Mechanicsville has witnessed a great deal of change in its more than 140-year history and has been home to several of Atlanta’s religious, business, and government leaders. Formed alongside the rail yard and locomotive repair shop of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railway, the neighborhood was home to the men responsible for the maintenance of the rail lines and locomotives. Because the neighborhood was home to “mechanics,” it soon became known as Mechanicsville.
In 1860, Atlanta’s earliest Jewish residents, Jacob Haas and Henry Levi, settled in the northern edge of Mechanicsville and opened a dry goods store. The neighborhood’s Jewish community grew rapidly and soon comprised a substantial portion of Atlanta’s Jewish population. By 1880, there were more than 600 Jewish residents in Mechanicsville. The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Synagogue was built, and attracted increasing numbers of Jews. It was replaced by “The Temple” in 1902. By 1911, Mechanicsville boasted two-thirds of Atlanta’s Jewish population.
In 1870, Mechanicsville residents were an ethnically, economically, and religiously diverse group of people, including African Americans, Russians, Germans and other Europeans. In the early 1870s, the growing African-American population formed two religious congregations – St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Zion Hill Baptist Church.
Because of its location close to the downtown business district and the availability of land, Mechanicsville was home to many of Atlanta’s upper and middle class families around the turn of the century, including Amos Rhodes, J. J. Haverty, and the Rich family. According to a neighborhood history written by NPU-V President Peggy Harper, middle- income African Americans also resided in the neighborhood. In 1873, a black brick mason in Mechanicsville was listed as owning $1,200 in property and in 1885 a black carpenter living in the neighborhood owned $1,510 in property (substantial amounts at that time).
Mechanicsville’s residents traveled to downtown and nearby neighborhoods on trolley cars. Being so close to downtown Atlanta, Mechanicsville did not develop any major commercial corridors, but small grocers, laundries, and a coal company were opened to serve local residents. Rapid growth required the establishment of several schools in Mechanicsville’s early years. The first, Ira Street School, was built in 1887 to serve 500 students. Three additional schools were built over the next 20 years. The Briscane Ball Park was also built in 1899 as the neighborhood’s first recreational area. Today, this area is the Windsor Play Lot.
While the overall population of the neighborhood was quite diverse in the early years, the levels of segregation varied inside the neighborhood. The northeastern section was home to wealthy residents and was predominantly white. Early in its history, the western and southern sections of the neighborhood were more integrated and African-American and white families lived next door to each other. By 1900, the neighborhood was becoming more segregated, with each street being either African American or white. Wealthier residents lived in Queen Anne-style homes. Middle income residents lived in folk Victorian or Craftsman-style homes. And servants for the wealthier residents, predominantly African American, frequently lived in small cottages behind their employers’ homes.
The railroad remained the largest employer in the Mechanicsville neighborhood for much of its history, but in 1922, General Electric built a factory that employed many neighborhood residents. By the mid-1920s though, Atlanta’s residential and business expansion to the north and east led many of Mechanicsville’s business leaders to move north as well. Middle-income African Americans also moved from Mechanicsville to the west side where black colleges and universities were established.
This relocation, followed by the Great Depression, caused negative changes in the neighborhood. Many homes became rental properties and fell into great disrepair. After World War II, home ownership and ethnic diversity fell rapidly and, by 1945, Mechanicsville was a predominantly working class, African-American community. A number of public redevelopment policies subjected Mechanicsville to harm in the name of redevelopment. In 1964, the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was built just outside of the neighborhood, while highway construction on the north and east furthered destruction of the neighborhood’s physical resources. In 1968, a 1,000-unit public housing complex, the McDaniel Glen Housing Project, was constructed on the western edge of Mechanicsville to house many of the displaced lower-income families in the area.
From 1960 to 2000, Mechanicsville lost two thirds of its population, dropping from 10,530 in 1960 to 3,358 in 2000. Those remaining residents have united as a force to stall the neighborhood’s decline. In the 1980s, Mechanicsville residents successfully protested the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Association’s (MARTA) attempts to claim public housing property along Interstate 20, a move that would have displaced many low-income residents. Because of resident protests, annexes of McDaniel Glen were built throughout the neighborhood, making Mechanicsville the housing complex a more integral part of the neighborhood.
As Atlanta made its bid to host the 1996 Olympics, Mechanicsville residents united again to protect their neighborhood. They encouraged the city to fund a resident-informed master development plan and formed the Mechanicsville Civic Association to push the plan forward. The SUMMECH Community Development Corporation has converted several blocks of vacant property into Ware Estates, a complex of 69 townhomes. Today, renters make up more than two-thirds of all occupied housing.
Anchored in large part by the Dunbar Center, Mechanicsville includes a varied assortment of assets and resources, both old and new. Perhaps because of its proximity to downtown Atlanta and two interstates, the northern half of the neighborhood contains several public and private institutions such as the county’s new Romae Powell Juvenile Justice Center and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Separated by the primarily commercial Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, the south is made up mostly of single-family residences.