by Mark Pendergrast
Sept. 3, 2017
I have just completed a whirlwind book tour and visit in Atlanta, in which I spoke to wildly disparate crowds, ranging from a Midtown Rotary luncheon at the Ansley Golf Club to the basement of the Paradise Baptist Missionary Church on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, from the Community Grounds coffeehouse in South Atlanta and 992 Gallery in West End to the Atlanta History Center and the Decatur Book Festival. Everywhere I spoke, whether to an affluent, mostly white audience, or to a largely black audience in a devastated part of town, people resonated to the message I brought in City on the Verge – that Atlanta is a great city that needs to become greater, to overcome its stark inequities, and to make life safer, healthier, and more communal for all. I have been moved and gratified by the way people who have read the book have reacted, including Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A. When I introduced myself to him at a Westside Future Fund meeting, he said, “You’re my hero! I’m halfway through your book,” and he insisted on having his picture taken with me.
But that’s not why I’m writing. I want to introduce a new column for the City on the Verge website. I began the COV website not only to promote interest in the book, but to provide a forum for discussion about Atlanta and the BeltLine, which is the main narrative focus of the book. During this visit, I found myself on different parts of the BeltLine several times. During one, I walked on the nearly completed Westside Trail during a Saturday stroll organized by Atlanta activist and railroad conductor Angel Poventud. Along the way, I talked to community leader James Harris, who said, “It’s fine that you have guest blogs on the COV website, but not everyone is going to write an essay. Every time I walk on the BeltLine, I have a new experience or meet a new person. Why don’t you start a column called ‘Stories of the BeltLine’ and let people write in with their own experiences and encounters?”
What a great idea! So please send me your stories. They can be really brief or longer. Just tell us about someone you met or an experience you had on the BeltLine. It could just be about a bird you saw or sounds you heard. Explain where you were. If you didn’t get permission from the person you met to write about them, please use just their first names to grant them anonymity. It is remarkable how the BeltLine has become a public community space where perfect strangers feel free to talk and become friends in minutes. Let me hear those stories. And maybe some of them won’t be so pleasant, and that’s fine, too.
I’ll kick it off with three people I met on the BeltLine this week. On that same day, I was walking north along the Westside Trail because I was late and wanted to meet Angel’s group (which included BeltLine visionary/founder Ryan Gravel) on the way back. I ran into Eric, a white guy who appeared to be in his forties, who was walking his dog, and we talked for a while. He had lived in New York City for a while as a prototypical struggling actor, looking for a big break in a Broadway musical. He had now found a happy home in Atlanta with his husband. I suggested we sing a song together. We absolutely nailed “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and when we parted I had the beautiful feeing that everything was going my way. (Eric later came to my book panel talk at the Atlanta History Center.)
Another day, on the Eastside Trail near Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall, I met a young man whose name I can’t remember, so I’ll call him Paul. He worked in the medical field, and he was looking for his girlfriend because she had stormed off after a fight. I asked him how old she was, and she was 28. I gave him my sage advice: “I think your twenties are the most difficult decade of your life. You’re trying to figure out who you are. You’re not a kid any more but you don’t really feel like an adult. Stick it out till she’s 30 if you can.” I also said it was probably a bad idea to find her if she was still mad. Taking a walk on the BeltLine to think and cool off was not a bad thing. Paul told me he appreciated the advice and decided to have a beer at Ladybird instead.
Another time, before I attended a brainy breakfast discussion at Panera Bread in Ansley Mall, hosted by my friend Bill Seay of Piedmont Heights, I went out back to walk along the unfinished BeltLine behind the mall. I flagged down a biker named Larry and asked him when he thought they would finally pave the path, since Atlanta BeltLine Inc. already owns it. Larry, who works for AT&T, said he couldn’t wait, that it drove him nuts that the big gravel would sometimes twist his ankle when he was walking on it. At least they should put down fine compacted stone. He said that Georgia Power was going to pave at least part of it soon. I told him about my book and how I wrote about the Toronto BeltLine, part of which is indeed compacted fine gravel, and it works really well. After Larry rode to Piedmont Park and back, he joined us for breakfast.
So there you have my three chance encounters. Now let’s hear yours!
Send me your story in the Comments section below.