Atlanta City Series

Atlanta’s Own High Line May Finally Erase Some Racial Divisions

April 21, 2015, 8:09 a.m.

In At­lanta, change sounds like a squeaky bike chain.

When Re­becca Serna heard the fal­setto choir of rus­ted bikes, re­cently dus­ted off from for­got­ten gar­age corners, she knew the Belt­Line was work­ing. The am­bi­tious, mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar pro­ject is turn­ing 22 miles of aban­doned, kudzu-laden rail­road tracks that en­circle the heart of the city in­to a net­work of parks and trails. It’s like the High Line in Man­hat­tan, but to a much lar­ger scale.

“They clearly had not been bik­ing in years,” says Serna, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the At­lanta Bi­cycle Co­ali­tion. “Trails don’t have to be just for re­cre­ation. This is a trail that goes some­where.”

Fun­da­ment­ally, trans­port­a­tion is about get­ting people to places. But in At­lanta, trans­port­a­tion policy has also been used a tool to sep­ar­ate people by race and class. Con­sid­er­ing the last cen­tury of di­vides drawn by rail­roads and high­ways, it’s re­mark­able to think that At­lantans will soon be able to ef­fi­ciently travel among the 45 neigh­bor­hoods that make up this cor­ridor.

Paul Mor­ris, CEO of At­lanta Belt­Line Inc., ex­plains that when the train tracks were ori­gin­ally laid, they were con­scious di­vid­ing lines, de­signed to dis­tin­guish and sep­ar­ate neigh­bor­hoods.

“In most cases, those neigh­bor­hoods on one side of the rail­road not only were across the tracks from an­oth­er side, they lit­er­ally did not con­nect—nor were they in­ten­ded to con­nect,” Mor­ris says. “That was a so­cial de­cision, as well as a phys­ic­al, in­fra­struc­ture de­cision.”

Poverty and wealth re­mained cloistered, and those di­vides came to define this city. The Belt­Line was ori­gin­ally in­ten­ded to give At­lantans an op­por­tun­ity to more con­veni­ently travel around a city no­tori­ous for heavy traffic and an un­der­fun­ded pub­lic-trans­it sys­tem. But now, it is also stitch­ing the city to­geth­er.

The change is un­mis­tak­able in the Old Fourth Ward. Se­greg­a­tion forced a com­plete eco­sys­tem to de­vel­op in this neigh­bor­hood, with Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wealth, busi­nesses, and the work­ing class all in the same area. Doc­tors lived next to teach­ers and jan­it­ors. Fol­low­ing de­seg­reg­a­tion, the wealthy left for the sub­urbs, and the area went in­to de­cline. It be­came a sym­bol of dis­tress—an in­dus­tri­al area that had been largely aban­doned, with burned out build­ings, sprawl­ing con­crete, and one of the highest crime rates in the city.

But in the last five years, the val­ley of brush and tracks that sep­ar­ated the Old Fourth Ward from neigh­bor­ing In­man Park was paved over for the Belt­Line’s East­side Trail. De­velopers in­ves­ted $750 mil­lion, thou­sands of new hous­ing units were put in, and the $50 mil­lion His­tor­ic Fourth Ward Park be­came the city’s latest green space. Just a half-mile from the Belt­Line, the newly launched At­lanta Street­car runs by the Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. Na­tion­al His­tor­ic Site, con­nect­ing it with down­town and Centen­ni­al Park—formerly an ar­du­ous trip that in­volved tak­ing a bus onto the high­way.

The Old Fourth Ward is now one of the hot­test neigh­bor­hoods in At­lanta. The block between King’s boy­hood home and mil­len­ni­al-en­clave Sis­ter Louisa’s Church—an ir­rev­er­ent church-themed bar on Edge­wood Av­en­ue that would leave an ac­tu­al nun in need of ser­i­ous pray­er—shows just how the neigh­bor­hood is chan­ging.

Doug Ship­man, CEO of the Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights, is one of those new res­id­ents in the Old Fourth Ward. His cen­ter, which is right next to the World of Coca-Cola, beau­ti­fully presents the Civil Rights Move­ment through King’s per­son­al writ­ings, stun­ning mur­als, and a lunch counter that sim­u­lates sit-ins through vi­ol­ent jolts and sounds of har­ass­ment. He fondly de­scribes tak­ing his young chil­dren out to the Belt­Line, run­ning in­to friends, look­ing for new pub­lic art, or kick­ing around a soc­cer ball. It’s the city’s con­nect­ive tis­sue, he says.

“We don’t have a river, we don’t have a beach­front, we don’t have a hill that every­body climbs, some kind of geo­graph­ic mark­er where you go to run in­to people,” Ship­man says. “This is in es­sence be­com­ing our beach­front without a beach. It’s our board­walk.”

But for something that can bring people to­geth­er in a new com­mun­al space, the Belt­Line’s flaw may be the po­ten­tial it has for pri­cing people out of neigh­bor­hoods. Sim­City-like de­vel­op­ment that at­tracts in-de­mand res­taur­ants and hip con­domin­i­ums can in­crease the cost of liv­ing in these areas.

The Belt­Line of­fers grants and loans to provide vul­ner­able pop­u­la­tions some fin­an­cial sup­port, Mor­ris says, while also mak­ing sure 20 per­cent of new hous­ing units are af­ford­able. And as more hous­ing is built to match the high de­mand, prices will be­gin to level off, he ar­gues. But Hat­tie Dorsey, the founder and former pres­id­ent of the At­lanta Neigh­bor­hood De­vel­op­ment Part­ner­ship, says it’s not enough for the eld­erly and stu­dents.

“If I had not moved here 10 years ago, there would be no way in hell I would be able to af­ford it, be­cause I’m a re­tir­ee,” says the Old Fourth Ward res­id­ent. “I couldn’t af­ford it, and per­haps soon­er or later the taxes would push me out. There is no plan in place to make cer­tain that people who have lived here, who sac­ri­ficed and stayed through the bad times, stay through the good times.”

This re­mains the con­cern for many res­id­ents along the West­side Trail, a por­tion of the Belt­Line still un­der con­struc­tion in some of poorer neigh­bor­hoods of the city, in­clud­ing West End. Just as the rail­roads cre­ated di­vi­sions in At­lanta, so did the high­ways. Hous­ing maps show that most former hous­ing-pro­ject ten­ants live south of I-20, a high­way that cuts across in-town At­lanta and di­vides the city along ra­cial and eco­nom­ic lines. West End sits just south of the in­ter­state.

The Belt­Line does have an op­por­tun­ity, however, to re­vital­ize an­oth­er his­tor­ic­ally black neigh­bor­hood in the city, bring­ing in new de­vel­op­ment. Serna and the At­lanta Bi­cycle Co­ali­tion hos­ted the second At­lanta Streets Alive event in the West End on April 19, where more than three miles of streets were closed off from mo­tor­ized traffic for the af­ter­noon so people could walk and bike around the his­tor­ic area. The event helps high­light loc­al busi­nesses and draws people from oth­er parts of the city to a neigh­bor­hood they may not know. It also shows off the pro­gress of the Belt­Line, which Serna says has been a spark for people here.

“It is that vis­ion for the kind of city we want to be, that is con­nec­ted and has cool neigh­bor­hoods, and you can get around, and you in­ter­act with your neigh­bor­hoods, and you just run in­to people,” she says. “All the good things that cit­ies do, the Belt­Line ex­ists phys­ic­ally and psy­cho­lo­gic­ally as that space.”

That spark is clearly vis­ible on the mile-and-a-half walk from the Ponce City Mar­ket, an apart­ment and shop­ping cen­ter be­ing con­struc­ted in an old Sears build­ing in the Old Fourth Ward, to the Krog Street Mar­ket, an eat­ery-packed ven­ue in In­man Park. On this sunny af­ter­noon, the East­side Trail is packed with cyc­lists com­ing home from work and young par­ents push­ing strollers, passing hun­dreds of ad­oles­cent trees and dozens of mur­als painted on over­passes.

Something out of the corner of my eye dis­tracts me from the pickup game of soc­cer I’m passing, with the down­town sky­line tower­ing in the back­ground. It’s a small, black and blue painted mag­net lean­ing on a mur­al. The mag­net turns out to be a piece of art in the Free Art Fri­day At­lanta city­wide art scav­enger hunt. I im­me­di­ately In­s­tagram my find per the rules of #FA­FATL, con­trib­ut­ing to this com­munity of artists and art-lov­ers alike. And as I look up from my phone, one of those squeaky bikes passed me on the left. The sound of change, to match the new view.

Found your #FA­FATL @tran_­man_atl

A photo pos­ted by Matt Vasi­lo­gam­bros (@mattyvas) on Mar 2, 2015 at 2:38pm PST

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