Benjamin Graham witnessed the fall of the Auburn area while living beneath an interstate bridge. Today he said he watches the Atlanta streetcar chauffeur customers and tourists in front of his convenience store, Auburn Avenue Specialty & Gifts.
After battling a 17-year drug addiction, he now looks forward to watching the area’s revitalization as the owner of a convenience store along the strip.
“When I look back at all I went through and see where I’m at now, not a week goes by where I don’t cry,” Graham said.
However, despite his success opening the store, much of Auburn Avenue businesses are struggling to survive, according to Graham.
Today more than a dozen vacant shops can be found on the three blocks of Auburn between Fort Street and Jackson Street.
In February 2012, the city demolished a dilapidated apartment complex and sold the property to Georgia State to be made into athletic fields which led to a drastic decline in business for the area, according to Graham.
Although the apartments were then housing vagrants and drug dealers, Graham said the demolition of the complex took a heavy toll on the east Auburn area as many of the stores relied on pedestrian traffic.
“One time Auburn was thriving from that apartment community,” he said. “As those were torn down it seemed like Auburn started to die.”
The property cost Georgia State nearly $3.6 million but has yet to be used.
A month prior to the destruction of the complex the city began to implement plans for installing the streetcar, according to Graham.
A.J. Robinson, President of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, said the streetcar is an innovative manner of stimulating the city and state economy, according to a statement released by the mayor’s office.
“Before even opening, the Atlanta Streetcar attracted $561 million in investment between 2011 and 2014 within a five minute walk of the track alignment and now that it’s officially launched, it will continue to provide significant economic benefits for many years to come,” he said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the streetcar connects neighborhoods that had long been divided as well as boosts local business, according to the statement.
“The development happening today in Atlanta is unprecedented and projects like this continue the momentum and ensure continued growth opportunities for Downtown and the Sweet Auburn neighborhood,” he said.
However, Sam Bugsa, a former Auburn Avenue business owner, said his shop went out of business after construction began for the streetcar in January.
“The city of Atlanta closed the streets for almost three years, so now I am out of business,” he said.
Bugsa also said he wants to lease the property, but it is difficult to get people to invest.
“I have been there 10 years and in three years I have made nothing,” he said. “And I still have three years left on my lease.”
However, Tanya Swann, co-owner of Auburn Avenue Specialty & Gifts and Graham’s fiance, said the completion of the streetcar has been beneficial for their business.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in [pedestrian] traffic and we’re really expecting for there to be more during the spring and summer because of the weather,” she said.
Swann also said the streetcar offers a convenient and cost efficient manner of traversing Atlanta.
“People will be wondering where they’re going to park and this will be good for them,” she said.
However, the construction limited foot traffic and Bugsa said he expected some kind of compensation for his suffering.
“There used to be parking in front of my door, but now the streetcar does not allow that,” he said. “The city told me they would not give me money, but they would give me customers; but they did not.”
City infrastructure repair
Three years after Bugsa lost his business, Invest Atlanta implemented a grant program to improve the infrastructure and quality of life around the city, according to a statement released by Invest Atlanta.
The organization awarded Downtown Facade Improvement Grants to four Auburn Avenue businesses totalling around $240,000, the release stated.
Graham said the area deserves to be revitalized due to its cultural value.
“They need to do something with Auburn,” he said. “This is historic. This is Dr. King’s street. I’d like to see it more vibrant.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the grants should renew the suffering areas, according to the statement.
“This project brings the largest infusion of federal funds into our transportation system in more than a decade,” he said. “And even more, the streetcar brings more energy, excitement and investment to the neighborhoods near some of our most important historic and tourist sites. The Streetcar will carry us into a vibrant, connected future for the City of Atlanta,” he said.
Graham said he is aware of the renovation grants nearby and he hopes Auburn Avenue will soon be rehabilitated.
“Hopefully by the summer we’ll see it start to mirror Edgewood [Avenue],” he said.
Graham also said he has only noticed these grants affecting Edgewood Avenue businesses so far. The revitalization of Edgewood Avenue brought new restaurants and bars like Bad Dog Taqueria, the Music Room and Panbury’s Double Crust Pies, according to Atlanta Magazine.
“I see Auburn growing, but compared to Edgewood, I would love to see it like Edgewood,” he said.
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The Beginning of of Graham’s Journey
Keeping a balance of education and music challenged Graham when he started college at the University of Georgia (UGA) in 1986.
“College was newfound freedom,” he said.
Graham said his musical prowess brought him a lot of attention while in Athens so he decided to leave school to try his hand in the Atlanta music culture but said he regrets leaving before completion.
“It was a big mistake,” he said. “I left before I got my degree.”
During his time at UGA Graham became well acquainted with Swann, but they parted ways when he departed for Atlanta.
Graham said Atlanta hosts a much more competitive music scene than Athens and his ambitions did not pan out.
“I came to Atlanta to further pursue my career with music and was met with a lot of disappointment,” he said.
Yet Graham could always find a means of getting by and surviving.
“I was always industrious,” he said. “I started working with a temp service and ended up working for the tag office at
Dekalb County. I had a chance to work permanently for the Dekalb County tax office too but two weeks into the job I quit.”
Graham said he and a real estate broker friend teamed up to pursue a business venture, creating the Atlanta Social Network.
“It was a singles dating company. We did pretty well for a while. The internet was not very popular and it was more mail-order based.”
Their successes were short-lived as mail-order communication became obsolete, according to Graham.
“Of course as the internet grew, the mail-order businesses died,” he said.
This setback led him to make a life-altering error.
Rising Through Adversity
“I made a crucial mistake and wound up trying my luck at the drug game,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose the lifestyle; [I wanted to] try to keep the money coming.”
While selling drugs Graham stayed at the aforementioned Fort Street apartment complex and although it was lucrative he said the plan yielded more harm than good.
“That didn’t work out,” he said. “Three months later I was arrested. I was given a first-offense for being busted for drugs.”
Graham said the mark on his record hardly compared to the life he was headed into.
“I might have escaped a five year prison sentence but I received a 17-year crack addiction,” he said.
Despite attempts to make money Graham found himself living under the I-75/85 bridge on Auburn Avenue.
“The first night I slept under the bridge I said tomorrow I’m gonna get it together,” Graham said. “And that one night turned into several years.”
Graham said he often worried his addiction was a life sentence and one evening he tried to take his own life.
“I just thought I would never beat addiction and one day something inside me said ‘You are here for a purpose. Pick the phone up and call somebody and I dialed 911,” he said.
Graham said his ambitious nature pushed him through the rigors of drug rehabilitation and he now visits the clinics that once helped him.
“I went through the [rehab] program with flying colors and I have gone back several times to speak to their graduating classes to let them know that recovery does work,” he said.
In addition to running the convenience store Graham now studies for a degree in counseling at the International
Career Development Center (ICDC) College, according to the interview.
“I have always wanted to inspire people,” he said. “I always had a thing for motivating people.”
Auburn Avenue Specialty & Gifts
Swann said she was unaware of Graham’s condition when she came to Atlanta and the two only became reacquainted by chance.
“I actually saw him on Facebook,” she said. “I hadn’t heard from him in 24 years… I thought he was going to be on TV or radio. I didn’t know.”
They arranged to meet within a week of finding his profile and they have been dating ever since, according to Swann.
“We met up and within an hour he told me the whole story, which is more than I can say about most people,” she said. “A lot of people hide those types of things but he told me about the addiction and was very open about it.”
With Graham sober and on his feet Swann said he sought out a business opportunity for the couple.
“I was traveling for work and when I came home he said ‘you need to see this spot,’” she said.
Swann said Graham had found a vacant shop on Auburn Avenue and proposed they start a business there.
“We got the place in April and we officially opened with all the licenses complete in June,” she said.
A Community Ministry
Graham said their shop has been prosperous and beneficial to the community.
“The store has made a tremendous statement as far as community service,” he said. “We want to bring back that traditional community business.”
When a disheveled looking man entered the store, Graham knew him by a nickname and offered him something to eat.
“Preacher-man, you want some soup?” he asked.
Graham said his struggles led him to appreciate the trials of others and he tries to lend a hand wherever possible.
“We keep a jug of water and some snacks,” he said. “People can come in from the street if they’re hungry or thirsty.”
Graham also said he tries to offer opportunities to the less fortunate so the shop employs the needy for jobs around the store.
“We try to keep people doing something; cleaning up or stacking food and I get to counsel,” he said. “My [ICDC] training is not in vain.”
Graham said he purchased a bike and he now traverses the city to deliver groceries and/or aid when needed.
“The store functions as a ministry to help everybody,” he said.
Graham also said one occurrence has stuck with him since they opened the store.
“We had a lady come in wearing a nightgown and she had been out all night; no telling what she had been put through,” he said. “She relapsed and had been on the streets for about a year … she came through the door … she saw the flyer with my before and after picture and she started crying. [She] said she was in recovery. We closed the store and we took to her to a rehab facility and they told us to take her to detox. We took her to Dekalb Crisis … She wrote us back five months later and told us she’s doing better and we saved her life,” he said.
Graham also said his time on the street had taught him to value life and he feels obliged to help those like him.
“We will close the store to save a life,” he said.