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

What We're Following See More »
Mueller: No Evidence of Collusion
16 hours ago

"The investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III found that neither President Trump nor any of his aides conspired or coordinated with the Russian government’s 2016 election interference, according to a summary of the special counsel’s findings made public on Sunday by Attorney General William P. Barr. The summary also said that the special counsel’s team lacked sufficient evidence to establish that President Trump illegally obstructed justice, but added that Mr. Mueller’s team stopped short of exonerating Mr. Trump." Read Barr's summary here.

Barr Releases Mueller Summary Letter to Congrees
16 hours ago
Mueller Reports
2 days ago

"The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has delivered a report on his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William P. Barr ... Barr told congressional leaders in a letter late Friday that he may brief them within days on the special counsel’s findings. 'I may be in a position to advise you of the special counsel’s principal conclusions as soon as this weekend,' he wrote in a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. It is up to Mr. Barr how much of the report to share with Congress and, by extension, the American public. The House voted unanimously in March on a nonbinding resolution to make public the report’s findings, an indication of the deep support within both parties to air whatever evidence prosecutors uncovered."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.