Before The Deuces, there were communities in Methodist Town and the Gas Plant area that developed two- or three-block strips with stores, clubs and a few professional offices. Methodist Town was just west of Ninth Street N, between First and Fourth avenues. The Gas Plant section drew its name from two giant natural gas storage tanks near Third Avenue S and 12th Street.
When people were pushed out or hemmed in, African-American neighborhoods "grew out of necessity, the mother of invention, the need to provide goods and services for ourselves," said Askia Aquil, a former president of the 22nd Street Redevelopment Corp.
The Deuces had Mercy Hospital, the Manhattan Casino and, starting in the 1940s, the nearby Jordan Park public housing complex. Between Fifth and 15th avenues S on The Deuces, the city's largest, most diverse African-American business district grew.
"In the heyday, it was our downtown," said Ira Harding Wilson, 81. Known as "Big H," he lived on the street 44 years in a house he said was built in 1917 by Elder Jordan Sr., a 22nd Street pioneer.
During the city's 1920s boom, recruiters scouted north Florida, Georgia and Alabama for labor to help build downtown hotels and new houses in growing subdivisions. Though there were black neighborhoods closer in, newcomers were directed to what was then the city's edge.
During the 1920s, 22nd Street still meant country. Mule skinners' whips cracked through the woods, longtime residents say. Newspaper accounts tell of police raiding moonshine stills in the Prohibition era boondocks.
But industries existed nearby. They offered walking-distance jobs for new arrivals, who were gradually building a new black population center farther from downtown and white neighborhoods.
The newcomers needed life's basics, so stores sprouted along 22nd. The dynamic renewed its energy about 15 years later when a public housing project called Jordan Park attracted hundreds. Residents and businesses were mutually dependent.
Softwater Laundry's whistle moaned at key hours several times a day, setting neighborhood rhythms for generations. During 60-odd years in business, it employed thousands.
"People folded, washed, whatever job they had to do. It was an institution," said Minson Rubin, 57, who grew up during the 1950s and '60s in Jordan Park.
A few blocks north, Farmer Concrete Works made hex blocks for North Shore sidewalks. Grounds Brothers Manufacturing worked raw lumber into stairs, windows and doors for Snell Isle houses. Georgia Engineering produced Augusta blocks and laid sewers west of 16th Street. Atherton Oil Co. sold kerosene to light lamps in the 22nd Street neighborhood, which in the 1920s had yet to receive electricity -- or running water.
"All these gave employment to many of our people, and it gave us a chance to build up," said Paul Barco, 85, a longtime 22nd Street resident and businessman.