Thursday, December 4, 2014

Wheat Street Gardens

Hello again! We're back with what will most likely be the last post of 2014! I'm not sure I'll be able to get another one done with holiday craziness coming up. So the next time you hear from me it will be the future, and I will have a flying car. Can't wait.

Anyway, the subject of today's post is a block in the Sweet Auburn historic district where Truly Living Well's Wheat Street Gardens currently bloom.

This block is bounded by Irwin Street, Jackson Street, Old Wheat Street, and Hilliard Street.

Early on, the block was remote enough that it didn't appear on the 1871 birds eye drawing. It does, however, show up in the 1878 atlas seen below. You can see that it was largely undeveloped with only a few structures and a nice little stream running through the southern portion.

I am assuming D. Give stands for Laurent DeGive, Atlanta's Belgian consul who opened DeGive's Grand Opera House. (Brief tangent: DeGive's Grand Opera House later became Loew's Grand Theater, where Gone with the Wind famously premiered in 1939. That's not on this block, though, so forget what I just told you immediately.)

Around 1880, DeGive and some business partners chartered the Gate City Street Railroad Company and ran the line down Old Wheat (just plain Wheat then) and up Jackson Street. The Gate City Street Railroad was a streetcar that connected the Kimball House hotel on Pryor Street to the Ponce de Leon Springs, a popular park where the Ponce City Market building is today.

Laurent DeGive, 1908 Constitution
In 1887, the Gate City Street Railroad was purchased and leased to the Atlanta Street Railway Company. You can see the line running along Jackson Street in the 1892 birds eye drawing below. Apparently, the line no longer ran along Old Wheat (unless the map is inaccurate, which is always possible). You can also see some more dwellings popping up on the block, as well as a new road, Grace Street (later Lyons Avenue), which bisected the block.

Over the next 20 years or so, the block developed significantly, as you can see in the 1911 Sanborn fire insurance map below. The densely clustered narrow dwellings on the southern half of the block appear to my semi-trained eye to be shotgun houses. 

The 1913 Atlanta City Directory provides some more insight into the block's demographics at this time. Compare for a moment the two sections of the directory below. The first shows our portion of Irwin Street on the north side of the block (the odd numbers are ours). On the map above, those are the larger (more affluent) houses along the top.

Irwin St, 1913
Now look at the section below. This shows our portion of Old Wheat Street on the southern end of the block (even numbers are ours). There are at least twice as many dwellings listed here than on Irwin Street, showing just how densely clustered they are. In addition, the (c) by each name indicates "colored" residents. In fact, all of the dwellings on this block except for the houses on Irwin and the northern portion of Jackson were inhabited by black residents.

Old Wheat St, 1913
Using the tools at our disposal, we are then able to surmise the social and racial demographics of the block: a handful of relatively affluent white residents mostly along Irwin Street, and a fairly dense population of lower income black residents making up the rest.

Whether black or white, rich or poor, it all went up in smoke a few years later. On Monday, May 21, 1917, a fire started in a mattress warehouse near Decatur Street. It was actually the fourth fire of the day (Mondays, am I right?), and the fire department was stretched too thin to contain it. It soon blazed out of control and spread northward, aided by the tightly clustered structures on blocks like ours.

The images below do not necessarily depict our block, but they might as well. You can see how huge the fire became and how chaotic the efforts to stop it and escape it were.

Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Georgia State University
This next image is a 1917 update to the 1911 Sanborn fire insurance map. The black outline encompasses the areas destroyed by the fire, which burned for about 10 hours and traveled over a mile. Only one person was killed, but thousands were left homeless. I outlined our block in red.

The following images show us the aftermath of the fire, dubbed the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. The first image shows what's left of our block (spoiler: nothing). The rest, like the fire images above, could be just about any block in the fire's path.

Most of the middle portion is our block.
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Despite the utter destruction brought by the Great Fire, it didn't take terribly long to rebuild. The 1919 birds eye drawing below shows how many new structures were completed in just two years.

According to the 1919 City Directory, the block now consisted almost exclusively of black residents, including the new dwellings along Irwin Street. As you can see by the atlas below, the rest of the block filled in by 1928.

Comparing the image above to the 1949 aerial photograph below, you can see that not much changed in the next 20 years. It also appears in the photograph that Lyons Avenue remained unpaved.

According to Reverend William Holmes Borders of Wheat Street Baptist Church, the housing conditions on the block at this time were poor. In an interview with the Constitution, he described an example: "Whatever plumbing they had was not evident. And they would put coal and wood in whatever bathtub they had, and they would chop off part of the steps to start a fire. There was slime and slick mud [in streets that were] not paved. There was a stone put there to keep your foot from sinking beneath the mud." Borders would later play an important role on the block. More on that soon.

As the Urban Renewal craze swept the nation in the 1950s, "slums" and "blighted" areas like this one were marked for federally subsidized redevelopment. Our block was part of the larger Butler Street Urban Redevelopment Area (URA) seen below (in between "STREET" and "U.R.A.").

1967 Housing Code Compliance Map
Courtesy of Georgia State University
A rather robust proposal for redevelopment on our block surfaced in the mid-to-late 1950s, which included combining our block with the one to the west, and extending it south to Auburn Avenue. The new, larger block would then be revamped with new commercial and residential structures. The numbers on the plan below are labeled on the key as follows:

06. Theater
10. Commercial Rehabilitation
12. Apartments (Low Rise)
13. Apartment House (High Rise)
14. Residential Rehabilitation

Butler Street Urban Renewal Study Area: Suggested Site Plan, 1957
Courtesy of Georgia State University
The 1958 rendering below shows a view of this plan looking east-ish (so from the left side of the image above).

Butler Street Urban Renewal Study Area: Perspectives, 1958
Courtesy of Georgia State University
That plan never came to fruition for whatever reason, but most of the existing housing was demolished all the same. The houses along Irwin Street were the only ones that remained. Reverend Borders was concerned about the displacement of poor black families caused by Urban Renewal-related demolition. In many areas, slum housing was removed and replaced by stadiums, civic centers, and highways instead of new housing. Borders and the Wheat Street Baptist Church (just a block away on Auburn Ave) chartered a nonprofit subsidiary called Church Homes Incorporated that would work with the government to provide affordable housing to low-income families. This housing project was developed in three phases and was called the Wheat Street Garden Apartments.

Reverend William Holmes Borders
The first phase of Wheat Street Gardens, not on our block, opened in 1964. Phases II and III were constructed in 1967 and completed in 1969. Wheat Street Gardens II was one block west of ours, and our block was Wheat Street Gardens III. This phase cost $5 million and had 108 three-bedroom units at $145 a month with a 100% subsidy. It was, as far as I can tell, Atlanta's first Section 8 housing project.

Wheat Street Garden Apartments
Initial excitement for these housing projects were high, but problems quickly arose. Hot water pipes were built into the ceiling, which froze and burst during the winter, flooding the apartments below. The sewer system was inadequate, which caused raw sewage to back up onto the property. These problems led to high vacancies, which in turn led to other problems like squatters and crime. The lack of residents also caused the developments to lose money, making necessary maintenance and repairs difficult. Borders blamed the city for poor construction and third-party realty companies for mismanaging the properties. Borders himself would clean up the grounds and mow the grass in an effort to help.

William Holmes Borders in front of Wheat Street Gardens
Despite his efforts, conditions continued to deteriorate. In 1974, Wheat Street Baptist Church was tried in Municipal Court along with five other apartments for housing code violations. Church members volunteered to organize a cleanup effort, making repairs and donating $79,000. Money went toward renovations, over 100 new fridges, and a seven-foot fence. Still, Housing and Urban Development estimated $2 million were needed for remaining necessary improvements.  By 1976, 30% of the apartments were uninhabitable.

Boys appear to be cleaning up the grounds, 1976
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
In 1977, Wheat Street Baptist partnered with Los Angeles-based National Development Corporation, Inc. (NDCI), splitting interest in the properties 50/50. In 1978, a class-action lawsuit was brought against Borders and the property managers by nine tenants seeking $12,500 in damages. That same year, NDCI took over total control of the Wheat Street Garden Apartments and shut Wheat Street Baptist out. Legal battles ensued with the church trying to regain title.

By 1981, roughly 70% of the apartments were vacant. The Constitution ran a story on the properties that year, showing the conditions within. Photos from that piece are below.

Interior of abandoned apartment, 1981 Constitution
Martha Copeland showing three-year-old fire damage, 1981
Courtesy of Georgia State University
Counter and cabinets no longer attached to the wall, 1981
Courtesy of Georgia State University
The properties were sold to Diversified Mortgage, Inc. in 1983.

Doing laundry, 1983
Courtesy of Georgia State University
The buildings remained on the block for the next 25 years before they were demolished in 2008. The aerial image below shows the block not long before the apartments were torn down.

The video below shows the state of some of the buildings at the end.

The footprints of several of the buildings are still visible, including some stairways that go nowhere. 

The area would remain vacant for the next couple years until Rashid Nuri, President and CEO of the nonprofit Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, leased the land for a new urban farm.

Rashid Nuri
Construction of the farm began in 2010. The two construction photos below (as well as the video above) came from Georgia Tech's Arkfab site. More images and a video of the TLW Wheat Street Garden groundbreaking ceremony can be found on their site here.

Truly Living Well's Wheat Street Garden opened in 2011. They host a farmers market and provide urban grower training classes, summer camps, and agricultural education. Information and more photos can be found on their website

The houses along Irwin Street remain intact, and they seem to be in pretty good shape.

Houses along Irwin St
The image below came from the 2012 Atlanta Streetcar Development & Investment Guide. It shows a potential plan for rehabilitation of the block with new housing, shops, and offices to coincide with the new streetcar running along Auburn Avenue. As we know from the 1957 plan, these things don't always work out. But it will be very interesting to see what happens to the rest of this block once the streetcar is up and running.

2012 Atlanta Streetcar Development & Investment Guide
And finally, here we are today. You can see the houses along Irwin on the north side of the block, Truly Living Well's urban farm on the western portion, and the remaining footprints of the Wheat Street Garden Apartments on the eastern portion.

And with that, I take my leave. I hope everyone enjoys the holiday season and has a happy and safe New Year! Until next time...


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