Home to the Creek people for hundreds of years, the land now known as West End was ceded to the United States in 1821. By the time the Trail of Tears was forcing the nearby Cherokee people out of Georgia to the West in the 1830s, European settlers were already moving upstate, founding towns and villages where old native crossroads intersected the state’s new network of railroads. This included White Hall, a community established in 1835, two years before Atlanta itself. Roughly one block from today’s West End Mall, Charner Humphries built a simple whitewashed wooden home called the White Hall Tavern, which also served as an inn and a post office.
White Hall was a growing suburb of Atlanta by the time it was incorporated as a city in 1868. It was renamed West End after London’s famous theater district and expanded with streetcars after the Civil War. In 1894, West End was annexed into Atlanta and continued to blossom with both housing and commercial development for the city’s expanding white upper class. This included mayors, doctors, merchants, and other prominent residents like Joel Chandler Harris, known for his Uncle Remus Tales, who built The Wren’s Nest with proceeds from his first book.
West End flourished in the early 20th Century, but the Jim Crow era brought misguided and unsuccessful attempts to protect white Atlanta from the expansion of black residential districts through redlining and highway construction. The eventual transformation of West End into a predominately African American community coincided with the breakthrough election of Mayor Maynard Jackson in 1973 – the first black mayor of Atlanta and of any major city in the South. Jackson brought a new era of black culture and enterprise to Atlanta, which transformed West End into a leading cultural district and the origin point for the city’s legendary black middle class.
Following Jackson’s election, continued white flight and suburbanization to areas beyond the city limits fueled Atlanta’s racial and political transition, creating a mecca for progressive politics and culture and defining the city’s modern identity. The civic legacies of this era are well known – MARTA and airport expansion along with City Hall’s investment in black business – but it is important to acknowledge that the prosperity of the entire region today also stands on the shoulders of this transition and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. The opportunities for African Americans that defined this era helped distinguish Atlanta from other cities in the South and made Atlanta palatable for national and international investment.
Built in 1971, the West End Mall was part of that story. It became a modern symbol of cultural and economic progress for the changing face of the city. In part because of this success, however, many middle-class black families eventually left West End for larger houses and a more tranquil life out in the suburbs. Surrounding communities fell into decline and following several upstart attempts at revitalization, the dark cloud of mortgage fraud and foreclosure hung over Southwest Atlanta throughout the Great Recession.
Today, the West End Mall is essentially full and operating at a profit, but it is functionally obsolete and unable to deliver the kinds of options that the market is looking for – urban vitality that comes with mixed-use buildings, social spaces, and a fresh wave of economic opportunity. Simultaneously, the site’s capacity for growth and its adjacency to transit, highways, and the Atlanta University Center, means that the land value of the site requires a stronger financial performance. Fortunately on both fronts, not only has the community long planned for the Mall’s redevelopment, but powerful market forces are now ready to deliver their vision.
West End has emerged as an obvious area for investment. Its beautiful housing stock, rapidly rising home values, emerging commercial district, proximity to downtown, access to MARTA and I-20, and new trail along the Atlanta Beltline, mean that it is poised for a new generation of growth. As the city experiences an unprecedented population expansion, the most urgent question for local residents and businesses has become whether the next chapter of West End’s story includes them – whether it builds on the community’s legacy of supporting black culture and enterprise – and whether that can protect Atlanta’s identity and promise to be a city that includes and elevates everyone.
“As the birthplace of Atlanta’s legendary African American middle class, West End is a historic, walkable, transit-oriented district in southwest Atlanta. It has been overlooked for a generation, but West End is now poised for substantial reinvestment – in fact, we believe it is the most strategic investment in the southeastern United States.”
– Ryan Gravel, co-founder, Elevator City Partners