Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Collier Heights Section Of Atlanta - When We Financed Our Own Construction

I am not one who says that "the good ole days" was found during the time of Jim Crow and segregation. There were some practices that Black folks were forced to do on their own because all other options were taken away.

Collier Heights: Civil rights suburb
Ga. nominates black neighborhood for historic designation

By JIM AUCHMUTEY

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Collier Heights doesn’t look particularly historic.

The steep, wooded hills of the west Atlanta neighborhood are sprinkled with ranch houses and split-levels built during the heyday of hula hoops and tail-finned El Dorados. Instead of Victorian carriage houses, there are carports and garages. Few craftsmen ever bungalowed on these curving lanes.

“I never thought this area was historic until I started hearing some of my neighbors talk about it,” says Gilbert Evans, a retired postal supervisor who moved in 51 years ago.

Now he knows differently. The state of Georgia has just nominated Collier Heights for the National Register of Historic Places. If the National Park Service approves, it would become the first post-World War II suburb in metro Atlanta and among the first modern African-American neighborhoods anywhere to make the register.

In a city where ranch houses and split-levels are as common as crabgrass, why would a neighborhood full of them rate national recognition?

The passing of time, for one thing. Even the modern eventually becomes historic. The older parts of Collier Heights were developed in the mid-’50s, making the neighborhood just old enough to qualify under the register’s 50-year rule.

Erica Danylchak helped research the nomination as a preservation graduate student at Georgia State University. “When I told my friends what I was working on, they said, ‘Ranch houses are historic now?’” she says. “One of my neighbors said that made her feel really old.”

The other part of the answer is more specific to Atlanta. Like so many things around here, it has to do with race.

Collier Heights is an expression of the city’s vaunted black middle class every bit as much as Auburn Avenue or the Atlanta University Center colleges.

“Collier Heights was built by blacks for blacks and financed by blacks,” says Juanita Abernathy, who moved into a ranch house there with her late husband, civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy. “We wanted to live in a place like that. It was something you could take pride in.”

How the neighborhood came about is a typically Atlanta story of conflict and compromise.

‘Striving for a better life’

In a sense, Collier Heights is a civil rights suburb. It was built during a time when Atlanta’s black population was pushing out of the inner city, where it had been confined for decades, in search of the same split-level dreams pursued by other Americans: better houses, bigger yards, nicer surroundings.

“That neighborhood represents African-Americans striving for a better life,” says Andrew Wiese of San Diego State University, who wrote a history of black suburbanization, “Places of Their Own.”

The migration started in earnest after World War II in white neighborhoods like Mozley Park. As blacks moved closer, there were clashes, bombings, panic selling.

Wanting a more orderly transition, Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield appointed a biracial group called the Westside Mutual Development Committee. “They reached a sort of gentleman’s agreement to open up the west side,” says Richard Cloues, who oversaw the Collier Heights nomination for the state Historic Preservation Division.

Much of the area was still undeveloped, with a few hundred white residents living in small houses built after the war. In early 1954, the West Side committee sent surveys to more than 100 of them, asking how they felt about the possibility of selling out to blacks. The forms, which the GSU students found at the Atlanta History Center, show the passions of the era in angry scrawls.

“Why don’t they build in their own sections?” asked a man on Collier Drive.

“I won’t stay here and be surrounded by negroes,” wrote another on Baker Ridge Drive.

Within a few years, most of the white homeowners did sell. This time, there was no violence.

Evans, the retired postal supervisor, was one of the first newcomers, moving into a new ranch house on Collier Drive in 1957.

“This was way out in the country then,” he says. “Collier was a little dirt road, and there were only three houses on my stretch. If you saw five cars in a day, that was something.”

Soon the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s black newspaper, carried ads for new developments with names like King’s Grant and Crescendo Valley. More than 50 subdivisions were built as Collier Heights became home to some 7,000 people, including prominent figures like attorney Donald Hollowell and the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.

When national reporters came to town, Hartsfield sometimes took them to Collier Heights to prove that Atlanta really did stand apart among its Southern brethren.

Round, pink and pagoda

Harold and Juanita Morton, Collier Heights residents since the 1980s, have worked for several years to landmark the neighborhood. On a warm September afternoon, they hop into their SUV to show off what they love about the area.

“There are some very interesting homes around here,” Harold says, turning out of his driveway.

He passes a circular house. A ranch with a Japanese pagoda roof. A hilltop mansion with a dual front staircase guarded by white lion statues and trimmed in bright pink.

“We’re still trying to figure out what to call some of these buildings,” says Richard Laub, who worked on the nomination as head of GSU’s preservation program.

Many of the vintage houses in Collier Heights were designed by one of Atlanta’s first black architects, Joseph W. Robinson. His splashiest work may be the 10,000-square-foot ranch he did in 1963 for Herman Russell, the construction mogul.

“I had one of the first indoor pools in Atlanta,” says Russell, who grew up in a shotgun house near Turner Field. “This home was built to entertain. Segregation was still the order of the day, and we couldn’t go to many hotels and restaurants.”

Basement rec rooms were prized in Collier Heights for that very reason.

Russell’s is a rec room deluxe, with a dance floor, a bar, a wine cellar that doubled as a fallout shelter, the pool and a terrace that opens onto tennis courts and a basketball court.

One of Russell’s cherished mementoes hangs on the wall: a picture of him lounging in the family room with Abernathy, Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King liked to come by and relax,” he says. “He’d take a dip in my pool. He was a good swimmer.”

Russell left the house a decade ago and moved into a Midtown condo. His son Michael, who succeeded him as head of H.J. Russell & Co., moved in and updated the place, getting rid of his dad’s shag carpeting.

The younger Russell has attended several of the neighborhood meetings about landmark designation, but he didn’t really need to be persuaded that Collier Heights is more than the sum of its ranches and split-levels. He remembers the tour buses.

When he was a boy, buses used to cruise by the house regularly, people crowding the windows to snap pictures like they were on an excursion through Beverly Hills.

“Collier Heights might not have the greatest architectural splendor,” Michael Russell says, “but I think we have a pretty good story.”

You might say it’s historic.

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