Before the specter of car culture cast its concrete pall over Atlanta, the center of the city was a railroad hub. There’s even a zero-mile marker commemorating the epicenter of the train network that put Atlanta on the commercial map, but you’d never know it: the marker is hidden behind an imposing concrete trestle in the dark cavity known as the Gulch, now a popular tailgating spot before games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Strolling past the Gulch now, however, you’ll find something new. That trestle is currently illuminated in a brilliant fuchsia light mural, part of Heartbeat_ATL, an interactive art installation that seeks to revive the heartbeat of Atlanta’s original landscape.
“What were once the arteries of the city were demolished, creating divide instead of connection,” explained Courtney Hammond, the project’s curator, on a recent visit to the site. “We wanted to build not just a light artwork: we thought this was a beautiful moment to signal that that these arteries are being rebuilt.”
As we leaned on a rail overlooking the installation, cars sped past on all four sides, elevated by roads supported by concrete viaducts. The construction of those roads in the mid-20th century choked off the magnificent Terminal Station, an elegant edifice rivaling Grand Central Station that was demolished in 1971, leaving behind the gaping empty cavity that forms the Gulch today.
Hammond is curator and creative director of Dash Studio, which conceived of the project for Centennial Yards Company, the company that owns the Gulch and surrounding areas and is turning it into a 50-acre mixed-use development. Dash Studio brought on a team of Atlanta-based artists and designers to create the installation, including the art collective Protect Awesome, the creative agency ZooasZoo, and artist Lisette Correa, known as ARRRTADDICT, who drew on inspiration from her native Puerto Rico for her light mural Let Go & Grow, which features vivid leopard prints and monstera leaf designs.
The hulking vacancy of the Gulch reminded Hammond’s team of a “cavity where the heart has been scooped out,” she told Atlanta. Heartbeat_ATL thus became an opportunity for Atlantans to “defibrillate the heart by their own intention, making it a collaboration—showing that this is your downtown.”
The installation at first appears as a modest lighting scaffold, projecting a scattering of red-hued hearts across the pavement, which bend in size and shape depending on where you stand. Hammond guided me to a mounted poster displaying a QR-code: when scanned, it opened a public webpage where I could interact with the installation. Tapping the site on my phone activated the full-scale show, unleashing a spirited, multicolor dazzle of lights that pinged off the ground and surrounding viaduct walls. Heart-shaped lights bounced across the expansive lot, pulsing in sequence with a low heartbeat sound emanating from my phone speaker. At the far end of the lot, lights spun across Let Go & Grow, the project’s most beautiful feature and the best use of concrete-as-canvas.
The light show is delightful, but Heartbeat_ATL’s best feature is its activation by mobile phone, which allows passersby to connect with the project by—quite literally—jumpstarting its hearts. On the webpage, a small map illuminates the positions of all current users, indicated by magenta hearts connected to each other and the project via glowing threads. When many people are interacting with the site, the map’s crisscrossing lines evoke the area’s halcyon days as a railroad hub, a human-scale history set to the soundtrack of a human heart.
Danny Davis, who leads the arts collective Protect Awesome, sees the heart symbology as metaphor for a wider revitalization of this corner of downtown Atlanta, which was ripped apart to make room for the 1996 Olympic Games. “The city hasn’t really had a chance to reimagine its urban core since then,” he said. “And no matter what side of the fence you fall on with development, something’s happening—it’s not just more sprawl. New energy’s coming down to the core of the city.”
That said, development of neglected urban spaces in Atlanta is always fraught, and Centennial Yards’ plans for a glossy downtown revitalization has brought with it concerns about affordable housing and tax revenue. In October 2021, Mayor Bottoms’ administration brokered a controversial deal with Centennial Yards Company owner CIM Group: the city gave the project a financial package of bonds and reimbursements worth $1.9 billion, in return for $33 million in funds for an affordable housing trust from CIM Group, and a promise to designate 20 percent of the residential units as affordable housing.
When it comes to clashes over urban renewal, artists are often caught in the crossfire: development projects offer opportunities for artists to be fairly paid for their work—a rarity in the underfunded world of public art—but are often accused of art-washing, or exploiting beautification projects as a smokescreen to accelerate gentrification.
When asked how Dash Studio approaches this conundrum, Hammond replied, “Delicately.” She added that “we don’t work in residential areas” due to concerns around community displacement. Her team’s ideation process always involves reaching out for community opinion: “Before anything happens, we’re asking for their blessing and their excitement.”
Despite Atlanta’s ongoing conversations around how best to drive urban renewal, Atlantans seem excited to discover an interactive light installation brightening up the Gulch. On Heartbeat_ATL’s Instagram page, the most frequent comment is the iconic red emoji heart: our new collective shorthand for sharing the love.
Heartbeat _ATL is on view at the Gulch from 7-11:00 p.m. through March 4.