City on the Verge is a book about Atlanta written largely from the inside out. Mark Pendergrast’s engaging narrative is woven from conversations with residents having hands-on involvement with the weft and warp of their neighborhoods’ past, present and hopes for the future. I am one of those folks and happen to live in the oldest neighborhood in Atlanta, Piedmont Heights, first settled in 1823.
In the fall of 2013 I received a phone call from Mark saying he was writing a book about Atlanta, focusing on the Atlanta Beltline, and could he perhaps spend the weekend at my home and discuss the BeltLine’s impact on my neighborhood? Surprised by the unexpected request, but intrigued by Mark’s engaging manner, I agreed. He proved to be a most charming guest and we became instant friends.
For two days Mark and I toured Piedmont Heights discussing its long and rich history and the future impact of the BeltLine. We explored the path of the proposed transit line, running along the neighborhood’s eastern border in an old rail corridor, and what changes it would bring. His questions, ranging from micro to macro about my neighborhood, caused me to see it in new and different ways.
Piedmont Heights is very different from its abutting neighborhoods. It began with a grist mill on Clear Creek, a tributary of Peachtree Creek, and a one-room log schoolhouse serving the surrounding farms. An unincorporated township formed and eventually gained a post office, a train depot and a name – Easton. Today the community remains a rich mixture of residential and commercial. Almost 100 businesses include two shopping centers, Ansley Mall and Ansley Square, two grocery stores, auto repair shops, business and medical offices, many restaurants and all manner of other goods and service providers. Its over 2,000 homes, townhouses and apartments are encircled by a belt of businesses.
When the BeltLine was announced, Piedmont Heights immediately formed a neighborhood Planning Committee which produced an award-winning master plan. The BeltLine planners later incorporated its primary concepts into their own plans. One concept proposes that the two shopping centers be merged and redeveloped as a multi-use complex surrounding a Piedmont Heights “town square” with a BeltLine transit station overlooking “water gardens” along Clear Creek.
Another element of the neighborhood plan is redesign of a highway on a half-mile long artificial land bridge separating the neighborhood’s northern edge from the old Armour/Otley industrial area with one access point that funnels traffic into the neighborhood. Our plan removes the land bridge, lowers the highway to natural grade and transforms it into a landscaped boulevard with multiple access options. This unites the neighborhood with a piece of its former self where new apartments are already being built and warehouses converted into loft offices, galleries and restaurants.
BeltLine construction has not yet reached Piedmont Heights but our neighborhood has already been impacted in many unexpected ways. Residents awakened to the fact that neighborhood businesses are unique assets to be embraced, and the Civic Association created a “Piedmont Heights Business Alliance” to give local merchants a voice in neighborhood affairs. It also changed its bylaws to allow renters, who vastly outnumber homeowners, to be members. A non-profit “Community Improvement Foundation” was formed to solicit funding for much needed neighborhood improvements. And, last but certainly not least, a motto was adopted which gives our enlightened community a proud new image of itself as a “Small Town in the Big City.”
By Faset J. “Bill” Seay