With an exaggerated wink and a wry grin, the Rev. Herman “Skip” Mason paused his inaugural service last week at West Mitchell Street CME Church to tell the congregation, “It’s so good to be back in the neighborhood.”
The piano player took the cue and tinkled some familiar notes as Mason sang, “It’s a beau-ti-ful day in the neighborhood,” to a chorus of laughs.
He continued, going all Mister Rogers, and belted out the entire “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as the choir and congregation chimed in.
Mason, an Atlanta native returning to his hometown, is West Mitchell Street CME’s 26th pastor since its founding in the late 1800s, when several churches took root on the Westside in the shadow of some African American colleges. Now, West Mitchell Street CME is a fortresslike brick building with perhaps 125 members, a shadow of its former self.
Mason spoke of a time when such areas were vibrant communities with shops, stores and churches, where kids played on the sidewalks and “self-appointed people knew everything that was going on.”
“We used to know our neighbors,” he said, as the 300 or so folks in the pews on Sunday, Sept. 8, nodded in reminiscence.
Today, the "neighborhood" is a patch of vacant lots, some apartments, a couple of churches and a $1.5 billion marvel/monstrosity (depending on your point of view) called the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In fact, two historic black churches, Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist, were demolished so Arthur Blank's secular cathedral could rise.
The "Benz" was mentioned repeatedly by speakers at West Mitchell Street CME's ceremony, cited as a vast monument to urban renewal and gentrification, forces that have repeatedly scoured the face of Atlanta.
Mason, a published historian and librarian, and a graduate of Morris Brown College and Clark Atlanta University, recounted the tides of the area’s history before noting “the landing of the mother ship, the monstrosity that totally blocks the view of downtown from the neighborhood.”
So, perhaps it’s fitting that the man now leading the flock at historic West Mitchell Street CME is also the founder of the popular Facebook site called “Skip Mason’s Vanishing Black Atlanta.”
Mason created the site seven years ago, posting photos from his vast collection. The posts drew loads of comments from Atlantans — mostly black — who were hungry to revisit a world increasingly lost to the fog of memory. He’ll post a photo of a skating rink or a school or a long-closed shop and will draw 200 or so comments and remembrances.
Vanishing Black Atlanta now has about 27,000 members and is sort of a zeitgeist for longtime residents who sometimes venture into discussions on politics, religion or just pet peeves.
Recently, the page had debates about Atlanta’s school board not renewing the contract of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, grumbling about renovations on MLK Drive, remembrances about civil rights activist Juanita Abernathy, and a discussion about the best high school rivalries from back in the day. It’s part collective memory, part “You kids get off my lawn!”
“We have a lot of energy on that page,” Mason said with a laugh. “I created the Vanishing Black Atlanta page because so much of the city has been torn down. People are connecting because we have such common memories of things we knew and loved in this city. It allows people to go down memory lane with their thoughts and feelings. It’s a repository of Atlanta history.”
The Rev. William Flippen Sr., pastor of Greater Piney Grove Baptist, joked, “I have learned more in the past few months than I have in the past 40 years living here.”
Former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman, who was the master of ceremonies for Mason’s service, said, “We have a longing for history in the black community because we have lost so much.”
Boazman, now a radio personality, called Mason “probably one of the foremost authorities on black life in Atlanta,” a man who will be a strong voice in the next few years as changes on the Westside take place.
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Intown living is increasingly a big draw, and the neighborhoods west of the Benz and the Georgia Aquarium are being marketed as the Next Big Thing. With this comes fears that those who have hung in there for generations will be pushed out if they can’t handle a climb in property taxes.
“Black folks aren’t buying those $300,000 to $400,000 condos; they are not built for us,” Boazman said. “The workers at the Georgia Dome can’t afford to live near that facility, and that will begin to cannibalize itself. There is an undercurrent running through Atlanta like the San Andreas fault.”
Mason is learning that firsthand as he tries to find a place to live.
“I’m house hunting, and the rising cost of houses is ridiculous,” he said, noting that a house across the street from nearby Booker T. Washington High School is going for $244,000. “That is unheard of just a few years ago. I’d like to live in Atlanta near my church, not in DeKalb County or Conyers or Douglasville.”
City, business and community leaders are trying to create a safety net — The Westside Future Fund — to prevent locals from being plowed under by progress. According to that group's 142-page "landuse framework plan," the median income for Westside households is $24,011, compared to $46,631 for the city of Atlanta as a whole.
Mason said he’s attending as many meetings and reading as much as he can about the area so he can be a voice in what happens.
“The traditional role of the pastor in the black community is the town crier, community spokesman, and the person people come to when they have problems,” he said.
And he’ll soon find out if it is truly a beautiful day in the neighborhood.