The Atlanta BeltLine, or The Primrose Path

In light of the fact that my flight to Tanzania does not depart for another 32 days, and of another fact that I would leave sooner but for the wedding of a dear friend for whom I am performing the duty of bridesmaid, and of a third fact involving the breaking in of new hiking boots before climbing in them to 19,340 feet, I took off the other day in search of adventure closer to home.

I don’t know that I found it, (although I may or may not have been startled by a train in close proximity to my person), but I did find a little clarity of definition in my relationship with the Atlanta BeltLine.

Train Tracks
This is where I ended up, on train tracks, old and new. Lucky for me, I had stepped off before the 3:10 to Yuma came barreling around the corner behind me. Yeah, I know, we’re nowhere near Yuma. It’s just a reference to a movie that I haven’t actually seen…

My bicycle is my primary means of transportation, so I find a lot to love on the BeltLine. I love the smoothness, the lack of internal-combustion-engine-powered traffic, the flowers, the trees, the art, the slight downward incline from the Old 4th Ward to Midtown. I love it in the rain because there’s barely anyone else about, and I love it when it’s windy because I have to ride harder which creates feelings of badassery, yet I don’t have to worry about getting blown beneath the wheels of a car. (I harbor no illusions about who might win if it comes down to a fight between my bike and a 2-ton motorized conveyance, even at low speed).

Passionflower
Passiflora incarnata – from the Latin, incarnatus, which means “to make flesh” – thriving on the trail and all over Atlanta.

The things on the not-so-loveable list seem trifling and inconsequential when I write them down. At first glance, it is a list born of privilege and a willful ignorance of the fact that there are people in the world with real problems. On weekends, I avoid the path like the plague because so many people stroll its lengths to enjoy its obvious charms that riding a bike becomes an exercise in how to avoid grievous bodily harm, both to myself and to others. One winter afternoon, a young man blew a whistle in my ear because he decided that my bike came too close to his bike, despite the fact that no contact was made. Little things like a step instead of a ramp at an entrance point continue to irritate me because popping a tire as you hop a curb is a thing that actually happens. And that aforementioned incline that generates such a glorious breeze on a perfect day? It is not so glorious when the temperature hovers around freezing or dips below it which, to be fair, is not a particularly common occurrence in this neck of the woods.

Art on the BeltLine
Clearly not a weekend.

But, (and here, hopefully, is where you realize that I am not, in fact, willfully ignorant), what provokes me to actual anger is how the BeltLine has become, for all intents and purposes, a playground for the rich or, at the very least, a playground for the not-remotely-poor. I am not the first person to voice this opinion, and I surely will not be the last. I don’t know that I have any insight that hasn’t already been explored and exhausted. I’ve read the same articles that everyone else has read, and I don’t have any practical solutions; mine are more along the lines of the “why-can’t-people-just-be-better-and-give-a-few-more-fucks-about-others” variety, but I’m a bleeding-heart-liberal-hippie type and nobody takes me seriously.

Beyond
The two-mile long Eastside Trail starts at Irwin Street and ends at the Monroe Drive/10th Street intersection, where it becomes the Northeast Hiking Trail which runs, unpaved, for one mile through Piedmont Park and the Ansley Park neighborhood, and stops at this sign under Montgomery Ferry Road. Naturally, I ignored the sign because… Well… Because that is what I generally do.

The disparities are everywhere along this road that is paved with the yellow bricks of good intentions, (please excuse my mixed metaphors). The term “affordable housing” has become an increasingly laughable idea in Atlanta, and it is painfully obvious on the BeltLine. I don’t know if you’ve looked at what it costs to enjoy anywhere from 560 to 1,790 square feet of living space inside Ponce City Market these days, but I have, (purely for entertainment value because I don’t often have between 1,626 and 3,986 dollars a month to spend on anything, let alone just rent!), and really? Is that a joke??

The stylized small-print at the top of the floor plan page on the FlatsAtPCM website does helpfully inform you that the above organization has partnered with some other organizations to “provide city living that is financially attainable to a broad spectrum of renters” which, for the uninitiated, translates to mean that they offer a teeny, tiny number of residences as Section 8 housing because they have a quota of poor people that they are required to achieve. If that sounded condescending, it’s because it is. Because to me it just sounds like bullshit. The amount of subsidized housing does not even begin to accommodate the number of people displaced by the project thus far, and we’re still a long way from the finish line.

Rail Crossing
Beyond the sign, the tracks cut between the Ansley Golf Club and Ansley Mall, and cross over the Buford Spring Connector.

I have spent some time inside Ponce City Market. Although, in the interests of transparency, I lasted about 10 minutes before claustrophobic mall-terrors overtook me and I had to get out. But back in 2003, when it was still City Hall East, I went exploring with a friend. We wandered around the unoccupied floors that still housed the conveyor belts and machinery from its days as the southeast distribution center for Sears, Roebuck, & Co. The company built the structure next to the rail lines as a matter of convenience – those same rail lines that are slowly becoming the BeltLine. It felt kinda cool and weird and ghostly and mildly unnerving, even in daylight, which probably had more to do with being discovered and summarily ejected than anything else, but also sad and vaguely lonely, a monument to wasted space.

My point, I suppose, is that I’m glad to see old things with new life breathed into them – somebody, please, save us all from pithy phrases like “adaptive reuse” – but does all of this apparent progress have to happen at the expense of real people and the real communities in which they live? Ryan Gravel, who first proposed the idea for the BeltLine in his Master’s thesis at Georgia Tech, and Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, both resigned from the board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership last September. Paraphrasing is not one of my strengths, but Gravel and Smith gave an interview to Maria Saporta illuminating the reasons behind their decision, not least of which was the issue of equity, inclusivity, and affordability along the BeltLine – a fundamental principle of the project from its inception.

Beltline Primrose (2)
The Primrose Path – a course of action that seems easy and appropriate, but can actually end in calamity. Anybody fancy a BeltLine production of Hamlet? Also, these primroses really do grow along the trail. These ones were in front of Urban Body Studios.

 There are parts of this city that I no longer recognize. I’ve paid rent all over town in the past 22 years, from the northeast to the southwest and parts in between and around, in rich parts and poor parts and parts that fall somewhere in the middle. Kirkwood, Midtown, Little 5 Points, Virginia-Highland, Capitol View Manor, Lenox-Morningside, Boulevard Heights, Ansley Park, Brookhaven, Cabbagetown – all neighborhoods that I’ve called home at various times and with various ways and means.

I spent two wonderful years in Capitol View Manor, a small community in Atlanta’s southwest corner filled with families, some of whom have been there for decades. We had a neighbor who was born, quite literally, in the living room of the house in which he still lives. When trail construction is complete, the house that my children still live in will share a property line with Hillside Park and the southernmost portion of the BeltLine. This section of the trail passes through what the Atlanta BeltLine Project refers to as “Subarea 2 – The Heritage Communities of South Atlanta,” but given what I’ve seen so far, I wonder, with an anxious heart, for how much longer all the heritage will continue to exist.

Could Be Better
The mural at the skate park on the Eastside Trail. Pretty much sums it up.

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