The Atlanta Beltline's Eastside Trail was packed on the last Saturday morning in September: Walkers, bicyclists, dog lovers, families. On our first visit to the Beltline, we took Trees Atlanta's informative tour along a slice of the trail from the Old Fourth Ward to just beyond the recently developed Ponce City Market in Poncey-Highland.
Atlanta's reputation for erasing its past continues with the Braves' leaving Turner Field for a new stadium in Cobb County and the Falcons' construction of an opulent new palace, which will bring the Georgia Dome's destruction after about 20 years.
In contrast, the Beltline, repurposed from the rail tracks that once served Atlanta's manufacturing plants, shows a new spirit of preservation and honoring the past. The trail passes several lofts converted from former factories that flourished in the early 20th century when east Atlanta was an industrial hub.
Trees Atlanta has created an arboretum along the trail, planting a variety of trees and wildflowers, while preserving historic trees such as the three ancient oaks that stand on a ridge overlooking the trail. The organization is also fighting erosion, carrying out projects such as planting vegetation to strengthen the soil base of the three-tree hill.
Before the Beltline began to take reality, the old industrial buildings that had fallen into decline after World War II were redeveloped into condos for urban nesters. Now, the beltline gives the lofts an exciting recreational and transporation artery connecting to new commercial and entertainment venues.
The tour included a view of the gigantic loblolly pine that rises above the lofts that once housed Western Electric's telephone manufacturing factory. The majestic tree has witnessed waves of history, from dynamic industrial and residential life, to devastation and neglect, to rebirth.
The Beltline also gives access to the new Ponce City Market, Jamestown's retail and residential renovation of the massive old Sears building. The multistory market with its array of shops and restaurants was a hive of activity.
When we first moved to Atlanta nearly 40 years ago, neighborhoods like Little Five Points, where we lived, Poncey-Highland and Virginia-Highland were desolate frontiers for urban pioneers. Now, with the development of the Beltline, long forsaken communities like the Old Fourth Ward are thriving. Gentrification could threaten the Beltline's multicultural, multiracial spirit, and care must be taken to make a planned light rail compatible with the walkers and bikers. But the Beltline is a marvelous accomplishment for Atlanta.
After our brief tour, I felt a surge of civic pride that the city often maligned for its soulless architecture and hostility to preservation has accomplished such an imaginative joining of history, commerce, housing, art, culture and recreation.