"The Richest Negro Street in the World"
I've made it a point to try visiting the "Sweet Auburn Festival" in spring or summer every year since 2009. It's a festival that used to take place on Auburn Ave; which at one point was one of the most important streets for enterprising black folks in the south. Auburn Ave was home to many flourishing black owned business and banks that were apart of the southern financial elite in the earlier 1900's, it is also the street Martin Luther King Jr. grew up on. In 2009 I began really nurturing my budding desire to gain more historical context about the places I live, especially a place as historically rich as Atlanta is. This festival was something I had to see for myself. My first few times going, the vibe was extremely familial, very warm as you would expect being from the north and going almost anywhere down south. A few years passed and I missed at least the next three or so, by the time I was able to make it back, the vibe was a little different and work had also begun on Auburn Ave. to build a streetcar system. The construction process made having a festival that runs up a street impossible and the Sweet Auburn Festival, pretty much became the Sweet Irwin Festival. Even now with the streetcar construction done, Auburn Ave is just for thru traffic and the festival runs along side streets being primarily located a block over on Irwin St.
Geography aside, I would also talk to my native Atlantan friends, letting them know about my plans to go to Sweet Auburn and was generally met with an apathetic response. Why? Well, a lot of the people I know, don't feel what's festive about the festival anymore, they feel it's mostly commerce driven and that portion of it has begun to overrule the cultural aspect. My late 20 and 30 something friends remember coming to the Sweet Auburn Festival to get culture and community with a side of funnel cake, where as now you get funnel cake, funnel cake, shrimp basket, Louis Bag, corporate kiosk, "Oh Look, the SCLC building, turkey leg, funnel cake!
My friends aren't wrong at all, that is very much what it looks like, but I still go because congregations of peaceful black people, no matter the purpose are always good. There is a permanent nostalgia that just comes with going to a festival anywhere. Your city probably had or has a Sweet Auburn Festival of it's own and there are aspects of any city's festival that will remind you of home, starting with the funnel cake! As I walked around this year, it did really jump out at me more than usual, the sheer volume of things being sold. Some people even looked as though they just pulled a table out of their trunk and posted up with something to sell. Although my friends may or may not see the point of the festival or believe the original spirit isn't there anymore, it's still happening twice a year. I think part of that is because a few people do still recognize and acknowledge the tradition of the street. Auburn Ave. was home to more financial institutions, professionals, educators, entertainers and politicians on that one mile street than any other black street in the south. Sure there are a few more people selling turkey legs, more rappity rap and mixtapes being sold and handbags, but with all these independent entrepreneurs setting up shop, how much has the spirit of the festival really changed?