Located in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, GA is a strip of Edgewood Ave. that seems to have undergone constant evolution. From the outskirts of the city, an industrial zone to now a thriving bar scene, is the area I will refer to as the “Edgewood Bars.” Bordered on the West by Hillard St. and the East by Boulevard, Edgewood is currently home to restaurants, bars, and a stop for MARTA’s streetcars. One such place is Joystick Gamebar. Located at 427 Edgewood Ave SE, Joystick is currently a unique spot for people of all walks of life to come together and share a beer or a game of Frogger. This bar, which to many of its guests seems like a blast from the past, has a significant history. While Joystick was only founded in 2012, the bar and its surroundings are the byproducts of its neighborhood which has undergone significant demographic changes in the last 10 years1 . Understanding the history of this street from the founding of Atlanta to its recent history in dealing with the struggle of gentrification is important for all those who flock to the Edgewood Bars on a night out.
The city of Atlanta was founded on December 29th, 1844. At this time, the three prominent skylines that onlookers now see scattered across the Atlanta horizon were not present. What we consider to be downtown Atlanta was all that existed. Downtown, now frequented solely by business professionals and Georgia State students, was once the true economic and social heart of Atlanta. Creeping out of this metropolis is the Sweet Auburn neighborhood where the Edgewood bars are located. In 1899, fifty-two years after Atlanta was established, this vibrant strip of Edgewood was a predominantly Black neighborhood. The Exon that is now on the corner of Jackson St. Ne and Edgewood was a two-story house with a porch. Sister Louisa’s “Church” of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, a popular queer bar that stands out on the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard Ne., was a vacant lot2.
These lots did not stay vacant for long. The AJC reports in 1904 of a large real estate sale on Edgewood Ave. The sale hosted by the East Atlanta Real Estate Company included lots zoned for businesses as well as residences. The East Atlanta Real Estate Company held onto these lots for 15 years as the City of Atlanta worked to widen the street and create a direct path into the downtown business district. This change took place by removing 100 homes, at a cost of over $150,0003. In 1904, the AJC marketed Edgewood Ave. as a street destined to be one of the most important in the city and home to a large amount of traffic despite the vacant lots surrounding it.
In 1906, the Massacre that took place in Downtown Atlanta created increased racial division in the city in both economies as well as housing. Following the Massacre, the number of integrated streets across the city decreased and the Black economy grew on the southern part of Edgewood Ave. and Auburn Ave4. This shift is seen through the changes in property use in 1932. The Sanborn Maps of this time inform the populous that a significant portion of what used to be single-family dwellings became apartments. Regardless of the dramatic decrease in vacant lots, this area experienced a boom in industrialization. Joystick in 1932 was a store called “Bottle Who”. Georgia Beer Garden which is located at 420 Edgewood was a dog and animal hospital. Beside the animal hospital was a vacant lot and an auto repair shop5.
What many young people consider to be their favorite bar scene has been key part of the city of Atlanta for a significantly longer time than what most people today would expect. On the first of July in 1911, a new law went into effect that impacted the expansive culture that was seen in Edgewood in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This law called for the removal of all the Black “saloons and pool rooms.” The removal of these businesses was then followed by a recommendation for the city council to only grant licenses to White saloons. This law was pushed by residents of Atlanta’s first suburb, Inman Park. In contrast, residents today in Inman Park frequent the establishments in this district. Joel Hurt, a member of the city council in 1910 described the Edgewood Bars in a negative light saying “The listing of negro saloons on Edgewood Ave is the greatest injustice to the citizens and taxpayers of Inman Park.”6 Following this outrage on the prominent Black neighborhood and bar scene on Edgewood, there was a great disinvestment from the government in the 1940s.
Redlining is now defined by Britannica as illegal discriminatory practice in which a mortgage lender denies loans or an insurance provider restricts services to certain areas of a community, often because of the racial characteristics of the applicant’s neighborhood was once a common practice7. The effects of redlining are still seen today in the way it destroyed generational wealth for the Black community. Neighborhoods that were home to people of color were considered hazardous and graded D. This meant that banks would not issue loans for property purchases and renovations in these neighborhoods. “The Edgewood bars” were classified as a commercial area in 1940. All the neighborhoods surrounding this portion of the city were classified in grade D. Additionally, during this period, cities took on projects. White and wealthy neighborhoods were classified as A, “best”, meaning individuals purchasing property in these zones were highly likely to pay their loans back. In 1940, there were very few neighborhoods zoned A as this period was marked by the White Flight to the suburbs8.
Following this boom in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood was the destruction of Urban Renewal. The Urban Renewal period was a destructive response to White Flight, redlining, and integration. This period that followed the Great Depression had major impacts on neighborhoods in inner cities. “Urban Renewal” was the legal process in which the government seized properties and demolished them in the name of an aging infrastructure. Specifically, the Edgewood bars were a portion of a project called the Butler St. Project. This project took place from 1969 to 1971 and classified what are now the Edgewood bars and surrounding areas as nonresidential blighted areas. During this time, 1,166 families were displaced in which 100% of these families were Black. This displacement was done with $4,569,514 in federal funding9.
The picture of destruction and “blight” in the 70s of the Edgewood Bars district seems to be a drastic change from what you see on a night out there now. Atlanta, like all other major cities, is facing an extreme housing crisis. Neighborhoods like this one are gentrifying rapidly. A report from the Atlanta Department of City Planning looks into this. This report classifies the Edgewood Bars in the category of substantial change and low-income displacement. Across the city, areas in this classification experiences changes such as a decrease of 19% of people experiencing poverty. Other characteristics of neighborhoods experiencing substantial change resulted in an increase of 38% in residences that have bachelor’s degrees, 32% in White residences, and a decrease in Black residences by 11%. Neighborhoods like this one in Atlanta have also experienced an increase in home sales price per square foot by 76% and a decrease in 18% of vacant units10.
This change is prevalent in what you see walking down the strip today. There is a stark juxtaposition in the characters that make up the Edgewood bar scene. On any given Thursday night, you are bound to see a group of GSU girls and guys who look straight out of art class. Amongst this crowd, you will find a significant portion of young adults who just got off of their 9-5. When leaving the bars, you will notice the large homeless population. If you are lucky and down for the experience, you might be able to catch a ride home with one of the men who notoriously drive ATVs along the city streets. So, what is so captivating about Edgewood? Certainly, there is more cultural diversity and spunk than other bar areas in the urban core of Atlanta like Crescent Street.
Given the history of the strip of Edgewood between Hillard and Boulevard St, I cannot help but to wonder if all this business prosperity is coming at a continued cost of the gentrification of the neighborhood. People like to eat and go out close to where they live as these bars and restaurants, like that of Nonis, have gotten more popular, the prices of the houses and apartments surrounding this area have gone up, and the people that make Edgewood the crown jewel of the Atlanta bar scene are being kicked out. While I certainly do not know the solution to the issue of gentrification that is shocking our nation, I know it is important to realize where you are and how you got there. As the demographic changes alongside the storefronts, people who frequent these areas need to be aware of what Edgewood once was – a thriving Black economy and home that survived despite attempts from local municipalities to erase its soul.
2 Sanborn Map Company.Insurance maps, Atlanta, Georgia, 1911, 156. University of Georgia Libraries Map Collection, Athens, Ga., presented in the Digital Library of Georgia.
3 BIG SALE REAL ESTATE: TODAY, 10 O’CLOCK, EDGEWOOD AVENUE. (1904, May 31). The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/big-sale-real-estate/docview/495921837/se-2?accountid=11226
4 Rebecca Burns, Rage In The Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. (Athens Ga: 2009)
5 Sanborn Map Company.Insurance maps, Atlanta, Georgia,Atlanta 1924-Mar. 1962 vol. 3, 1932-Aug. 1950, Sheet 302 University of Georgia Libraries Map Collection, Athens, Ga., presented in the Digital Library of Georgia.
6 NEGRO SALOONS TO BE REMOVED: FROM EDGEWOOD AVE. BY CITY COUNCIL. POLICE COMMITTEE WILL RECOMMEND THAT NEW LAW GO INTO EFFECT JULY 1, 1911—HISTORY OF EDGEWOOD AVENUE—STATEMENT BY JOEL HURT. NEGRO SALOONS TO BE REMOVED. (1910, Nov 30). The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/negro-saloons-be-removed/docview/496331942/se-2?accountid=11226
7 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2014, September 11). redlining. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/redlining
8 Mapping Inequality “Red Linning in New Deal America” Richmond University, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=11/33.754/-84.513&city=atlanta-ga
9 Digital Scholarship Lab, “Renewing Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed March 8, 2022, ttps://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/renewal/#view=0/0/1&viz=map&city=atlantaGA&loc=16/33.7535/-84.3758&cityview=pr
10 Department of City Planning, “Neighborhood Change Report,” Office of Housing and Community Development. Released February 2021https://www.atlantaga.gov/home/showdocument?id=50098&t=637514975329330000