As the Inman Park Festival prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend, longtime residents look back at the renewal of a neighborhood almost lost to progress

Ashland Avenue in Inman Park in the 1970s and 80s was full of blighted homes and streets filled with debris. (Photos courtesy Clare Sahling)

Inman Park is one of the most desirable, and expensive, neighborhoods in Atlanta. Historic Victorian style homes, bungalows, and large historic mansions converge on tree-lined streets. Looking at the beauty and historic charm of this neighborhood, most people would never imagine that just a few decades ago Inman Park was one of the roughest neighborhoods in Atlanta. 

Originally billed as “Atlanta’s First Suburb,” Inman Park was planned and built in the late 1800s. A streetcar which went directly to Downtown which made it possible for wealthy businessmen to easily commute “to the city” for work. By the 1950s, the draw of the suburbs had enticed many Inman Park residents to leave Atlanta for new developments in Roswell, Marietta, and Norcross. Within a couple of decades, Inman Park fell victim to urban blight. Absentee landlords cut up historic homes into small rentals, which were then left to rot. Some homes were abandoned and became flop houses where people went to buy or use hard drugs. Criminal activity such as cock fights happened out in the open of Inman Park. 

By the 1970s, Inman Park was a very dangerous and scary part of Atlanta. City leaders cared very little about the neighborhood, and because of this, several highways were planned to pave over the blight. Surely, nobody would care if some rotting old houses in a bad part of town got demolished in the name of progress? 

To the surprise of many, a small group of dedicated folks bought up these blighted properties in Inman Park and began to spruce them up. Although some people today may call this “gentrification,” that was not really the case—at the time Inman Park was not a neighborhood of long-time residents trying to maintain the culture of their community. This was true “urban renewal” in the sense that resident pioneers sought to rid their homes and community of roaches, rats, red lines, and squatters who had taken over the disintegrating and abandoned homes. 

Over the course of three decades, Inman Park residents joined several neighborhood groups to fight the building of new freeways (including the famous group “CAUTION” — Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Older Neighborhoods). Residents wrote letters, attended meetings, and even used their own bodies to prevent bulldozers from razing their community. Their success had led to the prevention of other highways destroying other neighborhoods.

In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Inman Park Festival (happening April 22-24), here are some stories and pictures from those early pioneers who not only saved the neighborhood. It’s because of the hard work and dedication of these pioneers that Inman Park has led the way in creating a liveable, walkable, community-centered vision of Atlanta neighborhoods. 

A shed behind Clare Sahling’s home in Inman Park was used for illegal cock fighting.

Clare Sahling

I bought 846 Ashland Avenue as a single woman in 1971. Gently put, it was kind of crappy. It had serious gas leaks, roof leaks, plumbing leaks, and wall-to-wall roaches. The stove would not turn off at all. The sinks were hanging with regrettable stuff growing up nearby walls, and the floor (where there was a floor) had holes where I could see the dirt below. There was a certain aroma that was the Inman Park smell, and the distinct house smell reached you from the street before you got out of the car. Almost all the homes had it.

There were two apartments, about 30 tenants in five rooms, several abandoned dogs, and a full complement of fighting cocks in the back. Before moving in, my house had 48 fighting cocks and there were cock fights every Friday night. When the people who brought the cocks to Inman Park loaded up to go back to South Carolina, they freed all the cocks into the neighborhood – and they woke everyone up at sunrise. Nobody needed an alarm clock in those days. 

There was nothing at all unique about the condition of this house in Inman Park in the early 70s. There was a case (zoning code violations) against the house that was two full pages long, hence the reason it suddenly came up for sale. So I bought it, telling one and all, “Wait! Give me three years.” I had no money and not much going for me except the ability to learn several trades that my mother never raised me to master. I had claimed I needed three years to get it done. I repeated that for about 15 years.

I think all that mutual support was most wonderfully displayed in the annual cleanups. That first neighborhood cleanup was amazing. There weren’t that many of us, and it was a rough area with some truly scary people. With the city providing dump trucks and front-end loaders, we all, every one of us, went at it. We became marauding packs taking on one horrible, unmentionable pile after another. The locals sat on their porches, some amused, others dark and angry. But we kept at it for hours. We fed the guys from the city to keep them there for as long as we could. We stayed at it and they did too, until quite late. The men said they had never seen a neighborhood work like we had.  

Community clean-ups were a neighborhood event as more people bought homes and worked to restore the Inman Park neighborhood.

Susan Mitchell Crawley

When I moved to a duplex apartment on Elizabeth Street in 1980, the neighborhood was still kind of rough. A block away, light industries were still active. There was a dive bar around the corner. Although most of the houses on Elizabeth Street had been at least partially restored, the house directly across the street had a porch piled high with building materials, old and new. It remained that way until the 1990s. I used to say there was no place in Inman Park more than two blocks from something undesirable. Notwithstanding that, it was the finest place to be in the world, and it still is. And now all those undesirable areas have been converted into amenities. 

Inman Park has lost much of the rough-and-ready character than once marked it, and I doubt many of the newer residents really understand either how low it had sunk or how close it came to disappearing altogether. I hope the 50th Festival anniversary doings can drive that home a bit. 

When I moved here, everybody I knew was either moving to Buckhead or buying a ridiculously large house in the suburbs. Inman Park has become a more comfortable place to live—with all the amenities that have sprung up around us, it no longer requires a leap of faith to move here. 

Gale Mull

Holly and I bought 185 Elizabeth Street in 1970 and moved in January 1971.  It was decaying, the seven layers of roofing were molded, the chimneys were falling in as was most everything else, and it sagged between every porch post. Holly loved it because, as she said, it looked like it was curtseying. After moving in, I was shoveling garbage—I mean rotten food stuffs—out of the pantry when the lawyer I worked for came to see the house.  He saw and smelled the contents of the pantry, went outside and vomited.

Pat Westrick

Inman Park was dirtier and shabbier, of course, although it was filled with the enthusiasm and energy of the new residents – the “renovation” people who were interested in saving and renovating the houses and the neighborhood.  But those weren’t the only residents.  The people who were here when we came in 1975 were mostly renters, blue-collar workers who did not have many resources.  Many of their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children mirrored ours, but they were hampered by lack of education, family circumstances, or low expectations.  Some moved as rental properties sold or rents increased, some died, a few remained.  Other than that obvious change in demographics, the alterations in the neighborhood have been those that resulted from the one thing that has never changed:  the enthusiasm of old residents and newcomers alike for finding solutions to problems and supporting the fabric of the neighborhood.

Protesting the proposed freeway in the 1980s. (Courtesy Georgia State University Archives/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Danny Feig-Sandoval

When I first moved to Inman Park in 1977, fights at the Redwood Lounge in Little 5 Points were typically settled with knives instead of guns; kudzu was the predominant neighborhood ground cover; crime was on the rise, and sidewalks were in horrible condition. I initially got involved with Inman Park Restoration (IPR), the official neighborhood organization back then, because while driving down DeKalb Avenue one day, I saw an overturned train car on the adjacent railroad  tracks and wanted to know who was responsible for handling this type of accident, especially if there were a hazardous material emergency. My research led me to IPR. I was so impressed with how organized IPR was. IPR was key in initiating the neighborhood’s transformation from blight to beauty. This is something that still amazes me. I have never known any other neighborhood as effective on so many fronts for improving the neighborhood and the city as today’s IPNA. 

After I moved to IP in late 1977, CAUTION was organizing numerous fundraising events in order to hire lawyers to continue the battle in the courts so I became involved with these efforts. Once the DOT began construction in the early ’80s, it appeared as though the legal battles were not going to be enough to stop it, so one night around Christmas of 1984, several neighbors and I, calling ourselves “Roadbusters,” built a manger scene right in the middle of the proposed road on the Candler Park side of Moreland Avenue. The next day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a photo of it on the front page.

When we learned in January that construction crews were about to cut down several old (around 100 years old) oak trees on the Candler Park Golf Course (prepping to eliminate the 8th and 9th holes for the highway), Roadbusters held an impromptu emergency meeting of interested folks and made a plan for civil disobedience in order to save those trees.  

We activated our phone tree (being pre-internet), called the local media, and then the next day (a really cold one), four of us climbed the trees and refused to come down. The press showed up en masse. When the DOT decided not to cut those trees down that day, we moved to the bridge pilings being driven at Moreland Avenue and sat on the pilings.  The media witnessed the police arresting four of us.

Our arrests were front page headlines, and videos made the local TV news, which helped galvanize opposition to this highway, which eventually became known as The ExPresWay. Over the next six months, at least 60 people were arrested in the affected neighborhood parks. CAUTION’s legal actions gained additional traction, going all the way to the state supreme court. The court sent the case back to the county superior court ruling that the DOT did not have the right to tear up those parks. The superior court judge prescribed a mediation process among the DOT, the city, and CAUTION, resulting in today’s preserved Candler Park Golf Course, the meandering presidential parkway, and the lovely Freedom Park.

A city street sweeper was part of an early Inman Park Festival Parade.

Cathy Bradshaw

I bought a house that had been divided into four weekly rental apartments, with walls and bathrooms added to accommodate as many tenants as possible. The beauty of the turn-of-the-century neighborhood had faded as homes had been subdivided and neglected. A toll-road from Atlanta to Athens and a north/south I-485 highway through the city had doomed the future of Intown neighborhoods to commercial and multi-family development. In 1971, then Gov Jimmy Carter helped the diversion of funds for the road to build MARTA. That was about the same time an interest in Inman Park started. In 1971, when I purchased my home, it was impossible to get loans or insurance because the area was red-lined. From this, ideas of a festival and tour of homes percolated into the first Inman Park Festival in April 1972, with a goal of having bankers, insurance folks and politicians attend and see the potential of our neighborhood. Three hundred were anticipated. About 3,000 showed up for the first All Volunteer festival and tour of homes in Atlanta.

The fight over the Presidential Parkway did not begin until Jimmy Carter left the White House, needed a place to put his library and cut a deal with Andy Young and Tom Moreland, DOT Commissioner, to build his library on land purchased with federal dollars, requiring a “road” for access. That “road” was a freeway with 5 bridges through Inman Park, high speed traffic and access roads throughout the entire road, essentially dooming the inner city to remain a neglected, unsightly area. Those of us living in Inman Park, Druid Hills, Candler Park, Poncey-Highland, Lake Claire and Morningside had higher visions, goals and desires than to be relegated to off ramps from a freeway. 

If the freeway had been built, the life of the city would not have evolved into liveable, walkable, desirable neighborhoods. It only takes looking at other cities with freeways running through neighborhoods to see the blight and neglect that remains. 

It is important to remember that it is possible to fight an ex-president, a mayor, city council, chamber of commerce and powerful newspaper to insure the integrity of one’s beliefs. Carter was a supporter of world peace but would not meet with his neighbors. Young was elected to office with the hard work of intown voters, then betrayed those same voters with the ex-pres highway. Moreland was true to his training for working to build roads at all cost. I am happy to be remembered as part of a huge group of intown neighbors who had the vision, passion and desire to protect the area we had worked hard to improve and enjoy.

Matthew Terrell

Matthew Terrell is a writer, photographer, videographer, and communications director for Dad's Garage Theatre Company.