Skip to main content

Atlanta BeltLine Chronicles 

The politics of poetry and infrastructure.
Published onApr 16, 2024
Atlanta BeltLine Chronicles 

Paradise was meant to be just that, a hallowed
Space for a new world, away from hatred,
Exclusion, racism, and discrimination, which hollow
Out human beings, and then destroys sacred
Lives. But the BeltLine’s not meant to be far away
From Atlanta, in some hallowed place; it’s an
Avenue for strolls, a floor upon which to play,
And a stairway to heavenly Georgian

Moons at night. It’s like the Champs Elysée, but all
The way ‘round our city, not just one part;

Canto the First: Heroes, Robert Barsky

Here at Knowledge Futures, we love a good tale about infrastructure. Typically, you don’t notice a system unless it’s failing you, but in this story the emerging infrastructures are being celebrated for their collaborative nature that brings together policy, culture, economy, and community. The following project lives at the intersection of many roads—all coming together with serendipity and intentionality, both, to create an artful and highly useful system. One path of our story begins in the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech, and another path on a European bike tour. These trails converge and envelop the city of Atlanta on the BeltLine.

***

The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the largest urban redevelopment programs in the world, a project that integrates parks, trails, art, and affordable housing with a light rail transit system in development, slotted to be complete by 2030. What was once a historic railroad corridor that surrounded downtown Atlanta is now an “emerald necklace” that connects neighborhoods, increases Atlanta’s walkability, focuses on ecological sustainability, and improves economic opportunities.

The initial plans for this massive urban design project came from an ambitious master’s thesis written by Ryan Gravel. As a student of architecture and urban planning at Georgia Tech, Gravel’s project proposed to repurpose the abandoned railway and turn it into something that would restructure and change the infrastructural makeup of the city. Responding to a long history of economic, racial, and social division, Gravel aimed to create something that would distribute opportunity more equally and equitably across the city. As he described,

A more life-affirming approach to infrastructure [that] considers everyone and every aspect of our lives. If we’re serious about it, we don’t only build infrastructure for people who are able to drive cars and we don’t only build it for driving around. Instead, we take a holistic view of all our aspirations and then we put the tools in place to deliver those outcomes. We design a physical structure that can cultivate suitable conditions to create a business or raise a family in the way that meets our highest expectations. In the process, we make valuable cultural, social, and economic contributions to the broader community.

Frustrated with the lack of public transportation — in part responding to the city’s investment in highways that did relieve city traffic congestion but maintained segregation in the city — Gravel found inspiration in other cities like Paris, Chicago, Berlin, and Portland, whose mass transit systems were designed for pedestrians, and connected neighborhoods rather than dividing them. Gravel defended his ideas to his thesis committee back in 1999, and then mailed copies of it to dozens of influential Atlantans. It got into the hands of the mayor at the time, Shirley Franklin, who supported the project, and in 2005 the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership was formed to begin drawing up plans.

Atlanta BeltLine Promotional Video (2003)

Almost 20 years later, the Atlanta BeltLine is a $4 billion public-private investment that has already spread social and economic benefits, even as a work in progress. To increase its impact, the BeltLine partners closely with MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), and the City of Atlanta, to design a transit system that connects communities and fosters healthy urban development.

So far, the BeltLine has transformed neighborhoods and residents’ lives by conserving more than 1,000 acres of green spaces with a particular focus on native plants, while also preserving historical spaces and landmarks around the city. The project has also proved 28,000 housing units, including 5,600 affordable units. The city of Atlanta anticipates that all this construction will encourage businesses and bring in $10 billion in economic development, all to benefit and improve their growing city. This is a deeply collaborative project that aims to develop a highly integrated infrastructure to meet the needs of current and future residents and guests of Atlanta.

***

Midway through a precarious bicycling quest across Europe, back in 1985, Robert Barsky found himself in a small Italian town, anxious for some much-needed rest and conversation. There, he unexpectedly found a copy of the Collected Works of Lord Byron, a welcome distraction for the long and lonely nights that lay ahead. From then on, Barsky kept company with Childe Harold and Don Juan, two memorable characters who embark on similarly precarious adventures in Europe. Inspired by Byron’s addictive rhymes, Barsky modified his own bicycle route, seeking out the destinations described in Byron’s epic poems and stories. He loved these pieces if literature so much that he decided to write his master’s thesis on Byron’s works, which really began his interest in combining poetry and the idea of a quest.

Barsky has continued on his own academic quest ever since. Along the way, he has been awarded a Rockefeller residency, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Canada Research Chair, and invitations for Visiting Professorships at Yale, the University of Memphis Law School, the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. For more than twenty years, he has been a professor in the Humanities, and in Law, at Vanderbilt University. He also spends lots of time in Atlanta, researching, riding on, and writing about the BeltLine. Just as he shared Don Juan’s love for travels in Europe, he fell in love with the idea of connecting the whole of Atlanta, physically and culturally, through these multi-use pathways, and has been inspired to be a part of this work by supporting its development.

“When they proposed this project,” Barsky said referring to the BeltLine, “neighborhoods had to open up that pathway, which meant opening portions [of] the city in ways that hadn’t been possible before… A lot of people wanted to avoid this because they thought that it might create new sources of friction, but instead it has created much-loved pathways, and lots of new development.”1 Because so much development has happened along the BeltLine, it’s now possible to walk to shopping, haircuts, doctor’s visits, and schools. Along its 22 miles, the BeltLine crosses the Ponce City Market, Piedmont Park, the Grove Park neighborhood, and even the zoo.

Additionally, the BeltLine “is one of the largest art projects in the world, featuring 22 miles of artworks, including graffiti, sculpture, performance art, music, theater, and dance,” says Barsky. Yet there hadn’t been any literary contributions that encompassed the entire BeltLine, so, inspired by the works of other poetic travelers — Dante’s Pilgrim in the Divine Comedy, Homer’s Odysseus returning to Ithaca, and of course Lord Byron’s Don Juan — Barsky embarked on creating a heroic tale centered around the BeltLine. Thus The BeltLine Chronicles was born.

The BeltLine Chronicles

The BeltLine Chronicles centers around a fictional poet named George who wanders around, tells stories, learns about the history and cultural icons along the way, and, at the same time, reads great quests from the past. The poems “feature an array of rhyme schemes, lengths of line, rhythms, and other stylistic characteristics that I learned through the process of exploring Byron’s poetics, and which George hones in the course of his explorations,” says Barsky. Following the form of Don Juan, the poems are structured in cantos.

George, the main character and poet, “is neither black nor white, neither short nor tall, but rather he (she?) represents all of us who wander on the BeltLine.” This was the prompt he gave an artist, Lauren McKee, one of his former students at Vanderbilt. He wanted her to create visual representations of George to accompany the poems. She ended up creating a character that travels along the BeltLine on scooters, bikes, horses, and we see him walking with an umbrella, or sitting down on a park bench with the famous BeltLine cat perched on his shoulder. The Chronicles also feature the artwork of Susan Ker-Seymer, whose “abstract works invoke the BeltLine-like worlds… at the beginning of each canto,” describes Barsky.

from Canto the Fourth: Paradise

Illustration by Lauren McKee

from Canto the Seventh: Improvisation

Illustration by Susan Ker-Seymer

While working on the Chronicles’ cantos, Barsky was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project about the negotiation of international refugee law in the height of the civil rights movement. This work required significant research in Atlanta, the home of many civil rights archives and physical spaces, and it brought him into contact with people thinking about those struggles from historical and contemporary perspectives. The Guggenheim grant, coupled with a sabbatical from Vanderbilt, allowed him to pursue both the refugee law project and The BeltLine Chronicles. Much of this work has also been supported by Art ATL’s BeltLine Arts Commission.

Barsky has received support for the creation and performance of the project, and for installations of the poems. Currently, there are four installations of pages of the Cantos printed on 24-inch by 36-inch sheets of metal hung on posts that are cemented into the ground along the BeltLine. Just recently, ArtsATL asked for a budget to create 50 more installations, with the aim to post the entire poem, all 68 pages, along the BeltLine. Additionally, the grants include a performance component, so Barsky invited an actor, Ismail ibn Conner, who has taken on the role of George in public performances around the BeltLine. There will also be a dance performance this spring, featuring dancers from Kennesaw State University, directed by Marsha Barsky (Robert Barsky’s wife). There is, finally, a pending offer from a local Atlanta press to publish The BeltLine Chronicles as a book.

A page of The BeltLine Chronicles outside Ponce City Market.

Ismail ibn Conner performing at Constellations.

With the BeltLine light rail project still under development, there are more collaborations with MARTA, the region’s public transportation system, which have likewise piqued Barsky’s interest. Because the BeltLine has so many facets and intersections, the project continues to inspire him on so many levels, connected to his interest in social justice, civil rights, human rights, and also public spaces and services. He hopes to continue to expand The BeltLine Chronicles project and bring George onto the MARTA train and bus system. Perhaps in a few years time, we’ll also find George on the light rail that will run alongside the current multi-use trails.

***

The BeltLine Chronicles celebrates public infrastructure along the physical BeltLine in Atlanta, but it’s also hosted on open publishing infrastructure. The cantos in their totality live on PubPub, an open publishing platform built and maintained by Knowledge Futures (KF). Barsky chose to work with us at KF since our mission aligns with his ambition to offer the public useful, and, in this case, beautiful, information.

George’s adventures on the BeltLine is the second project of Barsky’s journal Contours Collaborations, which develops state-of-the-art digitized artistic exhibits and performance spaces. The first project featured extraordinarily powerful works by Susan Clinard, in different media, that come together in an online exhibit to depict the challenges of displacement and marginalization. Contours Collaborations is supported by Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Vanderbilt Library, and the SSHRC Canada Research Chair Program. Knowledge Futures and Barsky have also collaborated on other projects, like Collection Conversations, featuring the W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies, and new works supported by the French and Canadian governments. We invite you to submit an idea for a digital or hybrid exhibit!

***

If you aren’t lucky enough to live near Atlanta to visit the BeltLine yourself, check out this clickable map to explore the cantos and see some of the poems that dot the trail.

This interactive map, created by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., also highlights the parks, public transit systems, neighborhoods, and art pieces that line the route.

Read more about the project here.

Comments
0
comment
No comments here
Why not start the discussion?