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

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