In the center of an old railroad bridge in Reynoldstown, a man pedaled a unicycle, arms outstretched. An odd-looking chap, he had spindly fingers made from motorcycle foot pegs and a red taillight heart that gleamed, E.T.-like, under horseshoe ribs. Visitors to last year’s Art on the Atlanta BeltLine exhibition could bring him creaking and clacking to life with a separate set of foot pedals. Will Eccleston’s Uniman is gone now, dismantled in the artist’s backyard, just as the overgrown grass and rusted tracks will someday be transformed. But for a moment, Uniman was part of an unfolding history.
If you’ve ever wondered whether you’ll be dead and gone before the BeltLine comes to fruition, take heart. Six years into the twenty-five-year work plan to repurpose old rail corridors into a twenty-two-mile loop of streetcar transit, trails, and greenspace, good things are happening. Inner city parks, every bit as pretty as their renderings promised, have replaced garbage-strewn blight. New walking trails connect neighborhoods with historic landmarks and each other. A former slaughterhouse in Westside shines like a beacon of realized potential; the old Sears building on the eastside is on the brink.
In his now-legendary 1999 Georgia Tech master’s thesis, Ryan Gravel, who grew up in Chamblee, described Atlanta as “adolescent,” evoking not just the city’s youth but its arrested development in the wake of suburban sprawl. His proposal turned yesterday’s mistakes into rosy possibilities; how many major cities, for instance, can still build a 300-acre park at their center? Says Atlanta BeltLine spokesman and native New Yorker Ethan Davidson, “New York is a city that’s constantly finishing itself. They’re redeveloping the waterfront, the High Line. But they could never do one project to change the face of the city.”
Dr. Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development and longtime spreader of BeltLine gospel, calls the project “a link from where we are to where we aspire to be”—and right now, we’re somewhere in the middle. Our children may reap the fruits of our aspirations, but we can tell them we were there when Atlanta grew up.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.