Prior to the Civil War, Atlanta was a city of 10,000 and a leading railroad hub for the South. The location of the rail lines, rail yards and repair shops in Atlanta served as the impetus for the development and growth of the Mechanicsville neighborhood, as well as all of Atlanta. The area just south of the central business district was chosen for construction of the rail yards and repair shops. The white men who worked the railroad and the locomotive repairmen were traditionally known as “mechanics”, thus the area came to be known as Mechanicsville.
Immediately following the Civil War, Atlanta’s population surged. Many African American families migrated to Atlanta and found work in the rail yard, factories or homes of white residents. The railroads themselves officially employed few African Americans. In 1870, only 25 African Americans worked for the rails and in 1880 the number grew to only 55. However, Mechanicsville did attract a fairly skilled population of African Americans. In 1873 there was a brick mason with over $1200 worth of property in Mechanicsville and in 1885 a carpenter named Henry Carter owned $1510 worth of property.
HISTORICAL BOUNDARIES AND EARLY POPULATION
In 1871 Crumley Street was the southernmost boundary of Atlanta. North of Crumley Street, toward the central business district, streets were laid out but lacked development. In 1878, Mechanicsville was subdivided, with almost all streets laid out in the northern half of Mechanicsville. Whitehall Street added a curve to the grid-like patterns of the streets. In 1878, most private land was still held in large lots by a few landholders and remained vacant. Subdivision of the land occurred in the 1880s and 1890s.
Originally, Mechanicsville had a horse car system. By 1893, four electric streetcar routes ran through Mechanicsville. They connected the neighborhood to downtown and other suburban developments such as Grant Park and West End. Less than half the streets in Atlanta were paved; only a few streets in Mechanicsville were paved in 1893. Residents included brick masons, carpenters, and a notary public.
Middle and upper class families settled here, drawn by the proximity of the central business district and the availability of employment. Wealthier families lived on the higher land in the northeast portion of Mechanicsville along the horse and later electric streetcar system, away from the industrial rail yards to the west. Victorian homes lined Washington, Pryor, Whitehall and Pulliam Streets. General office workers and businessmen who worked downtown resided along Pulliam and Pryor streets.
European Jews also settled in Mechanicsville and by 1880, 25% of Atlanta’s entire Jewish population lived along Whitehall, South Fair (now Memorial), Windsor, Cooper, Formwalt and Pryor Streets. Most of the Jewish residents worked in the retail and trade sector. Mechanicsville was home to the J.J. Haverty, Amos Rhodes and Morris Rich families, as well as to Aaron and Jacob Haas, whose street car lines moves Atlantans from place to place, and ultimately became the Atlanta Bus Company.
SCHOOLS IN THE 19TH CENTURY
Mechanicsville’s large working class population supported four schools in the area: Ira Street School built in 1887 (between Crumley and Richardson Stress); Formwalt Street School built in 1893 (at Eugenia Street); Georgia Street School built in 1899 (at Formwalt Street); and Pryor School built in 1907 (at Doane Street). These were typical schools for the white population’s working class. They were each designed to house roughly 500 students. By 1921 the schools were greatly overcrowded and unsatisfactory from every standpoint. African American students attended elementary schools nearby, such as Crogman Elementary School in the Pittsburgh neighborhood built in 1923.
STORES IN THE 19TH CENTURY
In 1888 there were several small grocery stores in Mechanicsville including two near the corner of Windsor and Crumley Streets and one farther north along Windsor Street. In addition, a florist and milliner were located along Pulliam and Pryor Streets. In 1893, there were additional grocery stores along Georgia Avenue, Cooper Street and Richardson Street. In 1899 there were about 15 stores in the northern portions of Mechanicsville with clusters at Glenn and Smith Street, Glenn and McDaniel Street and Windsor and Eugenia Street. In 1903, a pharmacy and another grocery store were established on Pryor Street near the corner of Georgia Avenue. More small businesses boomed at the turn of the 20th century.
From 1883-1890 there was no distinct color line in the developed areas of Mechanicsville, but the northeast section was primarily white and the western and southern section was mixed. Internal physical separation emerged in 1899. African Americans tended to live in the blocks to the west of Cooper Street; Glenn Street was populated almost entirely by African American families, as was Ira Street, Glenn Street and Crumley Street. Street by street differences in income and social status was apparent. Pryor Street housed more working class families and Windsor Street housed the upper classes. The Copper Street boundary was established by 1911 and included Georgia Avenue (now Ralph David Abernathy Blvd.) while Jewish families lived along Central Avenue. Despite the internal separation among the streets, Mechanicsville was an economic and racially diverse area, unusual for Atlanta at this time. Unscrupulous landlords took advantage of the new African American residents and constructed poor quality housing, which they leased for exorbitant rents. This resulted in extremely poor living conditions for many African American newcomers. African Americans populated Windsor, Cooper, and Richardson and McDaniel Streets. These patterns continued into the early 1900s as the interior of the blocks behind the middle class white homes were subdivided and developed as homes for African Americans. Numerous lots with large brick and masonry homes contain smaller wood-frame houses located in the back yards; this land was less valuable because it lacked street frontage and was served only by dead end alleys. Nevertheless, these alley-way homes provided African Americans with a safe haven from public scrutiny during the Jim Crow era of the 20th century. The close proximity of the houses is an expression of the intensity of the community relations among the African Americans families.
Two African American churches were established in 1872, Zion Hill Baptist Church and St. Paul’s African Methodists Church; one stands today at the corner of McDaniel Street and Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.
COMMUNITY IN DECLINE:
THE 1930S AND 40S
The depression took its toll on the vibrant and multiethnic community of Mechanicsville. After World War 1, middle and upper income Caucasian families moved to Atlanta’s newer northern and eastern neighborhoods while their African-American counterparts migrated west, leaving Mechanicsville poorer and less racially diverse. Absentee landlords turned large and beautiful Queen Anne and Victorian houses into boarding houses or duplexes. While this increased the supply of affordable housing, the landlords and the lower income residents lacked the economic means for the upkeep of the properties. This contributed to the overall deterioration of the housing stock. The vacating middle and upper class population of Mechanicsville increased the housing availability and affordability for working class African-Americans. By the late 1950’s, Mechanicsville was a predominately black community, although a significant number of white families continued to reside in the area. Some of the shops on Pryor Street and Georgia Avenue closed, but McDaniel Street continued to be a vibrant commercial area with grocery, shoeshine, and retail clothing stores along with a movie theater. While the blows Mechanicsville suffered during and after the Great Depression resulted from economic adversities, the post-World War II crises that beset Mechanicsville were the result of misguided federal and local policies, programs, and initiatives: primarily the Rawson-Washington Urban Renewal Program under the 1949 Federal Housing Act. The building of I-75/I-85 and I-20 during the early 1960s; the 1965 construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium along with the related arterial street and parking projects; and the late 1960s-early 1970s megablock construction of public housing and other federally subsidized multifamily rental housing. The result was an area with a large quantity of poorly maintained rental property and vacant land artificially separated from the downtown area – an area with which it had traditionally coexisted. Also an area where the majority of the inhabitants had no tangible clues to the early greatness of the neighborhood.
A DIVERSE POPULATION: 1900-1950
Mechanicsville’s current population demographics do not give evidence of its former ethnic diversity. Prior to the 1920s, Mechanicsville was the center of Jewish life in Atlanta. Many European Jews settled in Mechanicsville, and by 1880, 25% of Atlanta’s entire Jewish population lived along Whitehall, Windsor, Cooper, Formwalt and Pryor Streets. Most of these residents worked in the retail and trade sector. Mechanicsville was home to the J. J. Haverty, Amos Rhodes and Morris Rich families, as well as to Aaron and Jacob Haas, whose street car lines moved Atlantans from place to place (Jacob Haas and Henry Levi were the first Jews to come to Atlanta, arriving in 1842 to open a dry goods store). In 1902, with over 60% of the Atlanta Jewish population living in Mechanicsville, the first “home” of The Temple was built on the corner of Richardson and Pryor streets. It remained there until 1926 when it was relocated to its current location on Peachtree Street. The African-American settlement pattern mirrored the typical residential patterns in the urban South. Their choice of location was typically limited by economic necessity and usually developed in areas peripheral to established areas. While the more affluent white families located along the streetcar lines, the African-Americans lived closer to the rail yards and on the interior blocks (alleyways):
Between 1887 and 1907, four grade schools served the growing school-aged population, two of which still stand. Cooper Street School, designed by noted architect A. Ten Eyck Brown to replace Formwalt, was built in 1922. Its construction was part of Atlanta’s first major bond issue for school replacement. Pryor Street School, originally built in 1907 and rebuilt in the 1940’s is also still in existence. Both schools are used for storage today. African-American students attended elementary schools nearby, such as Crogan Elementary School in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, built in 1923. Each school was designed to house roughly 500 students but by 1921, an Atlanta Public School survey describes the schools as “greatly overcrowded” and “unsatisfactory in every way.”
Mechanicsville’s multiethnic working class population continued to grow throughout the early 20th Century. Georgia Avenue (now called Ralph David Abernathy Blvd.), Prior Street, and McDaniel Street contained numerous shops that served the area residents—blue collar railroad employees as well as residents holding white collar jobs in the nearby downtown offices and stores.nDuring the 1920s, as many as 20,000 people worked in some way or another for the railroads. The trend of railroad employees living in the Mechanicsville neighborhood continued until the 1930s. Even with the large employment base of the railroad yards, there were other employment opportunities in the area. Other non-railroad businesses provided the daily goods and services needed by a growing community. The neighborhood had a coal company, was the home of a General Electric light bulb manufacturing facility — now the home of Sexton/Pryor Tire Company — and other large commercial establishments that provided employment for neighborhood residents. Wealthier families resided primarily in the northeastern portion of Mechanicsville along the horse — and later electric — streetcar systems. The tree-lined streets of Pryor, Washington, Whitehall and Pulliam housed some of Atlanta’s elite families including members of the Rhodes, Haverty, and Rich families. General office workers and businessmen also resided along Pulliam and Pryor Streets.
MECHANICSVILLE IN THE 1960S
While the blows Mechanicsville suffered during and after the Great Depression resulted from economic adversities, the 1960’s ushered in an era of physical devastation and residential displacement that was the result of misguided government projects and urban renewal.
RAWSON-WASHINGTON URBAN RENEWAL PROGRAM
The Rawson-Washington urban renewal program, under the 1949 Federal Housing Act, provided financing to the City of Atlanta to clear large areas of physically and economically depressed properties. Since Mechanicsville was considered one of the poorest areas in the City, it was targeted for urban renewal. The far western portion of Mechanicsville, the oldest African American area, was cleared as part of this infamous project, from Capitol Avenue in the east to the railroad at the western edge of the community. The project was intended to stimulate new inner-city housing construction for white, middle income families, but the new construction never took place. The land was cleared and the residents were removed although there was no developer who was willing to develop the site. Some of this vacant land cleared by the Rawson-Washington program was ultimately used in the construction Interstate I-75/I-85 and the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium project and the related parking lots, but each of these projects required the demolition of more homes and businesses and more displacement of residents. The physical boundaries of the community were changed and an artificial barrier between Mechanicsville and the downtown area was created, which served to further devastate the economy in Mechanicsville.
MECHANICSVILLE IN THE 1970S
Years of misguided public works, redevelopment, and construction efforts were devastating to Mechanicsville. Widespread demolition permanently displaced many residents and businesses and destroyed the majority of the area’s historic buildings. Years of disruption in the 1960’s were followed by the noise, traffic, and trash generated by the new stadium. A project that began in the 1970’s and took an additional toll on Mechanicsville was the Model Cities Program.
MODEL CITIES PROGRAMS
The Model City Program offered Mechanicsville residents hope that the government would help the community to clean up the damage of the earlier government projects and replace some of the lost housing. Mega-block public housing projects and other subsidized, large-scale, federal housing initiatives were constructed. More land was cleared for these projects; more residents were displaced; and more historic resources were destroyed. The large scale housing projects continue to face challenges, but local residents are meeting these challenges with community support programs.
Another devastating result of the construction projects was the loss of businesses and therefore jobs. As a result of decrease in population and the altered traffic patterns, many Mechanicsville businesses failed. Long term residents remember walking to shops all along the strip of land where the stadium is located. The destruction and failure of these businesses meant that important services were no longer available to the community and that local employment opportunities had all but disappeared. The physical and economic devastation resulted in an environment made up of a large quantity of poorly maintained rental property and vacant land.
MECHANICSVILLE IN THE 1980S
A current resident reminds us that “Mechanicsville used to be a neighborhood that you didn’t find many people loafing around because you had all those jobs like the Southern shop of the railroad, …grocery stores, warehouses…any kind of work that a person was looking for. So it worked.”
& ECONOMIC DEVASTATION
The decrease in Mechanicsville’s population is one of the most obvious measures of the destabilization caused by the projects of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The population by 1990, at around 2,300, was less than 25% of the 1960 population level of 10,530. As one resident puts it, “this was the first community that they really started chopping. And they kept chopping and chopping until they chopped most of the affluent people away.” Part of what was chopped away was the direct access to downtown Atlanta’s jobs and opportunity. By 1990, 80% of the families in Mechanicsville were headed by women, 38% of Mechanicsville had completed high school and 78% of Mechanicsville residents lived below the poverty level. Residents had few physical clues as to the early greatness of the neighborhood. There was plenty of reasons for residents to despair. But, the 1980’s marked the beginning of new hope for Mechanicsville.
Lowell Ware, the publisher of The Atlanta Voice and a resident of the community, formed a non-profit land trust in the late 1980’s to purchase many of the vacant lots in Mechanicsville and neighboring Summerhill. SUMMECH was later formed to manage these properties and to ensure that the development of these properties be consistent with the goals of current residents.
MECHANICSVILLE FROM THE 1990S TO TODAY
Despite the adversities, Mechanicsville residents continue to fight to retain their sense of community. Some individuals currently living in the area were born there (as were their parents) and so “hold-on” in hope of something “b