(ideas.) The question of whose Beltline we’re building in Atlanta keeps coming up among my friends and on social media. It’s a fair question – especially when some recent decisions about the supporting policies or physical alignments don’t seem to sync with what we’ve been saying all these years. The economy is roaring again, for example, yet we don’t seem to have made much progress on our commitment to affordable housing. “Is it too late?” we wonder, but we don’t really know.
In Where We Want to Live, I wrote about the grassroots movement that defined what the Atlanta Beltline is and who it is for. I described how the story that started in the summer of 2001 made our daunting proposal possible. The chapter tells how our big, bold, and expensive ideas were competing with other priorities and at risk of political discord. Initially, I didn’t believe it was actually possible to implement. I simply thought we were having an interesting conversation. It finally became real for me, however, in an unexpected moment when I overheard it described as “our Beltline.”
Here’s that excerpt from Chapter 7.
The Atlanta Beltline’s early naysayers were loud, but they were drowned out by a more resonant voice from the public at large. We were undeterred in our efforts because we could see that the naysayers operated at the fringes of public momentum. The ordinary people of the city wanted the vision that they had created and that they believed in and, without question, their vocal and active support is the reason that we are building it today.
I remember the very moment when I first understood the power of those politics and the role they would play in the realization of our vision. It came in a rather ordinary setting—a public meeting of the Atlanta Regional Commission in 2003. Woolard had sent an email to our Action List asking people to attend and advocate for the project as a priority for regional transportation funding. I got there early, and the room was already crowded. While I nervously prepared to make a public comment on the record, I was eavesdropping on two middle-aged women standing in front of me. Over the low murmurs of the crowd before the meeting began, they were talking about how “our project” would loop around the city, connecting over 40 neighborhoods to MARTA, and detailing what “our project” would mean for the city. It had become “our project,” not mine or Woolard’s. They had taken ownership of the Atlanta Beltline, even though I had no idea who they were.
Before that moment, I hadn’t been so confident that we could ever pull it off. The proposal had seemed far too ambitious. I kept talking to people about it simply because I was enjoying the discussion. At that moment, however, I realized that the proposal’s daunting politics and project costs could, and likely would, be overcome by the powerful will of the people.
Our collective ownership not only made the Atlanta Beltline possible, it gave us permission to expand the idea beyond what we had initially proposed. Over the years we added hundreds of acres of new parks, for example, affordable housing, a linear arboretum, and an insanely-popular Lantern Parade. We did that – not the people in charge. So when we wonder today whose Beltline we’re building, we need to remember it’s ours. And if we care about how it will impact our lives, we need to get engaged and make sure it is built to our standards.
This is hard work. It always has been, but it is also essential. We know we can do it – we literally wouldn’t be building the Atlanta Beltline otherwise. And we literally won’t get the outcomes we want if we don’t pay attention, get involved, and claim ownership of “our Beltline.”
So let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. I’m not sure what this looks like going forward, but I encourage you to help us figure it out. >> Ryan Gravel