Ponce de Leon Avenue is one of Atlanta’s most noteworthy thoroughfares. One could make the argument that aside from Peachtree Road, there is no more important street in the entire city. Atlanta author Sharon Foster Jones has recently published a history of the street: Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue: A History. Judging from her thoughtful, insightful words below, it definitely needs to be on your “”must read”” list…
Q. The one thing that most Atlantans would be most shocked to find out about Ponce de Leon Avenue’s history is…
A. That it has its own history, and it’s enormous! It’s not just some fast-food-lined highway from Atlanta to Decatur. It’s way more than a place to party. The bones of Atlanta’s history are right in front of Atlantans on Ponce, and most people don’t see it. The area was settled before the Civil War, and the street was built to service the springs which were located near the Sears/City Hall East/Ponce City Market building. From about 1880 to about 1920, Ponce was where the movers and shakers of Atlanta wanted to live. Great architects designed the houses, churches, and hotels. Even those old brick apartment buildings on the street were designed by famous architects. The Ford Factory building was one of the first assembly plants ever, and they put Model T’s together for all of the southeast right there on Ponce. The Crackers played on Ponce from 1907 to 1965 — that’s longer than the city has had the Braves! The whole white-flight-to-the-suburbs phenomena is still apparent if you look; that’s why the houses are gone, and that’s why some of the streets are named differently on each side of Ponce. And history is being made right now with Ponce City Market and the Beltline.
Q. The Mayor names you the Czar of Ponce de Leon Avenue, and the same day you stumble upon a pot of gold. What’s on your agenda for Ponce?
A. A police officer standing every hundred feet on both sides of the avenue from Peachtree to Moreland. I’m all for diversity, but not with hookers and drug dealers. These folks only respond to aggressive police action, which isn’t always feasible. The thing is — Ponce is still a mecca for people who just got released from prisons or mental institutions. These disturbed individuals know they can survive there. As great as Ponce City Market and the Beltline are going to be, there’s still this huge problem of open and obvious crime. We’ve got to fix that.
Q. Hidden Ponce gems?
A. To me, the most hidden gem is the Historic Old Fourth Ward Park — which is not on Ponce but is connected to it in a visceral way. Here’s why. The entire area — where the Sears Building is and across North Avenue where the O4W Park is — is a natural repository for over 900 acres of water drainage. The famous Ponce de Leon springs formed centuries ago as a natural release to groundwater which collected in the area. The springs (which is why we have Ponce de Leon Avenue in the first place) were covered up in 1926 by Sears and directed into the sewer. When the O4W Park was built, the lake was dug deep enough to reach the groundwater, and the lake fills up from below. That water in the lake is essentially the modern version of the old Ponce de Leon Springs. The springs have come full circle. (I wouldn’t drink that water though.)
Q. You’re asked to show off Ponce de Leon Avenue to a busload of tourists, and you’ve only got four hours- where are you headed?
A. If I took them to all the churches on the street, they could get a pretty good glimpse into what Ponce is about. The churches were built by the very best people of Atlanta with the very best architects, and then the churches declined and rose again — like Atlanta, like the mythological phoenix. A couple of the churches on Ponce in Druid Hills were originally the homes of Asa Candler and Sam Venable. Those two guys owned Coke and Stone Mountain; you can’t get anymore Atlanta than that! Most of the churches have adapted to the changes of being in an urban environment on a street with some sketchy sojourners. They have outreach programs for the needy folks of Ponce. By the way, many of the needy on Ponce are truly in need and not criminals, but they tend to get herded in with the bad guys, literally and figuratively. Ponce is an ever-changing, living, variable environment, and the churches have had to come to terms with that to survive.
Q. Why is Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon: A History an essential read?
A. Because the street is a palimpsest. Generations of Atlantans have used the street and put their marks upon it, and they’ve left traces of themselves if you know where to look. This book tells you where to look. The magnolia that Babe Ruth hit a ball into is behind Whole Foods. A house built in 1898 is incorporated into the Atlanta Eagle structure. Mary Mac’s is a conglamoration of individual stores that were merged into one large restaurant. An old alley that ran behind houses is now one of the entrance drives into the Publix. Since researching for this book, I’ve never looked at Ponce in quite the same way; the history is right there in front of you.