Chad Carlson and a group of urban tourists gathered at the southwest corner of Washington Park on Saturday and prepared to venture onto the southwest portion of the Beltline.
Orange netting surrounded the area as volunteers cleaned up around the trail. Carlson attempted to lead his group of about 20 tourists down the paved section of the Beltline, until an older man shooed the group away. The man said it was due to construction, but there were no signs indicating the trail was closed. Still, Carlson redirected his tour, opting instead to walk through the Hunter Hills neighborhood.
Carlson noted one of the ironies of the Beltline project. The 22-mile multi-use trail provides the public with a place to walk and enjoy green spaces, but sometimes the Beltline’s overseers treat the public like trespassers.
“They need to treat the public with respect,” Carlson said.
In a more notorious example, the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. contacted the owner of the Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine Facebook group to object to the use of the copyrighted BeltLine name, though that is not the first time the organization has vigorously enforced its publicly-owned copyright.
Saturday’s three-hour long tour wandered through areas that will soon be touched by the Beltline project, a public work that aims to unite the city but also underscores the ways in which the city is still divided.
The tour group also visited the neighborhoods of Ashview Heights, Westview, West End, Oakland City and Adair Park.
Before the group crossed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, lined with grand brick houses that have historically been home to Atlanta’s wealthiest black residents, a man in a pickup truck drove by and shouted, “Welcome to our neighborhood. We ain’t doing shit with it.”
Carlson said that the construction of the new Falcons stadium created one more geographic divider separating this part of Atlanta from the rest of the city. When it’s completed, the Beltline will connect 45 different neighborhoods together along an old rail corridor.
Where possible, Carlson and other advocates have fought to save historic structures along the Beltline before they are knocked down to build more expensive housing or commercial space.
“People have to be engaged,” he said.
For people who are looking to live in the city along the Beltline, there are a plethora of affordable options in southwest Atlanta, he said. For now.
“At any point on the Beltline, you can pretty much see the city skyline,” Carlson said.
Some history has fallen in and out of favor. The older style ranch houses along the path were once derided, but have attracted new interest due to the success of “Mad Men,” which is set in the 1960s. There are homes on the Beltline that date to the early 1900s. He pointed to a craftsman bungalow at Muse Street and Lucille Street, noting the home is constructed from sturdy dense-growth wood that’s not the norm for newer construction.
Carlson said the Westview neighborhood along the Beltline is currently trying to become listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would allow homeowners to take advantage of tax credits to rehabilitate buildings over 50 years old. He noted that Ponce City Market, a popular mixed-use hub along the trail that is listed on the National Historic Register, used millions in tax credits to finance the project.
In addition to commercial buildings and housing, the BeltLine is also adjacent to schools. The tour passed by the former J.C. Harris Elementary, a century-old building, now home to the KIPP Strive charter school. The tour also passed Brown Middle School, named after Joseph Emerson Brown, Georgia’s governor during the Civil War. Carlson said there’s been talk of changing the school’s name, in keeping with modern sensibilities.
That raises a question, he said. “If you keep changing history, at what point do you stop and at what point do you no longer remember?”
Remembering history – the good, the bad, the gray areas in between – remains Carlson’s central focus. The tour passed site of the the old Atlanta State Farmers Market along Murphy Avenue. It contained Building No. 11, originally a watermelon shed that became “Old Liquor Warehouse No. 7.”
The state auctioned confiscated bootleg liquor at the building. The building has been demolished.
As some history is torn down, Carlson said it’s important for the public to remember who owns the Beltline. He said when Ryan Gravel came up with the idea of the Beltline in his 1999 Georgia Tech master’s thesis, he did so with the intention of the project being developed for the public good. That’s not always how the Beltline’s overseers act, Carlson said.
“It was the public, not the politicians who embraced it,” Carlson said. “And they are largely paying for it.”