Nest is here) are all the rage. So, West End residents have fought for their identity for years and don’t want to let it dissipate when it’s on an upswing.

Kimberly Permer, a leader in Neighborhood Planning Unit-T, suggests that MARTA or the city honor Mrs. Abernathy with a plaque or some other acknowledgment.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond, whose father, Julian Bond, was a civil rights leader, said he sees no harm in adding the Abernathys to the station name as long as you keep West End.

Charming old-timey homes in West End’s historic district are bringing interest into this intown community.
Photo: Bill Torpy/AJC

I could not reach Mrs. Abernathy, nor could I get anyone from MARTA to speak for this column. MARTA has formed a committee to look at changing the names of the stations above. Also, a station is named for the Georgia Dome, which no longer exists, and Fort McPherson is now a movie studio owned by Tyler Perry. (Madea Station?)

I spoke to a dozen rail riders at West End and encountered either shrugs or a sentiment to leave it be.

A fellow named T. Candy — yep, it’s tattooed on his neck — said: “It don’t matter what we say, they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. People around here don’t pay enough taxes for them to care.”

Anthony Jackson, standing next to him, added, “West End is West End. Leave it like it is. West End.”

T. Candy added, “This place needs a full remodel. It needs something, like clean the place.”

The West End MARTA station, like many others, could use some TLC.
Photo: Bill Torpy/AJC

He’s right. The station has missing tiles, broken ceiling slats with insulation hanging out, and is in need of a power washing.

MARTA recently allocated money to do that.

Another man, a Fulton County employee, was rushing to his car at the station’s parking lot. “Who’s Abernathy?” he asked. “West End. Abernathy. I don’t give a (crap)!”

Joshua Johnson called it “a bad idea.”

“There’s too much confusion; they already changed the bus routes 40 million times,” he said. Well, OK, maybe three or four times. “It’s always going to be West End, even if you change the name.”

Look, he added, they added Maynard Jackson’s name to the airport after the former mayor died. But what do people still call it?

Hartsfield.

Kesiah Smith doesn’t really care. She just wants the trains to come on time.

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