Like much of Atlanta’s history, which is semi-known—like a story told through whispers—I learned about The Roosevelt almost by coincidence in late 2015 or early 2016. A former neighbor was looking at an apartment across the street, a newly built semi-urban monstrosity. Afterwards, he stumbled upon the historic high school with “higher ceilings, lower prices, and historic charm.” Soon after, someone else complimented the building’s windows with a sense of wonder, almost. I had to have a look-see.
I bicycled to the main gate and peered in. A hulking building sat squat in the middle of Grant Park yet, somehow, slightly removed from the neighborhood itself.
In early 2018, I myself was looking for a new place to live. Scouring Craigslist and parsing through small 2-bedroom homes with soaring rent prices, an apartment seemed like a logical pivot. Suddenly, I recalled The Roosevelt. Aha! I called the leasing manager, who showed a number East- and West-facing 1- and 2-bedroom apartments. She could tell I was hedging.
“We got a lot of different types of spaces and apartments…what’cha looking for?” she asked.
“I work from home,” I said, “and am looking for an office space.” She took me up to the third floor, through the 35-foot rotunda, down a massive hallway. She showed me a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment with an office (1 of 2 in the entire building!).
From the moment I moved in, I have been shaking the same grapevine that led me here in the first place, trying to find a graduate interested in touring the space and telling about the way things were in Atlanta. This was an exercise in futility. After a while, I figured, “The universe will speak when the time’s right.”
So, I turned my attention to more pressing matters, to business. After a year-long self-induced crash-course in entrepreneurship and historical research, I launched my company, Gate City Tours. Naturally, I sought the management company’s permission to give tours of the building and was pleasantly surprised when they agreed.
Fast-forward to January, 2020. I’m planning a tour of The Roosevelt as part of The Breman Museum‘s Historic Jewish Atlanta Tours. Randomly, a friend and colleague called me one afternoon two weeks before the event.
“I’m calling as a professional courtesy,” he said. “There’s someone who’s very knowledgeable about local history. Her mom’s a graduate of Girls High [the school’s name prior to going co-ed in 1947]. You should definitely reach out. She’s expecting your call.” In the middle of Dekalb Farmers Market, I was flabbergasted…could this really be happening…finally?!
After the weekend, I picked up the phone: “Hello, may I please speak to Peggy?” I asked. Peggy and I chatted for almost 45 minutes. As it turned out, her 90-year-old mother, Shirley, was planning on flying in from her home in St. Louis to attend the tour as part of her 91st birthday celebration. Following our conversation, Peggy emailed her mother, “I spoke to Aaron Levi, and he is really excited about listening to your memories of Girl’s High.” The universe IS speaking!
A few days later, I dialed the number with a St. Louis area code Peggy had given me. When I finally heard Shirley’s voice on the other line, her accent carried the unmistakable Southern whimsy of her youth, even though, as I later learned, it had been nearly 75 years since she lived in the Gate City.
Looking back on her origins in the US, Shirley said, “Daddy came over in 1904, when he was 8 years old, with his family from Lithuania. They lived in Greensboro and started a general store…no other Jewish family lived there. Kosher meat would come in on the train, and Daddy would pick it up from the train station.”
The Yudelson family consisted of Max and Rachel Leah, Shirley’s grandparents; daughters, Sarah and Gertrude; and sons, Israel and Sol, Shirley’s father. In about 1913, the family moved to Atlanta, and the 17-year-old Sol opened the Star Shoe Store. They joined the storied congregation, Ahavath Achim, founded in 1886 as Atlanta’s second-oldest congregation.
Shirley continued. “Spielberger, on the other side of the family, opened a grocery store.”
Shirley’s maternal grandparents, Jacob and Julia, had actually arrived in the US and Atlanta before the Yudelsons. Both families had cousins who lived in the South and, according to Peggy, most likely came to Atlanta because they heard it was a good place to live.
Shirley began talking about navigating a Jewish social life as a teenager during the war. Students from Emory and Georgia Tech, all-male institutions at the time, often dated Girls High School girls.
Gas was rationed. Out-of-town college students rarely had their own cars, so, instead, “we’d go on dates with college guys using the streetcar,” Shirley explained. “We’d stop on Ponce for some watermelon, and then continue onto the end of the line. If our date missed the last street car going back to campus, he’d have to hitch-hike back. Everyone stopped to offer a ride to the boys at that time.”
After talking for about 45 minutes, Shirley’s verve was outpacing mine. I invited her to my apartment for tea after the tour to continue the conversation and hear more delightful stories about old Atlanta.
More than a week passed. The tour date finally arrived. Twenty-five people came on a blustery day to learn about the founding of Atlanta’s public school system in 1872 and some early Girls High anecdotes when it was located downtown in the John Neal home at the corner of Mitchell and Washington Streets.
People slowly congregated. I walked over to meet a small group who appeared lost, including a petit yet spritely woman in a fashionable maroon leather jacket and trousers. “I’m Aaron,” I say and extend a hand. “I’m Shirley, and this is my daughter, Peggy, who I believe you spoke to, and my granddaughter, Shana.” Three generations?! I can’t believe this! This is fabulous! I think.
We joined the rest of the group. We walked the grounds, and viewed the building’s architecture, decorative dome, and ornate patterns of Neo-Byzantine brickwork, which, when taken together, imply a grander structure than actually exists. We explored the gymnasium with the original court paint and logo preserved from 1950, three years after Girls High went co-educational and was renamed Roosevelt High School.
Wrapping up underneath the grand entry-way adorned by both a male and female lion, I checked in if Shirley still was up for chatting.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “In fact, I still have to get some more steps in for the day.”
The four of us walked backed to the high school’s main entrance, took the elevator up, walked through the rotunda, and down a long “single-loaded” corridor to my apartment, where we sat around a coffee table over glasses of water and tea.
She had brought with her some old photographs and mementos, which she started laying out on the table.
Shirley’s father lived in a number of locations in and around downtown Atlanta, but by the time that Shirley turned 9 years old, her family moved to a Greek Revival home on 1715 Ponce De Leon at the corner of Clifton. There she and her other three siblings would come of age. A second brother was born in 1939.
Reflecting on her experiences at Girls High, she and Peggy recalled that the curriculum stressed how you would live after school, to accomplish things in a modern and efficient manner. Many girls went to excellent colleges in Atlanta and around the country, and those who became housewives were determined to conquer the domestic sphere as efficiently as the Allied soldiers storming the beaches in Normandy.
She recalled picking up the Druid Hills street car in front of the Claremont Hotel and would later switch to another line to get to Girls High. When I asked about taking public transportation a good distance in those days, she explained the “most of the Jewish girls lived on the North side of town” at the time and that such freedom in mobility was common.Other times, she would hop on a streetcar after school and take it downtown to 84 Pryor Street, where her father had his office for his retail shoe business. At the end of the day, they would drive home together. “I’d sit on a stack of Girl High textbooks driving from Daddy’s office downtown to ‘take some practice’ driving.” He’d remind her to take her time, to firmly press on the clutch as she eased the car from one gear into another and ignore anyone who honked at her.
Their migration from downtown to Druid Hills reflected larger trends across Atlanta. Although the street car was still omni-present, the automobile was ascendant. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Atlanta’s population rose by about 160,000. A swelling population downtown, freshly laid neighborhoods, and modern retail, like the Sears & Roebuck that opened in the mid-1920’s, foretold Atlanta’s sprawl today.
After graduating in 1946, Shirley went off to Washington University in St. Louis, where she met her future husband and then stayed to raise her family. She would often return home, though by that time her parents had sold their home on Ponce. By the early 1980’s, Peggy had married Steve Freedman and started a family of her own. They decided to move back to Atlanta in the rapidly expanding suburban ring known as Sandy Springs.
By now, Atlanta’s urban decline was considered to be in full effect. The integration of Atlanta’s public school system in 1961 prompted White flight, taking their tax base with them. In 1940, the city was 65% White and 34% Black. By 1990, those numbers reversed: 31% White and 67% Black. The school system reflected this, too. Blacks constituted 80%-90% of public school students during this time while 90% of all White families who remained intown sent their children to private schools.
Rather than voluntarily integrate Lake Abana in Grant Park, the “city too busy to hate” drained the lake. Schools merged. Roosevelt High School closed. One block from Shirley’s childhood home, a small crunchy private school methodically expanded into a 16-acre wooded acre campus. The Greek Revival house on the corner lot fell into disrepair.
Atlanta’s history—like many places—tends to come in cycles. Today, the metro area and the city itself are booming. Take a stroll along the BeltLine, the Memorial corridor, or any number of new developments popping up East, West, North, and South.
But there’s a darker side to such progress.
In 2018, WABE reported that Atlanta has ranked as the worst in income inequality in 3 of the previous 5 years. We can thank public policy slashing up the city like Sykes-Picot for our ever-increasing traffic woes. And the very person who helped usher in this latest gilded era, Ryan Gravel, resigned from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership in 2016 over concerns relating to affordable housing and equity. Most egregious of all, Georgia’s current governor oversaw his own gubernatorial victory by, in part, suppressing tens of thousands of votes during his tenure as the then-secretary of state, results that are being disputed in a US district court.
Shana had left some time earlier, as our animated conversation had showed no signs of slowing. With the sun now low in the sky and a chill cutting across the window outside, I offered to walk Shirley and Peggy to their car. Although we traded pleasantries, I felt discombobulated, as if I misplaced part of myself just out of reach. We hugged, and I told Shirley and Peggy I’d be in touch soon.
On the way back, my mind wandered along the worn steps of the Roosevelt’s stairwells, indented by so many steps across the generations like those outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I struggled to understand the irreconcilable madness of this city.
Soon enough, I’ll pick up my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. We’ll take the elevator upstairs. She’ll plop herself down in the rotunda, tearing off her shoes and socks. Then we’ll open the double-doors and, often, she’ll call out, “Get me, Abba! Abba, get meeeeee!” as we race down the corridor together back home.
After dinner and bath time, we’ll hop into bed and read a story. I’ll tuck her in and turn off the lights. We’ll listen to some music. Before leaving, I’ll sit with her in the quiet, a calm prevailing in the room. In a new decade and an old classroom-turned-child’s-bedroom built almost 100 years ago, I’ll envision a new New South—one in which justice is restored and progress is defined as the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the most sustainable way possible.
I’ll look at my daughter, and I’ll imagine putting on our swim clothes, packing up her stroller, and walking over to Grant Park. I’ll imagine that lake, all molten amber and reflecting the semi-old-growth oak trees. All our friends from the neighborhood will be there. So will the spirits of everyone from the past who was once banned and barred. We’ll walk over to the dock. We’ll take a deep breath and get a running start.
As we cannonball into the spring-fed waters, we’ll proclaim: “This is the greatest city in the world!”