The English have an apt phrase for the moribund and abandoned spaces that often mar urban neighborhoods: waste ground. These rips in the urban fabric — which around here inevitably become homeless encampments, kudzu thickets and/or illegal dumps – are dispiriting even in a district experiencing healthy and certain resurgence such as Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, where I have lived since 1992. They stand as reminders of blight’s tenacity. They’re like skipped beats interrupting an otherwise vigorous rhythm. But the construction of Historic Fourth Ward Park, the first phase of which quietly opens to the public at the end of this month, shows how waste ground can be transformed into a zone of connection. It takes only inspired design – plus the money and political will to make it happen.
It seems like just the day before yesterday when this sweep of newly realized parkland, one of the many greenspace projects included in the BeltLine plan, was a patchwork of weed fields, cracked asphalt and charmless disused warehouses. You couldn’t have walked its length, because it was broken up by chain-link fences and retaining walls; your eye wouldn’t even have registered it as a continuous swath of terrain.
Now, when you stand at the high southern edge of the new park in the 600 block of Ralph McGill Boulevard, you have a wide view (above) curving all the way down to City Hall East at North Avenue. The park’s upper and lower sections, still raw, will be the second phase, to be finished this spring; the completed part is in the middle. But the entire space has been assembled, obstacles cleared away, and you can perceive the effects of the whole.
One of those, for me, is the shuffling of an urban pattern I thought I knew by heart. If you have walked any stretch of the BeltLine, you may have had a similar experience. You find yourself in positions you have never occupied. Perspectives shift. The familiar is reordered. Buildings you thought you knew reveal hidden facades. The elements of the skyline rearrange themselves. The BeltLine corridor, built for trains, is essentially level as it transects the city’s rolling topography, so walking it you gaze up at the underside of the Freedom Parkway viaduct, down onto Ponce de Leon Avenue — and then are surprised to stroll right across Monroe Drive at grade. Linkages appear where there were once impediments. Distances stretch and shrink.
If I walk the most direct route from my house on Ralph McGill to Piedmont Park, via Boulevard and Monroe Drive, it takes about 20 minutes. If I go now along the BeltLine, it takes at least that long but seems quicker, even timeless. Maybe that’s because when I step onto the corridor, I feel as if I am already in a park. Even if for now the BeltLine is still more or less linear wilderness, it’s green and open and protected, and leads seamlessly to where I’m going. Maybe that other route just feels tedious because of the grimy streetscapes and the traffic, while the BeltLine is removed from the bustle yet inextricably part of the city. That’s a sensation I believe will persist even when — we should only live so long, as my Ukrainian Jewish grandmother would have said — we are obliged to share the narrow BeltLine right of way with a clanging trolley.
Historic Fourth Ward Park, an opening but not a tear in the fabric of the city, offers similar revelations. There’s no mistaking the direction the surrounding neighborhood is taking, when from a single spot in the park you can see so many recently built apartment complexes, including two huge ones directly bordering the park, and massive City Hall East, the promised redevelopment of which will add hundreds more residential units. But there’s also no mistaking the enduringly hodgepodge character of the Old Fourth Ward.
Consider the motley assortment of properties edging the park. Of those two big new residential developments, one is an exemplar of the cheesy, overwrought design most Atlanta multifamily projects get labored with, while the other — more simply modernist in idiom — is at least inoffensive. There’s a historic stone mill building, presently the club Masquerade. The former Southern Dairies complex was tastefully renovated 10 years ago and now houses creative offices and a swanky-cool restaurant. Looming City Hall East — said to have more square footage than any other structure south of the Pentagon — is what it is, but its ells and setbacks keep it from being totally overwhelming, and its Mediterranean Revival tower adds a tiny touch of poetry. Scattered among these prominent landmarks and visible from the park are typical circa-1930 bungalows, dinky circa-1950 apartment houses, a small block of striking minimalist-contemporary townhouses, a bunch of undistinguished and mostly empty one-story industrial buildings and overgrown empty lots all ripe for redevelopment, and a big, unattractive industrial site where Georgia Power trucks still rumble in and out all day.
People with tidiness issues probably find this jumble unsettling, but it’s one of the reasons why I love living in the Old Fourth Ward. This neighborhood is never going to be a twee, tricked-up highlight on anybody’s tourist map. By showing this range of building types and aesthetic quality all at once, the new park reveals the neighborhood for what it is. And — learn to love it — as the Old Fourth Ward continues to gentrify, it won’t ever become appreciably more homogenous, in its architecture anyway. This isn’t like Grant Park, encircled by uniform housing stock from the turn of the 20th century, or Perkerson Park, surrounded by a bungalow neighborhood dating from a few decades later that might be interchangeable today with Virginia-Highland if it hadn’t had the misfortune of being in a part of town that suffered greatly from the mid-century rush to the suburbs and has yet to see much reinvestment.
So much for Historic Fourth Ward Park’s context. A critical review of its design should wait until it’s formally dedicated. But I can say — from the times I have slipped through an opening in the fence to explore during the construction — that this is a transformative space. Its centerpiece is a sinuously shaped “lake” sunk deep into the topography that does double duty. It provides a focal point and — edged by boardwalks, bridges and piers, terraces and fountains, and a gracious amphitheater — will be an inviting activity center.
More mundanely, it functions as a stormwater detention device for this historically flood-prone location. The artificial declivity dug for the lake — emphasized by soaring granite retaining walls — along with the natural, gentler rise of the park’s topography beyond it toward the east, south and west, creates long views up and down and lots of visual drama. The descent into it and the soft, curvaceous shapes of its hardscape and waterscape are a respite from the Historic Fourth Ward’s sharp-edged buildings and rectilinear street grid.
I predict that this park will become the — or a — heart for the Old Fourth Ward even though it’s not in the district’s center but at its northern edge, and it’s not the only greenspace. Much-used Freedom Park cuts across the neighborhood, and a stretch of the BeltLine where construction of a trail is already under way forms one of the neighborhood’s borders. But both of those are linear. Historic Fourth Ward Park is big and wide — the topography makes it feel even more expansive — with room, and provision, for many things to be happening at once. People are going to flock to it and use it and love it. Let’s hope the rest of the BeltLine parks can come up to the standard it sets.