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Neighborhood says goodbye to Atlanta Street homes
Once-thriving Gainesville public housing community set for redevelopment
Sheryl Pepper Howard, Donna Pepper Severn and Durwood Pepper give a few words of thanks and reminisce about running Peppers Grocery and Market while at an event Saturday held to celebrate the Green Hunter Homes and the Atlanta Street Community in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Memories of childhood scraps in the yard, potluck dinners with neighbors and nights at the corner social scene now stand in contrast to the vacant apartment units with their windows shattered and empty, silent playgrounds.

Those memories are just about all that’s left of the Green Hunter Homes in Gainesville, which are set for demolition before the end of the year.

Former residents of the 65-year-old public housing complex gathered Saturday morning to preserve those memories in hearts, minds and the written word for generations to come.

“It brings me back home,” Elizabeth Westbrooks told the crowd of more than a 100. “If you didn’t have it somebody had it. We all shared together. So I’ll never be ashamed.”

With music, prayer and speeches, the community paid a joyous salute and fond farewell to what was.

For Westbrooks, the loss of Atlanta Street could never outweigh its presence in her life.

“Don’t get me stirred up,” she said, swaying and drifting into an old spiritual. “You know, he brought me out of darkness and I’m walking in the light.”

A name means something in this world. It is a catalogue of history. And on Atlanta Street, Green Hunter is a name for the ages.

Born in 1858 to parents who were slaves and raised south of Jefferson, Hunter came to Gainesville later in his life and established churches and schools in the area around the turn of the 20th century.

Green Hunter Homes were built in 1951 to address substandard housing conditions in the working-class heart of the city. They once were the heart of a thriving business district of restaurants, shops and drug stores around Atlanta Street in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, long before the homes became a place of transience and crime.

Former residents said it was once common for lawyers, doctors and educators to come out of Atlanta Street and later give back.

Ben and Ruth Hunter were in attendance to witness the celebration of the neighborhood homes to which their ancestor gave his name, and the impact his generous sacrifices continue to make.

The Gainesville Housing Authority has partnered with Walton Communities LLC to redevelop the property with the help of $10 million received through a tax credit program. The complex’s 131 units will be redeveloped into a mixed-use space with both subsidized and market-rate apartments, with more than 70 percent remaining for low-income families.

Move-in dates for the new complex are planned for spring 2018.

“This is what progress looks like,” said Emory Turner, who served with a group of civic leaders to bring the block-party commemoration together. “At the same time, though, a lot of memories are being wiped out.”

Beth Brown, director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, said Atlanta Street was a place where babies were baptized, high school graduation parties were held and where families could feel a part of a vibrant, thriving culture.

So it was important to collect these memories in a pamphlet, furnished with bookmark tassel, which was handed out to attendees. Copies will be made available to area public libraries.

The stories of former residents, their heartbreaks and aspirations, are collected within.

“It will serve as a public reminder of the positive impact” the Green Hunter Homes had on Gainesville families, Brown said.

Saturday ended with prayer requests and lots of laughs, and a hope for the future: that the ethic which demands that “it takes a village to raise a child,” long embraced in this community, will be renewed for today’s world.

Then came one final acknowledgement.

“We all congregated here,” said Doreen Thomas, reminiscing about her own youth in the 1960s.

She showed off her poster board of black-and-white photos when she attended the prom, became known as Ms. Rhythm on local radio, and nearly met former President Lyndon B. Johnson before the secret service pushed her aside.

“We had a lot of things going,” Thomas said of those days. “I love talking about the times we had here.”

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