Preserving The Flavor Of An Atlanta Neighborhood

Feb 23, 2017
Originally published on February 23, 2017 3:47 pm

This story is part of Kitchen Table Conversations, a series from NPR's National Desk that examines how Americans from all walks of life are moving forward from the presidential election.

Keitra Bates is standing in front of an empty storefront on Atlanta's Westside. The walls are yellow-painted stucco over cinder blocks, with iron bars on the windows and doors, and a small side yard littered with abandoned tires. A corner store, the Fair Street Superette, is next door.

"Here's my dream come true," she says.

The building is just a few blocks from the grand, leafy campuses of historically black colleges Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta. A giant new sports arena is rising downtown, less than 2 miles away. But it's here in the Ashview Heights neighborhood, among the boarded-up houses and vacant lots, that Bates sees hope.

NPR is talking with Americans about their hopes during the first year of the Trump administration, and Bates has an ambitious one. She wants to open a new business in this blighted neighborhood. Her mission: to preserve regional culinary traditions.

She plans to convert this rundown building into Marddy's, a shared commercial kitchen and marketplace for home cooks to make and sell their goods.

" 'Discover the flavor of the neighborhood' is what we're trying to do with Marddy's," she says.

Bates says here on the Westside, home cooks have traditionally sold cookies, pies, salad dressings and other foodstuffs at barbershops, salons and local businesses. But as the area gentrifies, she says, those businesses are replaced with new ones that appeal to the newcomers, and the marketplace for the home cooks vanishes.

"Because they don't know about this cultural phenomenon," she says. "Then this whole economy just gets ghosted."

Bates knows firsthand how quickly a neighborhood like this one can change. She ran a pizzeria nearby, until the street where it was located was "revitalized" enough to attract a new landlord, who raised her rent.

So now Bates is buying the yellow building, to give those home cooks a place to prepare and sell their cookies and dressings. She is using an innovation grant as seed money and is raising startup funds online.

Bates says don't expect her to get too worked up about the new president. She's heard a lot of angst about the Trump administration and would like to see all that energy put into action, locally.

"Being afraid, being paralyzed is not what's needed," she says. "What's needed is for people to be energized and get involved where they live and change things."

A man passing by stops to talk with Bates outside the storefront. "Y'all thinking about investing?"

David Amadu introduces himself and says he is also investing here in the Ashview Heights area.

"When I first came down here, I asked cops what's going on with this place, and they were like, oh, prostitutes, blah blah, it's a bad area," he tells Bates. "But that's not true. They don't see the potential in it."

Amadu renovates blighted homes and rents them to college students. He shares not only Bates' vision for the neighborhood but also a similar political outlook. Amadu says he is not counting on President Trump to change things here.

"It's not his job to care about my community. It's my job to care about my community," Amadu says. "I don't expect him to give a damn about anything that's going on around here. Because nobody else has."

Amadu says it's a matter of harnessing the way people here have long known how to care for one another. He recalls that the first time someone offered him a pie was right here on this street.

Bates lights up, thinking of the elderly sweet potato pie lady and the Syrian refugee cookie baker she has lined up as tenants.

"We should hug. So good to meet you," Bates says.

"I believe in this neighborhood," Amadu says.

He points out that Martin Luther King Jr. went to high school and college nearby.

"So we have to take care of this place," he says. "And I'm going to do it whether I have to do it by myself or whether I'm going to talk to people like you."

"You're not doing it alone," she says, heartened that someone else has hope for a place once neglected.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR is talking with Americans about their hopes during the first year of the Trump administration. Today, we visit Atlanta, where an entrepreneur is trying to start a new business in a neighborhood that's been economically depressed. Her mission - preserving regional culinary traditions. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Not far from a giant new sports dome under construction in downtown Atlanta, Keitra Bates shows me Student Movement Boulevard, the corridor that runs through three historic black colleges - Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta.

KEITRA BATES: Now we're on Fair Street, and you can see the change. It's immediate.

ELLIOTT: Just blocks from the leafy campuses, signs of neglect.

BATES: And these are boarded-up houses and, you know, vacant lots.

ELLIOTT: But, at the bottom of the street, Bates sees hope.

BATES: Here's my dream come true.

ELLIOTT: It's a vacant storefront - yellow, stucco cinder block with iron bars on the windows and doors and a small side yard littered with abandoned tires. A corner store, the Fair Street Superette, is next door. This is where Bates plans to open Marddy's. It will be a shared kitchen and marketplace for home cooks to make and sell their goods.

BATES: Discover the flavor of the neighborhood - is really what we're trying to do with Marddy's.

ELLIOTT: Bates says here in west Atlanta, home cooks have traditionally sold cookies, pies, salad dressings and other foodstuffs at barber shops, salons and local businesses. But as the area gentrifies, she says, they're being pushed out.

BATES: If the newcomers don't support the small businesses but instead they're - the small businesses change hands and they become businesses that really, you know, are more to their tastes and, because they don't know about this cultural phenomenon, then this whole economy of entrepreneurs, you know, just kind of gets ghosted.

ELLIOTT: Bates is in the process of buying the building. She's using a local innovation grant as seed money and is raising start-up funds online. The mother of five ran a pizzeria until a new landlord raised her rent on a revitalized west Atlanta street. Bates says don't expect her to get too worked up over the new president.

BATES: For me and for a lot of people like myself, you know, one administration to the next, we can't necessarily say, like - oh, that was amazing for us. Sure, it's inspirational. But did we see some huge, huge change in terms of business?

ELLIOTT: Bates says she hears a lot of angst about the Trump administration and would like to see all that energy put into action.

BATES: Being afraid, being paralyzed is not what's needed. What's needed is for people to be energized and get involved in where they live and change things.

ELLIOTT: Outside the storefront, a man walks down the block to encourage her to buy the building.

DAVID AMADU: Y'all thinking about investing?

ELLIOTT: David Amadu is also here in the Ashview Heights area.

AMADU: Like, when I first came down here, I asked the cops - like, what's going on with this place? And they were like - oh, it's nothing but prostitutes, this and that, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - it's a bad area.

BATES: One of them told me that they need to drop a bomb on this area.

AMADU: Yeah, but that's not true. They don't see the potential in it.

ELLIOTT: Amadu renovates blighted homes and rents them to college students. He not only shares Bates' vision for the neighborhood but also a similar political outlook. Amadu says he's not counting on President Trump to change things here.

AMADU: It's not his job to care about my community. It's my job to care about my community. So I don't expect him to give a damn about anything that's going over here because nobody else has.

ELLIOTT: Amadu says it's a matter of harnessing the way people here have long known how to care for one another, recalling the first time that anyone offered him a pie was on this street. Bates lights up, thinking of the elderly sweet potato pie lady and the Syrian refugee cookie baker she's lined up as tenants.

BATES: Oh, come on, we should hug. It's so good to meet you. Wow.

AMADU: (Laughter) I believe in this neighborhood. Martin Luther King went to high school right there.

BATES: Right.

AMADU: And then he went to college right up the street right there.

BATES: Yes.

AMADU: So we have to take care of this place, and I'm going to do it. Whether I got to do it myself...

BATES: You're not doing it alone.

AMADU: ...Or whether I'm going to talk to people like you...

BATES: You're not doing it alone.

AMADU: ...I'm going to die. I firmly believe in that.

BATES: How beautiful, yes.

ELLIOTT: You're not doing it alone, she says, heartened that someone else has hope for a place once neglected.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.