The heart of downtown Atlanta
The city of Atlanta has so many iconic heroes and legends that the entire world knows about, but there is one local everyday hero that is iconic to many local residents. You wouldn’t know about him unless you were hanging out downtown during the “Old Atlanta” days.
His name is Milton Rutledge, a downtown Atlanta businessman that has seen the downtown area grow from its heydays of the late 80s as the Black capital of the United States. And today, as a totally new transformed city that is becoming a well-sought after destination.
Rutledge was the first street vendor to ever occupy the area around Five Points MARTA Station. Over the years, Rutledge had as many as six different vendors working for him. He made a name for himself within the downtown business community and among the very people that adopted him as family and a friend.
Me… I met Rutledge in the mid-90s when I was a teenager. Being an eastside kid from Decatur, I used to go downtown to hang out and/or simply pass through as I went to work at Atlanta’s old Turner Field. One of Rutledge’s workers, Donnie, always used to be stationed on the Alabama Street side of Five Points where I caught my bus (97 Georgia Ave) to work. Donnie used to be my downtown hookup for all of my apples, honeybuns, and orange juice. He would give me an extra apple for free or if I was ever short, he would spot me a quarter or two.
But somewhere always close by to Donnie was Rutledge, looking evil and refusing to give up a smile. For me, Rutledge was one of the most intimidating factors of the Five Points area. As soon as you come out of the Peachtree exit/entrance of Five Points, Rutledge would be walking around monitoring his workers and watching customers. But over the years as I got older, I grew to know the very open and friendly “Milt,” the very man that I respect today that will give his last dollar or literally his vending items to make sure you have a bite to eat.
Born in LaGrange, Georgia, in 1948, wanted a new life for himself than the rural lifestyle that LaGrange provided at the time. At the age of 17, Rutledge caught the Greyhound to Atlanta to pursue the new life and opportunities that he longed for himself. In 1965, Rutledge found work as a bellhop at a downtown hotel that wasn’t integrated. “I found a new home downtown. Though it was segregated. I liked how the people were and the environment was something totally different than what I was used to back home in LaGrange.”
Downtown Atlanta provided Rutledge with the new direction in life that he was looking for after leaving LaGrange. He found comfortable living quarters at the Butler Street YMCA, and was able to save up to find affordable private living quarters of his own in Summer Hill.
After losing his primary job as the bellhop, Rutledge worked various odd jobs over the years, but always found his way back downtown to be amongst the crowd of people that he really adored.
During Atlanta’s administration of Maynard Jackson, the city’s first Black mayor (1974-82 and 1990-1994). Rutledge was inspired to explore and strive for greater things than before. “Jackson was the best thing that had ever happened to Atlanta. We have not had a mayor anything close to him since,” says Rutledge. “He opened up so many doors not only for Black people but for everyone of Atlanta.”
In the early 80s, Rutledge started setting up tables on downtown street corners and selling common items such as toothpaste, juices, and various snacks. But before he found his nitch at Five Points, Rutledge moved around to various spots such as: Rialto Theater, Woodruff Park, in front of a now gone unemployment office that was on Peachtree, McDonalds on Forsyth and Alabama and on the sidewalk of Rich’s.
Rutledge finally found the perfect street vending spot right in front of Five Points. While other vendors were targeting sports fans and concertgoers at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Omni, Rutledge was downtown at Five Points targeting the very people that he knew better than anyone else. He hired four other friends of his to help him around Five Points: Dalho, Muhammad and Officer William Wipper, and my teenage hook-up, Donnie. A great majority of Rutledge’s customers were Black. If you were from Atlanta, you knew who Rutledge was. He became known as the go-to source for all your quick snacks, umbrellas, shirts, hats, and more. “I loved being downtown and being able to serve the community that I call home.”
But in 2009, when the Kasim administration put an end to the city’s street vending program, it also put an end to many business owners such as Rutledge. Many street vendors lost more than their business, but also their livelihoods. Rutledge virtually lost everything that he had and had no other means to make a living for himself. For a short period of time, Rutledge was living homeless for a while until he was able to find accommodations to assist him and his medical needs.
Donnie, my vending hookup and Rutledge’s long-time employee, became homeless as well. I would personally meet with him once a week downtown to get him something to eat, and place money on a debit card that I got for him. In 2017, I went to San Francisco for a couple of years, and during my travels back and forth to Atlanta. I would always go downtown to check on Donnie. During one of my visits to town, Rutledge informed me that Donnie was found frozen to death behind Atlanta’s CNN Center.
Today, Rutledge is doing well for himself. Not as active as he used to be, but he tries his best to get out whenever he can. He resides in a local senior living facility, and makes it outside to visit the one place that he calls home, downtown Atlanta. Spend just a few minutes around Rutledge and you’ll see with your own eyes just how much he is respected and loved by others in the area.
People flock to him for short conversations. Still recognizing him as the heart of downtown Atlanta that helps to keep the community beating.