Mark Pendergrast on the Future of Atlanta, the BeltLine and Alternatives to Urban Sprawl
The first time I visited Atlanta, the city surprised me. As an urbanist, raised on dense, walkable cities, I had a built in prejudice. I was supposed to hate Atlanta. It was the poster child for American urban sprawl. And yet, when I spent extended time there, I came to a totally different conclusion. While many of the urban ills were on glaring display—the traffic and freeways were awful—it somehow didn’t seem to matter. Despite it all, Atlanta was a vital, vibrant, friendly, culturally rich city. Not only that, if visitors looked hard enough, they could see signs of a different Atlanta emerging.
The author Mark Pendergrast, a hometown boy who moved away long ago, has written a smart book about this emerging metropolis, City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future. He uses the BeltLine, the proposed (and partially completed) 22-mile inner-city loop of trails and transit, to create a fascinating portrait of the city. Pendergrast traces its historic racial divides, the neighborhoods along the route, transportation systems, politics, and economics. Last week I traded emails with Pendergrast on the eve of the book’s release, which is today. Here’s our talk:
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MP: Mark Pendergrast
Tell us the origin story of the book. How did it come to be?
My literary agent, Lisa Bankoff, suggested that I write a book about Atlanta, since two of my previous books, For God, Country & Coca-Cola and Inside the Outbreaks, were topics I chose in part because both the soft drink company and the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the CDC, are headquartered in Atlanta, where I grew up. I was intrigued with the idea, but wary of it as well, because I haven’t lived in Atlanta for many years. I have returned frequently to visit my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and cousins, and to attend literary festivals, but I always had a kind of love-hate relationship with my hometown. It’s an appealing city, with an entrepreneurial spirit, a can-do attitude, lots of music, plays, restaurants, festivals, and diversity. But it’s also inequitable, unplanned, and subject to intense gridlock.
At any rate, Lisa’s suggestion intrigued me. It would give me an excuse to visit my elderly parents more often in the precious remaining years of their lives. It would also allow me to get to know many parts of my native city for the first time. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a kind of “Buckhead bubble” of white affluence in northern Atlanta. My family had an African-American maid named Willie Mae Pughsley, to whom I dedicated the book along with my parents. Willie, whom I called “Nee,” was like a second mother to me, but I took her for granted and knew nothing about her life outside my home. I ended up writing the very personal Epilogue of the book about her.
So, if I was going to write about Atlanta, what would be the focus? What kind of narrative arc would the book have? The BeltLine provided the perfect focal point, because Atlanta is best known for its sprawling suburbs, lengthy commutes, poor urban planning, and lack of historic preservation. It has been a poster child for many forms of urban dysfunction. Yet with the BeltLine, a planned 22-mile loop of trails and transit, the city has launched one of the most transformative projects of any American city. The BeltLine also travels through representative neighborhoods, from affluent and mostly white to devastatingly impoverished and mostly black. It will connect them all, really for the first time. So it’s a fascinating project that allowed me to explore issues of transportation, race, inequity, public health, the environment, infrastructure, housing, affordability, homelessness, architecture, business, education, religion—you name an issue facing any city, and it’s there.
When did you first become aware of the BeltLine? Briefly explain its backstory, scope and vision.
I became aware of the project soon after it began to make the news regularly, around 2003. In 1999, Ryan Gravel, a grad student in architecture and city planning at Georgia Tech, wrote his master’s thesis proposing what he called the Belt Line (two words), a streetcar loop in a mostly derelict railroad corridor that had been abandoned and taken over by kudzu and homeless encampments. These were really four separate rail lines built in the late 19th and early 20th century, after the heart of downtown Atlanta became too congested with railroads converging there. But with the advent of cars and trucks, the businesses along the tracks moved further out, and the railroad lines were no longer economically viable. Gravel saw that they could be repurposed and connected, though there were many logistic barriers. His thesis arrived at a fortuitous time, when people were beginning to move back to the city, seeking a more urban lifestyle.
Gravel never envisioned that his Belt Line would actually get built, but a few years later, his colleagues at an architectural firm became excited when he described the idea to them, and together they wrote letters to Atlanta’s elected officials and bureaucrats. Most just replied with forms of “Good luck with that,” but city council member Cathy Woolard championed the concept, and so did an array of enthusiastic citizens. In 2004, Mayor Shirley Franklin adopted the plan and it received initial funding and a bureaucratic structure. With vital help from Atlanta philanthropies and businesses, and a tax allocation district that funneled money to the project, it is being built. My book details the enormous obstacles it has faced, but it is well on the way towards becoming a reality, with a hugely successful Eastside Trail (and booming developments adjacent to it), and an almost-completed Westside Trail. There is still a long way to go, though, and it is unclear when or even if streetcars will run on the BeltLine.
Why is this project so important to the future of Atlanta?
The BeltLine is only part of the process of making Atlanta a more walkable, livable, transit-oriented city. Over the next 30 years, the population of Atlanta will probably triple, from around 500,000 to 1.5 million. (I’m talking about the number of people who live within the city limits, not the current 6 million in the greater metro Atlanta area.) The BeltLine alone will not transform Atlanta, but it is an avatar and symbol of needed change that will encourage greater mixed-use density along with more parks, trails, and public transit.
How much support does the BeltLine have? Is the average Atlantan even aware of it?
Yes, the average Atlantan is very much aware of the BeltLine and is supportive. Let me quote a short passage from the book: “‘The BeltLine has more constituencies behind it than any project I’ve ever done,’ Cathy Woolard said. ‘This project has really captured the imagination of the city.’ For once, here was an idea that people could be for rather than against. Developers, community organizers, environmentalists, transit advocates, green space seekers, biking/hiking enthusiasts, public health physicians, historic preservationists, affordable housing advocates—all took ownership of the project and contributed ideas. Letters to the editor, usually a way for disgruntled citizens to vent, were all favorable. One called the BeltLine ‘the single most exciting idea for the city of Atlanta I have ever heard.’” That passage refers to the early days of enthusiasm for the project, but the same level of support has been maintained, for the most part. Different people and factions disagree about how it should be implemented, which sections should receive priority, and whether affordable housing issues are being properly addressed, but it still has a critical level of popular support.
The book’s argument is essentially: this is the fork in the road for Atlanta. Either the city chooses a less auto- and sprawl-centric future, or it needs to brace for inevitable decline. Is some other outcome, like people simply enduring still longer commutes, not possible?
Of course! This is not a black-and-white, either-or issue. There are gradations of possible gray. But if Atlanta continues to act in the way it has acted in the not-so-distant past, it will be a disaster. In that past, the Georgia Department of Transportation never met a road it didn’t want to expand into more lanes, knocking down homes to pave over more land. The state legislature hamstrung the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) with regulations, while failing to provide any state support. Racism in the outlying white suburbs denied MARTA tax support. Developers razed historic buildings to replace them with hastily built monstrosities or parking lots. The city focused on mega projects such as stadiums or the World Congress Center but failed to have any real overall city plan. All of that is now changing, and a recent municipal vote added much-needed taxes to improve transit. MARTA is, for the first time in many years, in the black, receiving good publicity, expanding services, and planning transit-oriented developments to replace acres of parking lots next to MARTA stations.
The BeltLine, however, is not a sure thing. You make that pretty clear in the book. Give me some reasons why you think it will eventually happen?
The momentum to complete the BeltLine appears to be unstoppable. So much has already been invested in the project that it’s almost inconceivable that the city would simply abandon it before the entire 22-mile loop is completed. True, the city doesn’t even own a good deal corridor yet, and the northwestern section will have to run parallel or near active rail. There are also elevation discontinuities and other obstacles to be overcome. And much may depend on who is elected mayor in the November 2017 election. Nonetheless, I think the BeltLine will be completed. Ryan Gravel, whose master’s thesis started the ball rolling, is now in charge of the Atlanta City Design Project, creating a master plan for the city. Most certainly a completed BeltLine will be part of that plan.
Give me things that might derail it?
The economy could tank. Essential funding could dry up. CSX could refuse to sell needed land to the city. Some kind of unforeseen lawsuit could throw a wrench into the works. But as I said, I don’t think it would be easy to stop the project at this point.
Do you think anything—let alone the BeltLine—will ever get Atlantans out of their cars?
If you’re talking about people living within the city limits of Atlanta, yes, I think it’s possible, to some extent, even though Atlantans are certainly still car-centric. If the BeltLine is finished and has streetcars on it, if MARTA expands, if bus rapid transit lanes run throughout the city, if the current bike share program expands dramatically, if PATH (Georgia’s great trail-making organization) continues to connect pedestrian-bike paths throughout Atlanta and surrounding area, if all that happens, then yes, I think more Atlantans will get out of their cars more often. If it’s faster and cheaper to take public transit rather than to drive and pay to park, they will get out of their cars. Add to that the natural human pleasure in strolling or riding a bike, and in meeting other friendly people while doing so, and I think Atlanta could become an even more attractive place to live and work.