Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward

October 11, 2012 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville visits a redeveloping inner city Atlanta neighborhood: The Old Fourth Ward.

About The Old Fourth Ward

The Old Fourth Ward, also known as O4W, is located just east of Downtown Atlanta.  Home of the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site, the neighborhood has become a national symbol of gentrification.

What is now the Old Fourth Ward is a smaller version of the historic Fourth Ward political area in place until the 1950s when the city changed to a district system. It is one of the oldest sections of the city, with the westernmost blocks developing soon after the Civil War. Different parts of the ward were, at different times, considered white, black, or mixed-race areas. From the 1910s onward, as Atlanta politicians moved to institutionalize racially-segregated residential areas, Old Fourth Ward continued as a rich patchwork of whites living as close neighbors with blacks.

The foremost thoroughfare in today's Old Fourth Ward, Boulevard, was in the 1890s called "one of the most desirable residential streets in the city." However, after the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, Boulevard's grand houses were destroyed and replaced by brick apartment buildings.

As with most of Intown Atlanta, the Old Fourth Ward declined precipitously during the 1950s and 1960s as wealthier residents moved further out from central neighborhoods. Streets, houses and businesses that sat upon the land that is now Freedom Parkway were also razed to make way for a freeway that was never built. What was once a consistent and dense grid pattern of streets is now difficult to recognize, with Freedom Parkway occupying what had once been multiple city blocks.

Boulevard in particular witnessed a steady decline. The road is lined with apartment buildings constructed after the Great Atlanta fire of 1917, most of which are now section 8 housing. Boulevard became infamous throughout Atlanta and beyond as a haven of drug activity, prostitution, and other crime, a reputation that endured into the 2010s, despite gentrification to the north, south, east and west of the street.

Gentrification of the Old Fourth Ward began in the 1980s, and continued at a more rapid pace during the first decade of the 2000s. New apartment and condo complexes with ground-floor retail sprung up, particularly along the BeltLine, Ponce de Leon Avenue, North Avenue, and Highland Avenue. New residents were attracted to the neighborhood due to its close proximity to Downtown, Midtown, Inman Park, and Virginia-Highland, its urban vibe, its walkability, and its cultural offerings. By the 2010s, Old Fourth Ward had become one of the most dynamic and sought-after areas of the city, winning Creative Loafing's 2010 award for "Best Bet for Next Hot 'Hood". The area, which remains majority black, has seen a huge influx of whites in recent decades. The trend began in the 1980s, and from 1980 to 2000, the area west of Boulevard went from 12% to 30% white and the area east of Boulevard went from went from 2% to 20% white.

In 2010, Creative Loafing awarded Old Fourth Ward "Best Bet for Next Hot 'Hood." In 2011, the neighborhood celebrated the opening of the Historic Fourth Ward Park and saw the kickoff of the Ponce City Market project.


Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site

Studioplex Lofts are housed in a former cotton warehouse built in 1906. It was the first brick building in the city to be built as fireproof.

54 Columns is a sculpture park that integrates art and architecture by renowned artist Sol LeWitt.  Commissioned by the Fulton County Arts Council, LeWitt's work comprised of 54 concrete pillars designed in a layout that references Atlanta's skyline.

Freedom Parkway bisects the Old Fourth Ward.  During the 1960s, it was originally intended to be built as an expressway connecting Downtown Atlanta to the Stone Mountain Expressway.  In the 1970s, after 500 homes were demolished, a rash of local protests and lawsuits resulted in Governor Jimmy Carter killing the project in the 1970s.  After the city's selection for the 1996 Olympic Games in 1990, Mayor Maynard Jackson brokered a solution allowing the current parkway and linear park to be constructed through the neighborhood.

Ponce City Market was constructed in 1926 as a retail store, warehouse and regional office for the Sears, Roebuck and Company.  The retail store closed in 1979 and the regional office shut down in 1987.  In 1990, the City of Atlanta purchased the building with plans to place police and fire employees at the site.  However, only one floor was ever occupied by the Atlanta police.  In 2011, the 2 million square foot building was acquired by private-equity group, Jamestown.  Jamestown plans to convert the structure into a retail complex featuring national and local retailers, restaurants, boutiques, offices, and residences.  Jamestown, who also developed Chelsea Market in New York, plans to include a rooftop garden where local restaurants can grow food.

Historic Fourth Ward Park

Historic Fourth Ward Park opened in 2011 on the site of the old Ponce de Leon amusement park.  The amusement park was developed at the site of Ponce de Leon Springs in 1872. At the end of a streetcar line, the amusement park closed in the early 1920s.

The Old Fourth Ward is located just east of downtown Atlanta and I-75/85.

Images by Ennis Davis