April 5, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Community Preservation in a Historically African-American Georgia Community | By: Marta Olmos, Communications Coordinator at Main Street America |
Ribbon Cutting for the Completion of the West Jackson Streetscape. Photo credit: City of Thomasville.
In the early 20th century, the neighborhood made up of the 200 and 300 blocks of West Jackson Street in Thomasville, Georgia, known as The Bottom, was the heart of the African American community. In the rest of the city, segregation limited the establishments that black residents could visit, but The Bottom had everything they needed. “In The Bottom, we had our own theater there,” said local historian Jack Hadley. “We had our own drug store. We had a taxi car company. We had restaurants, and we had pool room section.”
Integration changed everything in The Bottom. Once black residents were able to patronize other businesses, a lot of foot traffic left the neighborhood, and the black businesses soon closed their doors. The neighborhood faded into history.
Over the years, efforts to preserve the stories of The Bottom have brought new vibrancy to the district. Through community-led initiatives, Thomasville has successfully preserved the culture, fabric, and stories that defined this well-loved neighborhood while paving the way for a more prosperous future.
Creative Visioning and Investment
In March of 2014, City of Thomasville leadership and staff hosted a three-day intensive workshop to discuss the formation of a new Creative District in The Bottom. More than 120 community leaders and citizens participated in developing a multi-year vision plan
to “embrace the geographic context of our land, express our rich cultural heritage, leverage the energy of the New South trend, increase economic opportunity, revitalize the historic area, and bring our creative community resources together.” The plan was built around three major projects: a community trailhead, The Ritz Amphitheater and Park, and the West Jackson Streetscape project. “Your downtown city center is the heartbeat of your community,” said April Norton, Managing Director of Marketing and Communications at Thomasville Main Street
. “Therefore, community preservation must start there.” Since 2014, the neighborhood has received more than $12 million in public and private investment in the area and a net gain of 40 new businesses and over 200 new job opportunities.
The Thomasville Center for the Arts
has played a significant role in activating public arts programming in The Bottom. “We got involved because it was an area of town that really had not had a lot of development and it has such rich history for our community that we know that arts can activate,” said Executive Director Michele Arwood. Murals, pop up shops, new businesses, music festivals, youth outreach, and other programs have gone a long way in reintroducing people to The Bottom and increasing foot traffic.
Preserving the Story
Today, The Bottom is filled with new businesses and exciting cultural events. The Thomasville Center for the Arts runs regular programming including festivals, exhibitions, education, and outreach. The Jack Hadley Black History Museum is working on preserving the story of the Imperial Hotel, one of ten Green Book hotels in Georgia. “We know cultural and artistic experiences have the power to transform cities,” wrote the city in the original creative visioning plan for The Bottom, and through these and other efforts, that transformation is well underway.
Thomasville Main Street credits the success of the project with the many partnerships that helped it come to fruition, including the Thomasville Center for the Arts
, Thomasville Landmarks
, Pebble Hill Plantation
, the Thomasville History Center
, and the Jack Hadley Black History Museum
. “Without our partners and the community input, we would not be where we are today in preserving and telling the story of this significant area of Downtown Thomasville,” said April Norton.
“Buildings are more than structures—they tell a story, and those stories need to be told,” said Alston Watt. At the center of this project is the idea of community preservation—preserving the culture and stories that make a place special. “I like to think of community preservation as a living time capsule of community life and development,” said April Norton. A lot of the original structures and physical history of The Bottom have been lost to time, but the people of Thomasville have shown that there is plenty left there that is worth preserving. “We do things to connect in terms of the built environment, making sure that we're preserving the integrity of what was there, but thinking about where that can go in the future and evolve with it,” said Michele Arwood.#Blogs#MainSpotlight#UrbanMain