Life returns -- slowly -- to MLK's old neighborhood

January 19,2016

Jackson McGrady Smith Jr. remembers the first time streetcars rolled through the streets of Atlanta, connecting his African-American neighborhood on Auburn Avenue to the seat of white leadership Downtown.

Not that he had much use for them growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, when Jim Crow ruled the South and restricted where African-Americans lived, worked and socialized. Besides, Smith says, he had just about everything he needed up on Auburn Avenue, then the center of black life in Atlanta. In 1956, Fortune magazine dubbed it the "richest Negro street in the world."

    When the last streetcar rang in 1949, Auburn Avenue and other parts of the Old Fourth Ward brimmed with black-owned grocers, banks, churches, cultural institutions, restaurants and offices. The trolleys returned in late 2014 to serve a different group.

    Today, an electric streetcar shuttles tourists from Downtown Atlanta to Smith's old stomping grounds -- now a separate neighborhood from Old Fourth Ward called Sweet Auburn -- and the nearby King Center, which pays homage to the neighborhood's most famous resident, the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr.