How one entrepreneurial upstart might help preserve a Westside community’s culture
If you don’t spend time in southwest Atlanta, you may not be familiar with the Cookie Lady. But if you live in Ashview Heights, Westview, the West End, or Adair Park, you’ve probably eaten one of Raisha Williams’s chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, or butter toffee cookies.
She sells them for $3 each or $5 for two. In three days, she can make close to $400 doing her #WestsideCookieHustle, as she calls it on Instagram, at barber shops and beauty shops up and down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“We—you know, black people—that’s kind of like our meeting place,” Williams says. The bowl of her KitchenAid mixer cracks mid-sentence, but she’s got a few replacements. “If you’re in a barber shop, somebody’s coming in there selling something, whether it’s cakes, some hair, some jackets.” According to Williams, small shop owners in the predominantly black community are wide open to bootstrap entrepreneurs soliciting their clients. Tyler Perry’s early success depended on this way of doing business.
In December, Williams moved her baking operation from her home to the southernmost edge of Ashview Heights, where a new, shared commercial kitchen will soon double as a market on the weekends. Its name, Marddy’s, is a mash-up of “market” and “buddy,” and membership requires that tenants complete the food safety coursework required to obtain a health department-issued certificate—a legitimizing step they didn’t have to take back when they were cooking at home. For Marddy’s owner Keitra Bates, this is not just an entrepreneurial upstart; it’s a hedge against gentrification.
In 2013, Bates opened Westview Pizza Cafe, where she used ingredients from small growers such as the nearby Westview Community Garden and Mayflor Farms and made a point to employ people with criminal records, giving them a chance to support themselves. But in 2015, after new owners bought the building on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and raised the rent, she closed. (D Cafe, which serves breakfast and lunch and also operates a catering business, replaced it.) Today, barely a stone’s throw from Bates’s former cafe, a gelateria and a kombucha shop are slated to open soon.
The west side portion of the BeltLine has undeniably hastened gentrification in portions of southwest Atlanta. According to Georgia State University urban studies professor Dan Immergluck’s February 2017 analysis of housing costs near the BeltLine, median sale prices increased 68 percent near the southwest segment between 2011 and 2015. (The other three segments saw median prices rise by 40 to 51 percent.) Higher values can be good for homeowners looking to sell and for the city’s overall tax base, but for people who want to remain in their homes, rising taxes pose a problem. Same for renters, whose monthly fees often grow in direct proportion to their landlords’ taxes.
All of this means that “the driver of neighborhood change, in-movers, become increasingly affluent and less diverse,” writes Immergluck in the report. “This will increase the overall economic segregation of the city and the metropolitan area.” Immergluck is more explicit on the telephone: “Displace these people, and you weaken the community and lose the cultural heritage, which is a huge asset.”
“I don’t begrudge people bringing what they like into whatever communities they move into,” Bates says. “That’s their right. But their tastes might not reflect the people or the culture that’s already there, and eventually, we reach the point of erasure.”
Closing her restaurant and watching the neighborhood transform lit a fire under Bates. “I wondered what would happen to people like the elderly gentleman I call the Sweet Potato Pie Man, who sells his wife’s mini sweet potato pies by going from small business to small business,” Bates says. She surveyed her neighbors, finding that not only was there interest in a project like Marddy’s from other black entrepreneurs in the neighborhood, but also most of her new white neighbors were unaware that they could purchase these handmade goods close to home.
“How could they know about this food if they didn’t go where it was sold: barber shops?” Bates says, noting that many of these people drive outside of the neighborhood when it is time to dine. “They consider the west side a food desert. It’s a very peculiar case of cognitive dissonance.”
Marddy’s exists because these entrepreneurs exist, Bates says. “I’m not creating the business; I’m helping them take the next step.” She became one of eight Center for Civic Innovation Westside Innovation Lab fellows, receiving $10,000 to get Marddy’s going. Otherwise, it’s been very much a grassroots effort; she called in her nieces and nephews to paint the walls inside the one-story stucco building at 1017 Fair Street.
“Our networks have grown,” says Jaasmeen Hameed, a Marddy’s tenant. Hameed sees benefits to the project beyond access to the kind of kitchen that will help her bake on a larger scale. “We’re coming together in one space.”
This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.