Why you should care

Because when your big, dreamy idea gets legs, sometimes it can sprint too fast for you to keep up.

Every year, my mother swears our hometown of Atlanta will soon be “just like Manhattan.” Every year, we scoff. But she’s now found some fellow yea-sayers. Their proof? A 42-year-old architect, the new darling of the urbanism world, whose big claim to fame is a paper he wrote 15 years ago in graduate school.

Ryan Gravel has since spent much of his adult life obsessing over 7 miles of trails in the heart of Atlanta. His brainchild, called Atlanta BeltLine, aims to turn defunct railroad tracks into a 22-mile paved looped trail, with light-rail trains to line its circumference. Everyone, from my mother to the mayor to environmentalists to the White House , proclaims that this unlikely city, with its long history of segregation and suburbanization, is on the verge of a renaissance. Alex Garvin, a New Yorker and professor at the Yale School of Architecture, told me the BeltLine is a transit makeover of the sort he’s never seen in another city. “People have not yet given up their cars. But they will.”

“Of course,” he adds, “there’s an enormous amount of idealism in what I just said.”

Already, hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment have poured into the project and the restaurants, markets and shops around it; land values are soaring; and the city Sherman once burned looks shiny and new. The makeover fervor is spreading — a new streetcar runs through central Atlanta and bike lanes are sprouting. Gravel has been a quiet presence behind the $4.8 billion BeltLine, the wunderkind whose young idea grew up big, although it still has some growing to do. Indeed, 15 years in, and the current planners estimate they’ve still got 17 years to go on the project. Only a third of the 22 miles are laid, with no trains yet in sight. For now, it’s a well-trafficked footpath looping through parks in once-industrial neighborhoods dotted with trendy lofts.

ryan gravel

Source Zach Wolfe for OZY

I meet Gravel by the Historic Fourth Ward Park near the East Side Trail, the first finished section of the BeltLine. He lives a couple minutes’ walk away, and often cycles to his job at Perkins & Wills, an architecture firm where he’s worked for six years. He is tall, hipster-skinny and white-haired, with just the slightest Southern twang. He and his fellow-architect wife have two kids, and they spend weekends walking and biking along the path.

Check out the Go Deep section at the bottom for more on rails-to-trails projects.

In many cities, the ability to walk or bike is a mundanity. In Atlanta, it’s a tide-shift. Like Los Angeles and many American metropoles of the latter 20th century, Atlanta succumbed to ugly suburban sprawl; famed architect Rem Koolhaas once cited the ATL as everything wrong with suburban America. The city boasts several moneymaking businesses — Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot, CNN — but it also has a nasty history, much of it centered on race. During integration, the inner city turned black; the suburbs went white. Public transit suffered and Atlantans took to their cars. This is a city where a confluence of messy highways to the north is nicknamed “Spaghetti Junction.”

Gravel’s family story is precisely “the story of sprawl,” he tells me; his parents moved from Louisiana to Atlanta for the opportunities afforded by that very highway system; his father, an engineer, worked on waste pumps to support the roads. But then, as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, Gravel spent a year in Paris. He lost 15 pounds, walking everywhere, eating fresh food. Raised in the suburb of Chamblee, Georgia, he’d grown up traipsing down asphalt roads with no sidewalks to strip malls.

ryan gravel

Source Zach Wolfe for OZY

Between his year abroad and a lifelong obsession with trains, thinking about cities came naturally. And so did the big dreamin’. He swears Atlanta will be fundamentally different in 20 years — in part because of the BeltLine.

And yet everyone is waiting for Godot’s trains. True, civic metamorphoses are famously plodding “alphabet soups,” in the words of Cathy Woolard, an Atlanta city councilwoman who was one of the BeltLine’s early backers. Lee Harrop, the program manager, says they want to lay all 22 miles before even turning to the crucial trains, and myriad potential roadblocks remain before his team reaches that end goal.

Starting with the cost. A referendum on a higher city sales tax to fund the project failed, and the federal grants that have so far helped feed it may soon run out. Then there’s the buzzword: gentrification. “Is this just going to be a playground for bougie in-town yuppies?” worries Alex Cummings, an assistant professor of urban history at Georgia State University. In response, Gravel and others point to the trains, plus 5,800 units of affordable housing to be built along the trail. So far, 250 such units line the East Side Trail. Path-laying on the West Side, a less affluent part of town, just began; and there’s nothing on the poorer-still south side.

Is this just going to be a playground for bougie in-town yuppies?

— Alex Cummings, assistant professor of urban history, Georgia State University

At first, the confluence of players thrilled Gravel — restaurateurs, citizens, planners, all in search of the same goal — but after five months working on the gig full time at City Hall, the once-fun hobby turned less fun. He quit: “The politics of it got too much.” He’d never considered most of the concerns now dogging the project when he first dreamed it. “I was just imagining a really cool place to live.”

The trail bears a heavy load of life-changing promises for Gravel’s hometown: diminishing Georgian obesity, connecting the city, upping employment, integrating a city that’s refused it. “A lot of people get into urban planning to save the world,” he muses as we step off the path.

He hops on his bike. I walk to my car.

Photography by Zach Wolfe for OZY

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