As I’m writing my book I am constantly reminded how the Atlanta Beltline came to life through a powerful grassroots movement. After three years working through Cathy Woolard’s office, we founded Friends of the Belt Line (FBL) in February 2004 as a champion for the project’s integrity and an advocate for the communities that made it possible. People claimed ownership of the project. They didn’t wait for permission. They took control of their future. And together with partnering nonprofit organizations and early political leadership, we built a powerful and expanding vision that today is having profoundly positive impacts on the life of our city. The public believed in the Atlanta Beltline before anyone else, and it is this energy and expectation that continues to empower – even obligate – today’s leadership to tackle the many challenges of building it.
It’s this assertive style of ownership that got us past the early naysayers, expanded the vision far beyond what anybody imagined, and even as recently as late last year was seen fighting against inappropriate development at Glenwood Park. It’s a lot of work, but it does a lot of good. So on the occasion of FBL’s tenth anniversary next month, after more than a decade of being friends, and as our vision becomes increasingly tangible through implementation, I think it is appropriate to consider what might still be missing from our movement.
I’m interested in hearing your ideas. For me, I can’t quit hoping that the public will assert its claim to the Atlanta Beltline’s physical space as strongly as we claim its vision. The corridor could become more experimental, developing a culture of constant change by many hands in different ways that would make it come alive. This could offer a fresh and provocative perspective on the public space and infrastructure required by a 21st century city.
Related to this idea, I think the Atlanta Beltline would benefit enormously from a more assertive sense of ownership by artists. An unreleased cultural impact study in 2007 already outlined every imaginable way we could leverage the project to support an arts-oriented economy. And the unexpected ten thousand people who showed up for last September’s Lantern Parade illustrate both the public’s appetite for the arts and the unique armature that the corridor provides for experiencing it. The city has young and energetic arts organizations like WonderRoot, Living Walls, glo, and Flux Projects that might be willing to help support a culturally-experimental appropriation of the corridor. And the city is full of emerging artists who have something relevant to say about our future.
But the challenge is bigger than simply the incorporation of public art. We need support for artist housing and work spaces so that artists can afford to stay in the city and fuel a cultural economy. We need to invest more in arts and cultural facilities. And we need to look beyond our safe establishment of artists, listen to new voices, and leverage those that make our city stand out. If Atlanta is “hip-hop’s center of gravity,” for example, then we need to pull hip-hop into our vision. And if we don’t like what somebody has to say, then we should be prepared to elevate our cultural dialog rather than shutting it down. It’s not too late, for example, to publicly debate the tragically-political destruction of French street artist Pierre Roti’s spectacular mural for Living Walls on University Avenue in 2012.
My point is this – if we want the Atlanta Beltline to live up to its potential as a world-class cultural infrastructure, then we need artists and the arts community to assert their ownership in its program. We need the Arts to drive the discussion about the Atlanta Beltline, not the other way around. We need you. This is your town – your Beltline. Don’t wait. Do something. >> Ryan Gravel