This episode begins on the historic spot where two dirt roads intersected and consequently gave rise to the city of Atlanta. Today, that crossroads is a busy intersection, and it anchors a residential neighborhood that’s since experienced chapters of segregation, integration, devaluation, and gentrification. Hear more stories from the locals who make Atlanta’s West End what it is today.
Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Cohen Opportunity Fund, The Hoffberger Foundation, and The Muse Web Foundation.
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, it’s a special edition of Out of the Blocks from the West End in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s one neighborhood, everybody’s story.
There’s a major gentrification situation going on in this community, and so we are sort of at a tipping point about how that is going to be played out. You know, the first gentrification was the Trail of Tears, and so this is not a new story. About five hundred years ago, Europeans came here, fleeing economic oppression and violence in Europe. They came here illegally. They didn’t get a passport, they didn’t have papers. They came here and they waged a war of genocide against the native population. And then they kidnapped millions of people from Africa and brought them over here to do the work and then they made a fortune off of stolen land and stolen labor. That’s the foundation of American wealth. And so, when people make phrases like, “Let’s make American great again,” what does that mean? When was America great last, and what’s your definition of “greatness?”
From the minds of Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with WABE, it’s a special edition of Out of the Blocks right after this.
Robert Thompson: My name is Robert Thompson. I’m a history buff. I like to walk, and I’m a people-person. Around this part of what is now Atlanta was a crossroads. 1820s, 1830s. The rest of this is dense forest, like what you’d see in north Georgia.
AH: Say what two streets we’re currently at the intersection of right now, and sort of the significance of those names.
RT: Ralph David Abernathy and Lee. Lee is not Robert E. Lee that we know as the head of the Army of Virginia, but a southerner named Robert Lee who was also a general of the Confederate Army. And then Ralph David Abernathy, who was the second-in-command for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King, and took over at his death. At or near this spot stood White Hall, a large-frame structure built in 1835. White Hall was designated as the election precinct. So, basically, this is where Atlanta… the first commercial government building in what is now Atlanta. It is one of the most historically significant corners in the city.
AH: Do you want to introduce yourself?
Person 1: My name’s Smiley. Right now we’re in the West End trying to get it in, hit the block, hit the clock, run it up real quick. You know what’s goin’ on.
Person 2: You in the hood right now. You in the real part, one of the real parts of Atlanta, you feel what I’m saying? We won’t let nothing happen to y’all, I promise.
Person 1: We’re gonna keep you safe out here, but my mans just said some hood s*** about the real truth.
Person 2: We’re out here. We won’t let nothing happen to y’all, though.
Person 1: We on the West Side! You know what’s going on! The worst end of the West End.
Person 2: F*** the police and everything.
Person 1: The cops don’t do s*** but try to arrest n****s, that’s it.
Person 2: I’ve got 25 dollars and eighth.
AH: Is that a good bargain around here?
Person 2: Hell yeah! Do you know what an eighth costs? 40 dollars. I got it for 25. Real OG kush. Straight from Colorado.
RT: There’s so many realities going on in the same space and you know… the cops arrest them for a reason. They’re out here selling drugs. I mean, it’s a deeper problem than that. You know, I mean, the drug laws are just—you know—a different form the way they’re applied and enforced than, you know, the vagrancy laws back in the turn of the century. But you know, like I said, there’s a lot of different realities in the same space. Go straight down and we’ll go right into that line. These are some really fabulous houses. Here, the white one, that just sold for a half a million dollars. So ten minutes away from the corner, people living on the edge, and then at the other extreme you have this.
Carolyn Sims: It’s a bungalow, so welcome to our grand entryway, foyer, living room and then two feet over is the dining room! I’m Carolyn Simms and we are in West End. We are on Beecher Street SW and we have fabulous neighbors, which is why we moved here. My husband I both work in Midtown and were really tired of a 45-minute commute every day, both ways, so we just started driving and knew that we were ready to settle down and find a home rather than just renting and not really staying put. As soon as we drove into West End, we saw all the houses and saw everybody out doing yard work and it was just this… it almost just instantly clicked. We actually met all of our neighbors before we even offered on this house. We were poking around out front and our neighbors across the street, John and Nakia said, “Hey, are you guys interested in the house?” and we sort of awkwardly stood there and went, “Yes, is that okay?” because you never know if your neighbors will be excited to know you or if they’ll be like, “Ugh, we don’t like that couple.” And they invited us over for a party that night, and said, “Hey, we’re having a bunch of neighbors over, maybe you want to get to know the people that live in the neighborhood before you make a decision on the house?” And we sort of hemmed and hawed and went, “I don’t know, maybe they were just being nice to us and they didn’t really want us to show up.” But we showed up and we said, “Thanks for the invite, we actually came.” And they were like, “Oh my God, you actually came!” and it was just this amazing opportunity to get to know everybody and after that, it just sealed the deal. We realized as soon as we left, we went, “We have to make an offer on the house. We’re home.” It’s probably an adjustment for a lot of people who have lived here a long time to see the changing demographics of the neighborhood. I feel like there’s a lot of people—I’m in my mid-thirties—there’s a lot of people my age and younger that are not really interested in making long commutes out to the suburbs, and if you live in a city, enjoy the city! Live in the city and really invest in it. So, that’s how we felt moving into a neighborhood that has such a long history in Atlanta, and we really found a home here. It’s been great.
Joanne Rhone: Well, most people are not oriented to having a sense of place, and mine may come from the fact that I grew up on a farm. And so you definitely embrace something called “place,” and what you get from it. You have a sense of what grass smells like when it gets cut. You can still remember all of those kinds of smells and things. So, there is a sense of place. That’s the way I feel about the West End. My name is Joanne Rhone. I love this neighborhood. I went to school here, I went to graduate school here at Atlanta University School of Social Work in 1964 and I decided to stay here. When I started trying to get a loan to buy a house, I had saved the money to make the deposit but I could not get a loan because I was not married. And it was doubly difficult for me because I am an African American woman. I was told over and over and over and over and over again, “No.” The person who was head of the National Bank of Georgia served on a committee that we served on together. So, it happened that I came to a meeting—which I really didn’t want to go to, because I really sick and tired of trying to make something happen for other people that I couldn’t make happen for myself—and so, I was unusually perturbed in the meeting, and that was not my usual personality in participating, and so he wanted to know what was the matter with me. You know, and I described what I had gone through and all of these different places, and then he told me that he was the head of that National Bank of Georgia and said, “Come and see me and we’ll talk.” So, that made a difference for me.
AH: You’re a single woman but you don’t live here alone. You have your dog. Tell me your dog’s name.
Kim Scott: I am Kim Scott and we are in Atlanta, historic West End. My faith allows me to be centered, you know, it gives me peace. My faith is everything. One thing I pray for is if there are public safety issues in my neighborhood, you know, I pray against that and that our quality of life is no jeopardized. We’ve gone through a transition with the new mayor and the new administration, so usually I pray that, you know, the new administration makes good choices and good decisions on behalf of the constituents of Atlanta, and that they’re not using their power to manipulate people, but that it will be for the good of the people that voted them in. So, those are some of the things I pray about pretty consistently. I don’t know if Gabbie shared this with you, but I was a candidate for Atlanta City Council for this district last year. So, I was really excited to, you know, be in that race and we’ll do it again when it comes up next term.
AH: What did you learn about the campaign last time that you’re going to keep in mind next time?
KS: One thing is that we take for granted people. You know, people matter, their voices matter and what concerns them concerns them. I didn’t take that for granted but I think it really just hit home, the different things that people were concerned about and the fact that, you know, sometimes they felt like they didn’t have a voice.
AH: What is your biggest regret? Do you have any regrets?
KS: Not necessarily regrets. You know, I was married for almost ten years and so the divorce was a very traumatic experience for me because I come from a very family-oriented environment, but out of that came some aspirations and goals that I probably never would have done, because I never would have run for Atlanta City Council if I was still married because, you know, I was also concentrated—and taught, especially as black, southern women that come from a family environment—we’re taught to be a good wife and to be a goof mother, but you know, after that experience, one of the things that God shared with during my prayer and meditation time is that, “I led you in this wilderness to see what was in your heart.” So, out of that came the aspiration, desire, and the bravery to do some of the things that I probably never would have done if I was still married.
AH: When does the next campaign rev up? When do you guys have to get organized?
KS: Oh my gosh, we’re getting organized right now. So, the term is every four years, so we’re starting now with some of those… and, and, and you know, now I’m even open to other things, you know, so again, I never would have branched out and did this, but Atlanta is just the beginning.
Multiple Voices: From the West End in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s one neighborhood, everybody’s story. Out of the Blocks.
Taure Anwar: We’ve got a Wurlitzer here. We’re on Ralph David Abernathy. It’s one of the main roads that goes through the West End, and what we’ve done is we put the piano out against the building. It’s to draw attention to the space, but also to give people a break as they’re walking down the street. You know, people in the community might be going to work, they might be going to get their hair done, or they might have some sort of trial or tribulation on their mind. Music…it breaks those things up. So, they might come by. Sometimes I’m inside, working on a project and I’ll hear the keys just go off and it’s just somebody just walking by and playing it and if that time and space gave them a little bit of reflection or, you know, some goodness—that’s really what it’s hear for. My name is Taure Anwar and we are in Atlanta, Georgia at Gallery 922 on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. It’s a definite communal space. We leave the doors open for a reason. We wanna make sure that anyone in the neighborhood is able to come here if they want a cup of coffee or, you know, they need to use the internet or if they have a meeting or there’s something going on that they want to talk about, we want to provide them a platform to do that, and that’s this space here.
Nancy Santos: The hair needs cleaning. That’s why people come here—they have dirty hair. My name is Nancy Santos. Atlanta, Georgia. The name of the business is Brooklyn Dominican Hair Salon by Nancy and I take care of people’s hair.
AH: You’ve got a beautiful space here. You’ve got lots of chairs for lots of stylists. You’ve got a black and white checkerboard floor, white and pink walls, mirrors all over the place, and you guys specialize in the blowout.
NS: This is the way Dominicans do their hair, because we use a brush.
AH: A brush and a blow-dryer is all it takes to make the magic happen.
NS: Yes. That’s Dominican magic. I’m from Dominican Republic. I moved from DR in 1999.
AH: And tell me about your clients, your customers. Are they Dominican?
NS: No. The majority—98% is black American women. I think that she likes Dominican hair because the hair is similar, the same, like my country.
Antonisha: My name is Antonisha and I’m getting my hair washed and pressed out. This is my second time coming.
AH: What brought you back the second time?
A: The quality of how straight my hair is after I leave, and how long it lasts.
NS: I love doing hair, all my life and I never stopped. I don’t want to stop doing it.
AH: I wonder if you might introduce me to this young woman. She’s out doing an interesting project here, isn’t she?
NS: Yes. This is Amber and she came in, asking me about… she wanted to do a project in here and oh, that’s magnificent.
Amber Domingue: So, my name is Amber Domingue. I’m going into my second year of my master’s degree at the University of South Carolina. I study linguistic anthropology, and I’m at the salon because I have an interest in looking at the cultural connections between Dominican women and black women in the city of Atlanta. I learned a lot. I have a lot of women saying that they go to African hair salons to get braids, twist outs, things like that. They go to black salons and they might get a relaxer, but they come to Dominican salons because they value the health of their hair and the natural nature of their hair and the way that Dominicans are still able to straighten their hair.
AH: It’s a fascinating relationship because there’s a language barrier, but there’s a real fundamental sisterhood and you’re doing a really—sort of—sisterly, intimate service for each other.
NS: Yes. Sometimes, what’s more important is not the talking; it’s what she sees. When she sees her hair in the mirror, no need to talk. That’s it. She see it, she love it.
Brenda Hubbard: I’m Brenda Hubbard and you’re at 871 Beecher Street. I worked in the hotel industry. I was one of the first black vice presidents of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association of Georgia. Also, had a cleaning service for 25 years.
AH: You’re enjoying retirement?
BH: I am, and I’m also a 13-year cancer survivor. One day, I was taking shower and I came out and was putting some lotion on my body and just… felt something, but I just thought it was kinda weird—didn’t think too much about it, you know, but… I did go to a doctor and had a biopsy. It was very small so we didn’t—it was just five-eighths of a centimeter, so we didn’t think it was gonna be too much of anything. As a matter of fact, we laughed when he was biopsing it with the needle. He told me, he says, “Well, probably got a lot with the needle!” and we just laughed. But it was just seven days later that it was the early stages of breast cancer. You know, so with everything in life I do, I took with a grain of sand and I just decided, well hell, breast cancer can do me or I can do breast cancer, and so I decided to do breast cancer, and by the glory of God I’m still here talking about it thirteen years later. I had a lumpectomy. I did six injections of chemotherapy. One of the main things that I think that women deal with when they find out they have breast cancer is their hair, you know, and that’s a thing and so… Well, I went to my oncologist—Dr. Yaffe was his name—and I said, “Dr. Yaffe, some friends of mine told me that they know somebody who got chemotherapy and their hair didn’t come out! So my hair may not come out!” and Dr. Yaffe said, “Your hair’s gonna come out.” I said, “But Dr. Yaffe, you don’t know everything.” He said, “You’re some kind of patient.” That’s what he told me. So, what I would do—I didn’t want to comb my hair out and just flatten it, you know, so one day I was just laughing and scratching. So, what I did was I had, you know, a “shaving of the head party.” So, I invited friends over and my boyfriend came to do the shaving, and we all sat around and I didn’t—I turned from the mirror and he shaved my head and everything so… I stood up, I took a deep breath, and I looked in the mirror, and I was like, “Wow! I really don’t look that bad!” So, I would wear my hair and like, you know, I didn’t wear a wig. I just wore it bald headed, I put makeup on and people would stop and say, “Oh, I love your hair!” I’d say, “Thanks, I’m gonna tell chemotherapy you said that!” and the people would be like… That’s me and my humor. Every day is a blessing for me, you know, just to say thirteen years, you know, that’s just a milestone for me. Every year is a milestone with breast cancer, you know, and of course you hope that you never see it again. But there are no guarantees of anything in life. But, you know, I don’t dwell on it. I just try to enjoy life, you know, and just keep it moving.
Aja/Anher: Every Friday from… well, we probably get out here at about 12 or 11, and we start setting up this beautiful farmer’s market. This farm and market take up about a whole city block.
Carol Hunter: I like to tell people this is our A-Team, Aja and Anher. They actually manage our farmer’s market.
Aja/Anher: It’s a Friday night in the neighborhood. You know, we have folks out here playing cards, we’ve got music going. I’m sure y’all can hear that in the background. We have vendors here selling fresh lemonade. We have a local caterer selling fresh plates.
Enita Thomas: My name is Chef Enita Thomas of Mouthfeel Culinary Company and I came out today to do a demo at Truly Living Well Farm. Today I have a carrot and lemongrass gazpacho, topped with coconut milk, coconut bacon, white and black sesame seeds, pepitas and cilantro.
AH: You’re trying a bite of this. How is it?
CH: It is absolutely delicious, as always. Thank you so much. My name is Carol Hunter. I am the Chief Administrative Officer for Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture. We are an urban farm in the Atlanta metro area. We grow food, we grow people, and we grow community.
AH: To our right, we’ve got this bustling little Friday afternoon farmer’s market, and right over here to our left, is the three and half acres of farmland.
CH: Three and half acres of farmland. This land was originally a housing development. Over the course of time, the houses were torn down and it was just sitting here, not being used. So, we were able to negotiate with the Atlanta Housing Authority to put this urban farm in this space. So, we have 3.5 acres. On this land, we’ve got over 84 raised beds, we brought in 125 fruit trees, we’ve got a hillside that we’re able to teach people how to terrace farming.
AH: So, we’re walking through the farm itself right now, looking at these beds. Give me a run-down of what all you guys are growing here.
CH: Well, we grow seasonal foods, so right now you’ll see tomatoes, you’ll see some peas growing, beets, peppers, eggplant. So, what we do as each season as we empty these beds, we’ll refill them with healthy compost and start planting all over again.
AH: Tell me what’s going on over there with that group of young people and sort of what that part of your project is about.
CH: I am so glad you asked me that. That is our summer camp. A part of the work we do is to teach children how to grow their own food. We know that when children eat food that they’ve grown, they’re more likely to choose healthy vegetables, healthy fruits.
Marcus: My name’s Marcus and I’m eleven years old. One thing I learned was how to make compost, which is you take carbon and nitrogen and you make it like lasagna and you do carbon, nitrogen, and then carbon, and then if you eventually keep doing that, it makes compost. And there will be a lot of inside of them, like over there.
Noah White: Hi, my name is Noah White. I’m 23 years old. Right now, we’re just transferring some onions that we harvested, just placing them into the greenhouse. That way, they can really fully ripen. That’s how our customers like them, so we just want to make it as perfect for them as possible.
CH: Noah started working with Truly Living Well many years ago as a camp counselor and got introduced to urban agriculture. He’s went through a couple of training programs and now he’s employed, full-time as a farmer with us and we’re gonna see if we can get him to stick with it.
NW: Just kind of being outside, just a free environment, it just kind of helps you build like a lot of character and life skills. Just your patience, determination… especially being out here in the hot sun, you have to really kind of persevere. I think the coolest part of it all is just seeing a plant go through all the stages from a small seed to a fully harvested fruit. I think it kind of just shows us about ourselves, also.
Empress: It started when I was four, this gift thing that I have. There’s been times where I can meet someone and not know anything about them, but then it’s like a transmission or like, waves coming to me as if it was second nature and it tells me things.
AH: Tell me what you’re doing here for starters.
E: So, this is sage. Sage has been known to cleanse the area, or what the Indians called “smudging,” okay? Sage is not only good for releasing negative energy. It also is good for your blood. When you inhale it, it actually purifies the blood. My name is Empress. I have legally changed my name to Empress, but most people know me as Norma Jean. I saw a few things about you. I saw a young man at one time that was very insecure, but now I see a lot of security within yourself. Some things that people don’t get, you get it immediately. You’re the kind of journalist that no matter what, you’re going to report the truth, you’re going to speak the truth. You know there’s other stories that need to be told. You’re here on purpose.
AH: I’m really touched to hear you say that, and I’m grateful for those words and I’m really glad that I got a chance to meet you. That’s one of the great gifts that I’ve gotten out of this trip.
E: You have to understand love is like us right here, sitting on this cement. This is love, you know what I’m saying? We’re here just chilling out, vibing with each other, and to me that’s love. I have no expectations of you guys. You have no expectation of me. We’re just enjoying the moment, and this is, like, one of those experiences you don’t need a cellphone to capture.
Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to a special edition of Out of the Blocks, produced by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick in collaboration with WABE. Special thanks to field producer Gabbie Watts, and WYPR’s Katie Marquette. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is the West End in Atlanta signing off.
AH: Hi guys, Aaron here along with Wendel for a minute as we get ready to wrap up this episode to say a few thank-yous, and to give you a little look ahead of what’s next.
Wendel Patrick: First, the thank-yous. We want to give our gratitude to the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts, for their generous support on this episode. The NEA has put their trust in us as we have begun to travel the country with our documentary model this past year, and we’re very excited that they’re going to continue to do so in the year ahead.
AH: Yes, indeed. That brings us to the “what we’re up to next” part of this message. This is actually the end of our season, officially, and we’re going to take the next couple of months to get a jump start on collecting recordings for more blocks here in Baltimore and more neighborhoods across the country. But fear not. We’re not going to leave you high and dry during that in-between time.
WP: That’s right. Aaron and I are curating some special, themed episodes of the show for the interim, and those are going to hit your feet on the regular, every two weeks. We’ve got a pretty deep catalogue at this point, so we’re pulling together stories from different episodes, different places, and collaging them together in some new and interesting ways.
AH: So, stay tuned for those episodes in the weeks ahead. Drop us a review on Apple Podcasts, turn a friend onto the show, thank you for being an ambassador to Out of the Blocks, and thanks for listening.
WP: Thank you, and we’ll do it again soon.