The Business of Bankhead
With major developments in the works, local entrepreneurs talk about the area’s economic past, present and future
Story by A.R. Shaw and Liberty Rudo
Photos by Gavin Guidry
March 8, 2022
How we reported this story: Canopy Atlanta asked the Bankhead and Grove Park community members about the journalism they wanted to see about their communities, and this story emerged from that feedback. Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Liberty Rudo, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, was one of the reporters behind this story. Support our community-powered work today.
DONALD LEE HOLLOWELL PARKWAY is in the midst of a transition. The thoroughfare, formerly known as Bankhead Highway, experienced years of disinvestment and now stands as a prime location for renewal and development.
With corporate behemoth Microsoft planning its Westside campus at Quarry Yards; the opening of Westside Park (Atlanta’s largest park) in 2021; and an influx of funding from Fifth Third Bank for Grove Park, the city government’s Westside Promise Zone, and the Westside Future Fund, the area’s poised for exponential growth.
Decades before the recent revitalization efforts, legacy businesses provided services to the residents of the Westside when it was often viewed as a forgotten aspect of Atlanta—marred by crime and drug activity. But the business owners that persevered played an intricate role in helping to establish the culture of this community. Whether it’s food, clothing, cosmetics, or car servicing, there are multiple businesses in this area that add to the uniqueness of Atlanta.
Will the promise of a new day on the Westside trickle down to the business owners?
Canopy Atlanta recently spoke with several business owners on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway who, in their own words, shared stories about the past, the difficulties of the present, and the concerns of the future.
Renita Johnson, Owner, Hair Effects
IN 1964, RENITA JOHNSON’S mother opened Hair Effects on Bankhead Highway. Johnson began working in the family business and eventually took over in 1994. A lifelong resident and business owner in the community, Johnson hopes that the entrepreneurs who endured throughout the years are not forgotten as Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway experiences a transition.
“The biggest change to me has been the closings of so many thriving businesses in that area. That has bothered me the most. [The change started in the late 1980s and early ‘90s]. Drugs came in and it broke up families and that had an impact on businesses. Now, there is gentrification.
I see a lot of people who weren’t in this community years ago since they’ve opened the Westside Park. A lot of the new people in the neighborhood don’t really interact with the people who have always been here. I haven’t seen a lot of improvements business-wise, only new housing that isn’t cheap.
There should be more transparency about what’s going on. We have a lot of groups and organizations that are getting grants and funding, but they need to be more upfront with the residents and business owners. I think we can take advantage of some of the new buildings that they are building or maybe get an update on our business. I would like to keep the legacy of a small salon alive in the community.” — As Told to A.R. Shaw
Community Map and Resources
Where is Bankhead? Is it a community, a neighborhood, a street—or state of mind?
Jane Muzon Johnson Jones, Owner, A Step Above
JANE MUZON JOHNSON JONES owns and operates A Step Above, a furniture store on Donald Lee Hollowell. She ran the business with her husband until he passed away last year. A lifelong entrepreneur, Jane is focused on meeting the needs of the customer and the community through service and her store. She sees herself as more of a steward of the business rather than an owner and can attest to the positives of doing business in Bankhead, regardless of the challenges.
“God has shown me favor to be in this location. Even before the building development and all of this started I’ve had doctors who have been long-standing customers, attorneys who represented the people at the jail, and people fresh out of jail who will come for help and to get furniture. We get furniture from TV shows and movie sets and do a lot of real estate and Airbnb staging. We’ve furnished rooming houses and students come here for their dorms and apartments. Last week some people from a museum in Underground Atlanta came by and shopped with us.
The man who did rent me this place strung me along for five years saying he was going to sell my husband and me the place. Three years ago, I got a call from him late at night saying that he went to closing. He had been talking to me about selling a lot of his properties because he owned a lot of properties here and over on Murphy Avenue and further up Bankhead. I’m thinking he was closing on a property out in the suburbs for himself where he lived. No, he called me late at night to tell me that he had sold this piece of property that he had been promising to sell me for five years to the person who owns it now.
Now, the new owner comes by and says, ‘Jane, you’re doing such a good job.’ I know that when that man is ready to do something with this property, I’m not going to be on his list. So, I’m just trying to do the best I can with what I have with what God put me in place to do until that change comes.” — As told to A.R. Shaw and Liberty Rudo
“I’m just trying to do the best I can with what I have with what God put me in place to do until that change comes.”
Tony Lawson, Owner, Lawson Motors
TONY LAWSON’S FATHER started the family’s flagship company, Lawson Auto Center, in February of 1982 on Bankhead. Forty years later, Lawson’s family now provides services that include car leasing, auto repairs, and tax services. Throughout the years, Lawson has witnessed success in the community and also despair. He believes that certain issues must be addressed before the Westside can truly reach its full potential.
“I took over the entire family operations in 2005. The community was thriving back when I was growing up. But now there aren’t many restaurants here. The banks didn’t have the support from the community to make any money to stay open, so you saw a gradual decline in the community in terms of commerce and finance. It seems to be coming back gradually, but it’s definitely not there now. They’re trying to revive it in terms of housing, but it’s just not there yet. Thankfully, we have been able to maintain and remain in business.
Before any community can thrive, you have to get control of the crime. Drugs and crime are still here. I still have to worry about someone going in the back of my property, breaking in cars, vandalizing cars, and stealing things out of vehicles. When crime decreases, the community thrives. What investor is going to invest in an area that has high crime?
Business owners who are looking to invest or start a business in this area should offer good services at good prices. You don’t have to offer things for free, but you have to have resources to market and build a clientele.” — As told to A.R. Shaw
Eze Kamanu, Owner, ThinkZik Real Estate
EZE KAMANU IS THE owner of ThinkZik Real Estate, which provides housing in Bankhead for students from the Atlanta University Center. Kamanu has his sights on even more development and extending ThinkZik’s services to Georgia Tech.
“There’s a lot of demand in the area for affordable student housing given that there are so many colleges around. It hasn’t been difficult to find students who need rooms. Many of the students attend Spelman, GSU, and Morehouse. The whole idea is to provide affordable housing that is also very clean, modern, and in a safe environment.
We were drawn to the Bankhead area because we saw property owners were leaving and were concerned other investors who don’t care about the community or aren’t community-minded might come in. So, we decided to do what we could to keep the properties and housing within the community.
I have a team that I’m working with. We’re focused on the Westside and we do rehab but so far the properties we’ve gotten didn’t require too much rehab. The next step is to try to buy some of the completely abandoned properties. One of the biggest challenges has been that it seems like the city doesn’t take care of Bankhead very well. It’s neglected for the most part. There are a lot of homeless folks moving around the streets and it’s just not a good look for the students or people trying to occupy these properties. We have to always be conscious of security and making sure students are safe. Thankfully, we haven’t had any incidents but we’re just being proactive and making sure there aren’t any issues. One of the properties that we’re acquiring has bullet holes through it, so we’re just trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen ever again.
Looking forward, it would be nice if more businesses came into the area. There are abandoned properties and empty lots in the area. I hear some are held by nearby schools. If the institutions could allow developers to come in and get those lots developed I think that would be great for the area and more investors like myself will come in and build more student housing or businesses to improve the area, but right now it’s just a lot of vacant lots.” — As told to Liberty Rudo
Matthew Jones, Co-owner, The Grocery Spot
MATTHEW JONES, SPACE MAYFIELD AND other community members opened The Grocery Spot in 2021. Located in Grove Park, the nonprofit has a pay what you can model, offering fresh foods, ready-made meals, and locally grown fare. The community market’s focus is on more than food. It’s a local bodega, resource center, and an official voter registration location.
“I came here to play music and be a sound engineer. Where my family and I lived in Bankhead, there was no grocery store. I’m a disabled vet, so I get to go to school for free. I took out a ton of student loans and I opened up a grocery store as a musician. After building a team of all musicians, we opened The Grocery Spot and stepped into a whole new world. By the second week, we realized we were filling a void that was bigger than we could have ever imagined. We’ve registered people to vote. We’re doing events, giving out free clothes, and free food.
This is a resource desert, not just a food desert. I think people get stuck on providing food, but there’s access to free food all around Bankhead. It’s just not quality that’s consistent. We’ve set out to raise the quality of life through food, through access, and through resources. It’s a community center that happens to sell groceries at this point. We deliver food once a week. We have families that rely on us every month just to eat so it’s really become something way bigger than us.
People don’t realize the majority of my demographic are walkers. They are people who don’t own their own vehicle. So, they rely on public transportation. An eight-minute drive can be a 45-minute walk. So, what is the real food access when Walmart is 15 minutes away, then you have to use MARTA, then you have to prepare the meal? People have these great ideas about feeding the community, but no one wants to go the extra step.
“People have these great ideas about feeding the community but no one wants to go the extra step.”
I opened it up to the community to tell me what they need. I think a big thing is asking the community what they need and then fulfilling that need. I learned that real quick. When we started accepting EBT our whole world changed. We couldn’t accept EBT for four months but now that I’ve had it for 30 days we have quadrupled our profits.
We have 2,000 square feet we’re expanding into to grow the scale. I want to fill that space with more things that the community needs.
I don’t think you can put enough food in this area or enough food access. I’m not a Publix, I’m not a Walmart, I’m not any of these big major companies. I’m a bodega. I’m a little place where you can come and support local farmers and small businesses. If you bring food into the community—that’s what’s needed. That’s what we’re screaming for.” — As told to Liberty Rudo ♦