Pictures and artifacts tell the story of Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood, from its heyday as a commercial and cultural haven for black residents to its gradual decline after desegregation.

Titled "Sweet Auburn: Where the Dream Began," the exhibit shows the growth and decline -- and slow regrowth -- of the neighborhood once dubbed by Fortune magazine as "the richest Negro street in the world."

The exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site goes beyond the community's fabled history. Images depict the neighborhood that gave birth to the civil rights movement and its most noted leader, and photographs of Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis hint at a Sweet Auburn of the future.

Black-owned businesses flourished here from the 1920s to 1950s, when the Top Hat Club featured the likes of Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, the Atlanta Daily World became the first daily newspaper to serve the black community, and Alonzo F. Herndon, a former slave, built Atlanta Life Insurance Co.

Longtime residents "talked about a real close-knit community, where everyone knew everyone," said Melissa English-Rias, chief of interpretation and education at the King historic site. "They had the opportunity to live free from everyday harassment or having the cloud of segregation over them."

The area's decline started in the 1960s, when desegregation allowed middle-class and wealthy blacks to move to other parts of Atlanta, and highway construction cut through the neighborhood.

Businesses closed and homelessness and crime spread through the area, until activists stepped in to reclaim the community.

Starting with the restoration of King's birth home and the surrounding block in the 1980s, housing preservation has been a priority for several decades. Recent efforts have put a greater emphasis on revitalizing the business district on the west end of Auburn Avenue.

Georgia State University and the Butler Street YMCA have started mixed-use development projects, but the most contentious has been one spearheaded by Big Bethel AME Church. The $45 million project, which would create about 150 condominium units and 27,000 square feet of retail space, has riled preservationists because of plans to raze some historic buildings.

The Integral Group, Big Bethel's partner, has proposed the partial demolition of a block in the nationally designated historical district, citing the cost of restoring the old buildings.

"We'd have to charge more rent than the Ritz Carlton . . . just to make it work," said Carl Powell, president of Integral.

For some, it is simply the price of progress.

"No one comes to Auburn looking for those buildings. They have no historical value," said Charles Johnson, founder and president of Friends of Sweet Auburn, a nonprofit group committed to revitalizing the area. "The historical heritage spirit of Auburn Avenue is not so much in the dilapidated buildings -- it's in the people."

But the proposal angered other local activists, who are intent on preserving Sweet Auburn's legacy at any cost.

"It's a national registered district, which implies that it's something important to the entire nation," said Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. "They're important buildings, regardless of what one's taste may be."

Activists agree that such battles over the direction of Sweet Auburn's rebirth have played out for years, hindering significant progress.

"The pace has been painfully slow," Johnson said. "There have been many, many, many, many false starts."

W.C. Howard has seen them all. The owner of the Georgia Insurance Brokerage has seen development proposals come and go in the 34 years since he purchased his building in the heart of the old commercial district.

So when Integral approached him with the newest proposal, Howard couldn't hide his skepticism.

"Hey, here it comes again," he said.

Howard, 58, said he welcomes development in Sweet Auburn but not at the expense of its history or its black-owned businesses.

"The street has significant value, historic value," he said. "It would be great if somebody came into the block, did some remodeling and offered the sale back to small businesses."

Many have latched onto the models of Bourbon and Beale Streets to transform Sweet Auburn into a leading tourist and entertainment destination while keeping its historic flavor. Just how much flavor is up for debate.

"The entertainment piece of it is certainly worth trying to capitalize off, but there's more than that," said Mtamanika Youngblood, board chair of the Historic District Development Corp., which focuses on restoration and preservation.

"The thing that we have going for us is . . . the historic fabric," Youngblood said. "We're exchanging the value of that for a more immediate return on investment."

But Johnson said that history could be holding Sweet Auburn back.

"We're on the brink of the true revival of bringing Auburn Avenue back to its glory," he said. "What these projects do is that they're writing a new history."

Big Bethel AME Church and its developer offer this plan for a portion of historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood.The rise and decline of Sweet Auburn, a cultural haven for black residents, is depicted in this exhibit at Martin Luther King Jr. historic site in Atlanta.