Urban Renewal and Development of the Atlanta Civic Center

‘Buttermilk Bottom’ is a colloquial name given to the Atlanta neighborhood that once existed where the now defunct Atlanta Civic Center was built. The neighborhood was low income, primarily black, and had been neglected in infrastructure such as paved roads and modern sewage systems. Buttermilk bottoms suffered from dilapidated housing conditions and poor drainage (Holliman 2009, 372). The name ‘Buttermilk Bottom’ referred to the smell of the area. It is suggested the area had smelled because of open sewage. 

(asa062l, Planning Atlanta – A New City in the Making, 1949 Aerial Mosaic and Photographs, Georgia State University Library.) 1949 Aerial Photography of land in Buttermilk Bottoms neighborhood approved for development of the Atlanta Civic Center in 1963. From this photography there is evidence of the neglected state of the neighborhood, including unpaved roads and what appears to be a ditch or area of poor drainage at the middle/bottom block.

In a 1955 Atlanta Constitution Article, “Negro City Park Seen For ‘Buttermilk Bottom,’” the paper discusses the deplorable conditions of the neighborhood. This includes the lack of drainage and flooding that contributes to insect infestation and damages residences. The author as well notes the high instances of crime as reported by police (The Atlanta Constitution 1955, pg 7). The 1955 Atlanta Constitution article informs that clearing of Buttermilk Bottoms is the city’s number one priority in terms of “slum clearance” (The Atlanta Constitution 1955, pg 7). As the article notes, this sentiment was not only expressed by the white business elite and city leadership, but black leadership as well. Being on the Northeast edge of the fourth ward, Buttermilk Bottom was a part of the Auburn Avenue business district “orbit” (Bayor 1996, 75). Black business owners had proposed clearing the area for a park, likely to do away with the crime in their proximity. 

Because the neighborhood was a short walking distance to Peachtree street, the area had been considered for redevelopment since the end of WW2. It is as well that development in the Buttermilk Bottom area would effectively serve as a buffer between the central downtown business district and black neighborhoods such as Bedford Pines to the East. (Holliman 2009, 372). Driven by the white business elite, who sought to clear out low income and minority areas around the central business district, city policy towards development had been largely classist and racially motivated (Bayor 1996, 69). The earliest official redevelopment proposal for Buttermilk Bottom by the city was in 1955 by way of the Central Atlanta Plan. This plan was created by the Metropolitan Atlanta Planning Commission and the Central Atlanta Improvement Association. These organizations were mostly comprised of and acted in the interests of the White business elite (Holliman 2009, 372). 

In 1963, then mayor Ivan Allen Jr proposed clearing out the Buttermilk Bottoms area for the construction of the Atlanta Civic Center with federal funds (Holliman 2009, 372). In a 1963 Atlanta Daily World article, “”Buttermilk Bottom” to Get New Auditorium,” it was noted that this area was not Mayor Allen’s first choice in building the new Civic Center, who instead had considered the Washignton-Rawson renewal area just south of downtown (Atlanta Daily World 1963). The motivation for the project to be in the Buttermilk Bottom neighborhood was to clear out low income black residences, thereby encouraging private investment and raising the property values and taxes around the central downtown area (Holliman 2009, 370). The Civic center would also be built as a buffer zone between the central downtown district and low income black neighborhoods (Bayor 1996, 75). 

(atlpm0097, Planning Atlanta City Planning Maps Collection, Georgia State University Library.) 1962 Atlanta map of black residential areas. This map illustrates the proximity of the Buttermilk Bottoms Neighborhood (marked by the red circle) to the central downtown business district (blue rectangle). To the East of Buttermilk Bottoms is primarily black neighborhoods including Bedford Pines.

There were conflicting views on the purpose of federal urban renewal funds. City planners, mayor Ivan Allen Jr., and the white business elite wanted to prioritize economic growth with federal funds, whereas housing, neighborhood, and civil rights advocates wanted the renewal funds for new subsidized and affordable housing developments (Holliman 2009, 369). Mayor Ivan Allen Jr in particular, was more concerned with projects such as the civic center than addressing the downtown area’s housing crisis (Holliman 2009, 376). 

1962 saw the outbreak of protest against urban renewal projects instigated by the Buttermilk Bottoms redevelopment. Black leadership wanted Buttermilk Bottom redeveloped as a location for new black housing (Silver 2015,158). An article by the Atlanta Daily World “Blocks of Slums in Summer Hill, Vine City, Buttermilk Bottom, House Minority: Last of A Series,” outlines some of this frustration. The author discusses how urban renewal projects have cleared out some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and failed to follow through on proper relocation and housing initiatives (Scott, 1963). Less housing was created than destroyed by the city in this time, and 95% of resident displaced by urban renewal were black (Bayor 1996, 70)

In 1963 The Federal Urban Renewal administration mandated that the city create at least 1000 affordable housing units before any more federal funding would be allowed. The Federal program had relocation requirements, including affordable housing quotas, that previous mayoral administrations had neglected (Holliman 2009, 373). The city ultimate appeased the federal agency by allocating renewal land for 1000 housing units on the South side so long as the city did not have to create them (Holliman 2009, 373). It would be on private investment to create this housing. This follows the trend in displacing black residence and only providing affordable relocation options away from the city center. It is as well that these relocated residents were likely no better off as private housing built for these low income populations was substandard. Private housing developments could not be effectively regulated by the 8 city housing inspectors tasked with tracking over 200,00 units (Scott 1963).

(AFPL_M0036, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Digital Collection, Georgia State University.) 1921 Atlanta Map shows original layout and street names of the area. This layout would not change prior to the construction of the Civic Center. On the West the neighborhood is bordered by Piedmont Avenue, on the North Merritt Avenue (now Renaissance Parkway Northeast), on the East Bedford Avenue (now Central Park Place Northeast), and on the South Forrest Avenue (where the Georgia Power corporate headquarters now is).

The feds approved land acquisition for the Civic center development in 1964 (Holliman 2009, 374). As residents were displaced the Housing authority allocated 300 subsidized units at Bowen Homes, on the west side far from the city center. Bowen homes was a derelict development; far from jobs, churches, and social resources (Holliman 2009, 374). There was also no public transit options and it would be on displaced citizens to afford their own automobiles to access such resources. Only 13% of Buttermilk Bottoms residence who qualified for subsidized housing at Bowen homes choose to relocate there (Holliman 2009, 374). This follows a trend of Atlanta redevelopment of systemically moving the black population away from the city center (Bayor 1996, 70); effectively sequestering these people at the outskirts with little opportunity. 

With the redevelopment of Buttermilk Bottom for the Atlanta civic center, the all black elementary school, C. W. Hill, would be demolished. This led to backlash by the Atlanta Voter’s League and their president Jesse Hill (Silver 2015,159). The city ultimately went on with development despite contention, and did not build any new school for the area,. Because of this, black leadership were adamant in their demands of complete desegregation in schools immediately. It is likely because of these events that the desegregation of Atlanta public schools did gain momentum (Silver 2015,159). 

The 1981 Atlanta Constitution article “Recycling ‘buttermilk bottom’” discusses the completion of the wider Bedford-Pines urban renewal project. Bedford-Pines is the area just East of Buttermilk Bottom, or when this article was published the recently completed Atlanta Civic center. In contrast with the Civic Center development, the Bedford Pines project stands in contrast as it did not involve the complete destruction of the neighborhood and permanent displacement of its residents. Instead, housing units were structurally repair and their interior rebuilt, and residents were supplied with temporary housing arrangements until they could return. The Bedford-Pines project was not for the building of highways, stadiums, or auditoriums, but was instead a housing project centered on revitalizing a neighborhood. Most, but not all of the development was section 8 housing. Ultimately, some portion of black leadership’s goals in the controversy around Buttermilk Bottoms had been achieved in some capacity. Better late than never. 

As of today the Atlanta Civic Center has remain closed for 10 years. This vacancy is its own kind of blight. A slum of disuse. After this research on the subject of Buttermilk Bottom, one of Atlanta’s many lost neighborhoods, I feel the cold sense of erasure riding my bike to work down Piedmont. The people that lived there never had their voices heard, and were never written down or published in any source I could find. All you can do is hope that they could carry on alright. 

(Buttermilk Bottom Neighborhood. 1965. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=ir01612a&AN=dlg.geh.ingram.29&site=eds-live&scope=site.) Photographed demolition of residences in Buttermilk Bottom neighborhood.

When I ride home from my job in midtown, I take Parkway Drive South. This is part of the area that had been redeveloped in 1981 as part of the wider Bedford Pines urban renewal. Never on those evening rides have I ever not seen someone relaxing out on their porch, or missed the sound of laughter from Wabash Park.