Rediscovering Summerhill: Community is undergoing a dramatic renaissance after decades of being ignored

D Boca N Boca and its colorful mural on Georgia Avenue in Summerhill. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Intown’s first story about the redevelopment of Summerhill appeared on our website in September 2017 after the project got nearly $5 million in tax incentives from the city. Longtime residents of the neighborhood were – not surprisingly – wary of the intentions of development firm Carter and Georgia State University, which had just purchased the stadium formerly known as Turner Field for its nascent football team.

Shortly thereafter, a series of dramatic renderings of the redeveloped Summerhill appeared and there was more cause for concern. Glass office towers, apartment buildings, student housing, retail shops, and a streetcar running down Hank Aaron Drive predicted a future that would render the historic neighborhood unrecognizable. 

Of course, what are now called the “legacy residents” of Summerhill had been here before. Back in the early 1990s, the announcement that Atlanta would host the 1996 Summer Olympics promised a boon for Summerhill, but after the games left town, all the neighborhood had to show for it was the Olympic Stadium, which would become home to the Atlanta Braves for two decades before the team decamped to Cobb County.

Another sporting ground – the circular Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium built for the Braves and demolished after the Olympics – decimated the adjacent Washington-Rawson neighborhood in 1965. The construction of the Downtown Connector a decade earlier had caused a mass exodus from Summerhill and surrounding neighborhoods as wrecking balls and bulldozers cleared what was once a prosperous and lively part of the Southside.

Summerhill was home to a thriving Black and Jewish community after the Civil War and well into the early part of the 20th century. As Capitol Avenue became known as the “Fifth Avenue of the South” populated by rich whites, racial segregation split the neighborhood. In 1966, Summerhill made national news after a policeman shot an unarmed black man and four days of rioting followed. The 1970s and ‘80s would see the accelerated decline of the neighborhood. Before the Olympics, only a few thousand residents remained.

Councilwoman Carla Smith and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the Publix announcement. (Photo by Chad Radford)

Since Carter and GSU’s announcement, Summerhill has indeed undergone a renaissance. At the heart of this reversal of fortune – as it has been for nearly a century – is Georgia Avenue. The street was, and is once again, the center of commerce for the neighborhood. From the 1920s and into the ‘50s, Georgia Avenue was full of shops, restaurants, and supermarkets. When it was announced in the spring that Publix would build a 50,000 square foot supermarket on Hank Aaron Drive, it was headline news.

The Publix announcement was just the latest development in what is inarguably the warp speed revitalization of Summerhill. Georgia Avenue and its surrounding streets are bustling with restaurants, shops, apartments, townhomes, and single-family homes. A new bus rapid transit line (BRT) will soon connect Summerhill to the Five Points MARTA station, bringing even more visitors.

The Idnani Family explores the murals of Summerhill and dropped by Hero Donuts for a sweet treat. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

One of the newcomers who has planted roots in Summerhill is Dan Reingold, who works as director of field marketing for Creature Comforts Brewing. A native of Atlanta, Reingold said he was drawn to the community because of its Jewish history and because lifelong friends opened Halfway Crooks Beer and Little Bear restaurant – both located on Georgia Avenue.

“Summerhill has a challenging history,” Reingold acknowledged, “but the people here are super strong.”

Reingold bought a new townhome and as he began exploring his community, he was impressed with how Carter had redeveloped Summerhill. “It’s a well-thought-out development; they’ve worked to integrate the new with the old and not alienate the legacy residents.”

Reingold said he’s seen a lot of connection and co-existence between newcomers and longtime residents. “The way Summerhill has been redeveloped, you get the opportunity to actually meet your neighbors,” he said.

He said Summerhill still faces challenges, especially when it comes to affordable housing and keeping legacy residents in their homes. Reingold suggested the city lock the tax bracket for longtime homeowners.

Amy Leavell Bransford is also moving to Georgia Avenue. She’s opening a second outpost of her successful spa, Aviary Wellness + Beauty, in one of the street’s historic storefronts.

  Although she’d walked through Summerhill before, a scouting trip to look at a potential location happened last summer during the height of the demonstrations against racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd.

Aviary Wellness + Beauty’s new shop is opening this summer in a historic building on Georgia Avenue. (Courtesy Amy Leavell Bransford)

“The restaurants and businesses were boarded up because there had been marches and demonstrations,” she recalled. “Seeing businesses boarded up wasn’t a good look, but then I heard the developers and execs from Carter and business owners from the community were marching with the protesters while their own storefronts were boarded up. I was like, this is where I want to be – it’s my community, my people.”

Phil Olaleye, an advocate, activist and president of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill (ONS), said many residents finally feel “seen and recognized after so many decades.” 

“Development can be positive for communities that have been overlooked,” he said. “It’s a huge positive. It feels good.”

However, legacy residents – especially renters – also fear displacement as gentrification continues. “All the new development  means an increase in property tax and increase in rent,” Olaleye said. “What does it mean for working families? Are they going to be able to stick around and feel connected to place?”

After decades of being a majority Black community, the “complexion of the neighborhood is changing.” Olaleye said it’s important for newcomers to respect the neighbors who have been in Summerhill for decades.

Organizer Neighbors of Summerhill President Phil Olaleye. (File)

Olaleye said he gives Carter credit for being in the community and listening to the concerns of residents and ONS. “We have standing meetings and Carter shows up,” he said.  “We’re not under any illusion they are going to give us everything, but there is a  constant dialogue. Carter has done a great job providing updates and making sure to connect shop owners and residents.”

Still, Olaleye takes a boots on the ground and porch to porch approach in keeping legacy residents informed of the changes happening in Summerhill. He recalled making several visits to see Miss Rose, a 73-year-old resident born and raised in Summerhill, to explain the plans a developer had in mind next door to her home. 

“A connected community is a strong community,” Olaleye said. “With all the new faces and interests, how do we pull it all together and create community and organization capacity and strength to know that what we’re advocating for is for all Summerhill residents? That’s the ongoing work of the ONS board. Stitching and knitting this constantly changing neighborhood together.”

For more about the history of Summerhill, check out GSU professor and historian Marni Davis’ “Streetscape Palimpsest: A History of Georgia Avenue” at bit.ly/GeorgiaAveATL.

Customers lineup at Little Tart Bakeshop for a sweet treat. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)
Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.