Walking down Georgia Avenue, Ethel Floyd smells donuts. The bakeries responsible for the scent are long gone; but then, so is French’s Ice Cream Parlor, once Floyd’s first stop on Georgia Avenue as she walked east from her South Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville into its adjacent community, Summerhill. Also gone is the fresh meat and fish market where her mother bought dinner, and the Empire Theater, where Floyd and her friends enjoyed movies from the balcony—the ground floor was whites only. But 60 years later, the smell of those donuts lingers.
These blocks now curve around the front of Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves’ ballpark, a towering behemoth that looms immediately to the south. To the north, parking lots smother block after block in a thick glaze of concrete. Just east of the stadium, a few remaining storefronts separate swaths of empty lots. The block bakes silently under the Georgia sun. Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville, the three neighborhoods that surround Turner Field, have been swallowed by the stadium and its vast asphalt shadow of parking lots.
In 2017, however, Turner Field will itself lie vacant. The Braves will head to a new ballpark in north Atlanta, a move that will create a vacuum in the center of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville. The land up for sale around Turner Field is 77 acres, a staggering number for a central urban location, just five minutes from downtown and City Hall. For the first time in 60 years, a sports megastructure will not dominate the area. Parking lots that already go unused 284 days each year will lose their function entirely. The end of Turner Field is a chance to revive Ethel Floyd’s Georgia Avenue and to make these neighborhoods livable again. But it is also an opening for planners and officials to repeat mistakes that sucked the life out of the area 60 years ago. Residents of Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville know their history and are fighting for a say in what comes next.
* * *
Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville are among the oldest neighborhoods in Atlanta. Newly freed slaves settled Summerhill in 1865. Many worked as domestics for wealthy whites who lived in ornate Victorian houses that lined the streets of Peoplestown. Until 1949, streetcars on Ormond Street and Capitol Avenue made the two neighborhoods an appealing residential area. Mechanicsville, as its name suggests, was a community of railroad mechanics, mostly white, who worked for Southern Railway near the tangle of train tracks that bordered the neighborhood to the southwest.
But as cars replaced trains, the prospect of a cloistered suburban home drew Summerhill and Peoplestown’s wealthy white residents away. Still, a thriving community remained. Blacks in Summerhill took greater ownership of their neighborhood. Jewish immigrants flooded Peoplestown and Mechanicsville and founded many of the businesses that Ethel Floyd frequented. Through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, what is now Turner Field and its parking lots was a bustling working-class area.