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  • Louis Venters

Spiritual Capital & Historic Preservation: New Life for an Atlanta Neighborhood Important to Bah

The Atlanta Baha'i Center is not just one small faith community's place of worship; it is an important site in the history of interracialism in American religious practice. While there were a handful of Baha'is, black and white, in Atlanta from early in the 20th century, it wasn't until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during a national campaign to establish Baha'i communities in cities throughout the Deep South, that a local Baha'i organization emerged in Atlanta. When several local whites became Baha'is without much understanding of the faith's uncompromising approach to interracial fellowship, it provoked a crisis in the local community that could have spelled disaster for nascent groups all over the region. Decisive action by the national Baha'i leadership, including South Carolina's native son Louis G. Gregory, healed the rift, and from the early 1940s until today the Atlanta community has remained fearlessly, outspokenly integrated. (I mention this important episode in my new book, and sociologist Mike McMullen has written extensively about it in this 1995 article and his 2000 monograph.)

One mark of the community's early commitment to racial reconciliation was its acquisition of a modest building for use as a Baha'i Center--a multipurpose facility for worship, administrative, and service activities--on Edgewood Avenue, just a block off Sweet Auburn in the heart of Atlanta's most important black business district. It has remained in active use ever since, even as the surrounding neighborhood has faced the difficulties often associated with suburbanization and (in one of the bitter ironies of the civil rights movement) desgregation.

Now, according to this recent article, a local Baha'i has acquired several buildings on the block where the Baha'i Center is located, has received a city grant for façade improvement for one building, and has filed permits to rehabilitate another. She plans to develop one property as a green space and is looking commercial tenants for the others that will contribute to the neighborhood's positive development. Notably, she says that she's not intersted in tenants that will apply for liquor licenses. That may limit the kinds of restaurants and other businesses that would locate in her buildings, but from what I read it appears that (ahem!) the neighborhood has plenty of acces to liquor already. I think that's a courageous and rather unusual stance for a real estate investor to take.

This is welcome news, particularly in the context of efforts by the city, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other partners to bring new investment to, improve services for, and protect the physical legacy of this important neighborhood. But it also coheres with long-standing efforts in the Baha'i community, in Atlanta and around the world, to build strong bonds of trust and mutual cooperation across the lines of race, class, and gender that have so often divided people from each other. These efforts have accelerated in the last few years, as Baha'is have been refining a system of community education and neighborhood revitalization that focuses on the empowerment of young people as agents of change.

As a historian and historic preservationist, I know that beyond the technical and financial aspects, the hardest and most important questions in successful neighborhood development have to do with human relationships. Who makes decisions about the neighborhood's priorities and how are they implemented? Who is welcome to use which spaces, and for what purposes? How well do neighbors know each other? What is the quality of the social, economic, and political relationships that connect people to each other? How do we improve the health, prosperity, and well-being of the community in the broadest sense of those terms? How can as many people as possible take ownership of the processes at work in their community? Do we have a common vision of the future? Only when these questions are at the center of a redevelopment effort can the right kinds of physical improvements take place.

From villages to major metropolitan areas, these are precisely the kinds of questions that Baha'is around the world (and good historic preservationists and planners) have been learning to address. I recently wrote about another example, in a rural region of Colombia where a new local Baha'i House of Worship is being planned, of how the Baha'is' efforts to cultivate human potential are beginning to take shape in the built environment. I hope the plans underway around the storied Atlanta Baha'i Center, in a neighborhood so significant to the history of the United States, result in important contributions to this common endeavor.

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