Walking down Oglethorpe Avenue, one can travel back in time. The intertwined bricks of the sidewalks and the old elegance of the homes, with their walled gardens, elaborate carpentry, and bright, peeling paint, are all seeped with history. In the background, the sounds of traffic on Lee Street and of trains leaving the MARTA station fade away, replaced by the still quiet of the neighborhood and birds in the trees.
My walk from the West End MARTA station to the OAC gives me a better opportunity to visually explore the neighborhood and get a feel for it than I would get in a bus or car. I see the streets change from those antique homes to more modest accommodations, then to dilapidated houses left unattended. The interwoven bricks gave way to ordinary sidewalks that, two or three blocks later, broke into fragments bleeding with glass and Georgia red clay down the sides of the street. I cross over the bridge on Lawton Street, directly above the West segment of the Atlanta BeltLine, which is presently still a grassy trail that trains once traversed. I try to imagine the expensive apartments that will inevitably replace the nondescript brick buildings.
I am walking further South, about a mile and a half more, to get to a meeting about a farm and a forest.
A Hidden Gem
You might not believe it, but down in the West End there is a forest spanning 26 acres, the only official nature preserve in the City of Atlanta. You won’t find street signs leading to it and it isn’t marked on most maps. Many call it Atlanta’s “hidden gem” as a result. Some of its trees are hundreds of years old and bear scars from the passing of time. The roots run deep, down in the West End.
The West End is the birthplace of the Utoy Creek Watershed, which makes up “the hidden Chattahoochee” in Atlanta. It is approximately 26 miles long and covers more than 34 square miles. However, the watershed has created many problems for the neighborhood; historically, its creeks and streams would overflow in heavy rains (as creeks are wont to do) into their floodplains, creating temporary swamps out of the neighborhood. This problem was only exacerbated as the City’s combined sewage system aged.
Combined sewage systems (CSS) are an older design for sewers that also collect runoff stormwater from streets, unlike newer systems that keep the two separate. As a result, these systems overflow during especially heavy storm or snowmelt events, expelling untreated sewage into local waterways, and sometimes even into streets, basements, and yards. Not only is it disgusting, it is also in violation of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.
There are still seven combined sewage systems in use in Atlanta, of which many were installed over one hundred years ago. Of those seven, four are on the Westside, the region of Atlanta where some of the most prosperous African American communities in the United States thrived. Additionally, funding for repairs and maintenance has been delayed over the decades as the costs continued to accumulate. For comparison, there are none in Buckhead, Atlanta’s affluent, mostly white, neighborhood to the North.
The understanding of the relationship between the construction of the built environment and social constructions of race is known as environmental justice. The EPA describes it as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Born out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, the movement gained national attention in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. Instead of allowing the state government to relocate “6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs,” the residents of Afton, a small community in Warren County adjacent to the planed dumping site, laid down the law by lying in the streets, blocking the dump trucks with their bodies. Unfortunately, after six weeks of protest and over 500 arrests, the residents of Afton and Warren County could not stop the government from polluting their soil and water. Communities across America are still struggling with issues of environmental justice of all shapes and sizes.
Down in the West End, rising from the Richland Hills lies Bush Mountain. Though technically a park of the City of Atlanta, the Bush Mountain forest is managed by the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), a local 501 c (3) non-profit organization. WAWA was founded by members of communities in North and Southwest Atlanta in 1995 with the mission of improving the Westside neighborhoods’ sewage overflow and Atlanta’s discriminatory wastewater management problems. WAWA became a voice for the environmental needs of neighborhoods that historically hadn’t been heard.
WAWA has since expanded beyond that scope, delving into ecological education, environmental stewardship, and urban agriculture. It has become the official steward of three separate parks, preserving and enhancing over 400 acres throughout Southwest Atlanta. In 2008, WAWA applied for and was granted stewardship over the Bush Mountain forest and the Outdoor Activity Center (OAC) from the City of Atlanta’s Bureau of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs not just to improve the watershed of the neighborhood, but also with the goal of increasing the hours of operation. Prior to WAWA’s stewardship, the park was only open to the public during business hours; under their stewardship, hours have expanded so that working individuals and families in the area can actually visit the park beyond 9 AM to 5 PM and open during weekends. Nowadays, WAWA hosts volunteers and field trips from across Atlanta fairly regularly.
I arrived at the OAC a few minutes early and walked the grounds with Darryl Haddock, the OAC’s Environmental Education Director, to unlock the gates at the trailheads leading into the forest. There is a chain link fence surrounding the OAC to dissuade anyone from vandalizing the property, although it’s not very effective.
“Did you hear about what happened this weekend?” Darryl asked as we approached the first gate. “Someone cut the gate here,” as he motions to the gate that had recently been repaired. “Well… I’ll let Imran tell you about it.”
We walked to the far side of the grounds, part playground and part tree nursery, to the other gate, shooting the breeze until we got back to the building, and Imran arrived not long after.
I first met Imran Battla four years ago when I was a sophomore at Oxford College out in Covington. At the time, Imran was a key player in Let’s Retrofit A Million (LRAM), an organization aimed at distributing low-cost energy efficiency and weatherization measures to homes of modest means. Now, he is the land and operations manager for the OAC (among other things). Though this is a full time position, Imran is a volunteer; WAWA does not have the funds to compensate him, but he has the passion to do the work anyway.
When I reached out to Imran a couple of weeks ago, he immediately, enthusiastically, agreed to talk to me for a few minutes. But I did not anticipate the path our meeting would take; what I scheduled as just an hour-long interview turned into an afternoon-long adventure.
Imran led me back towards the first gate. “Well, we were collecting bikes for a bike share program we’ve been working on and storing them here, in the basement of the OAC. Over the weekend,” he said despondently, “someone cut the fence, broke into the basement, and stole 68. We had 70.”
Before I visited the OAC last spring, Imran was excited to show me the aquaponic system recently installed at the OAC. It was their new toy, their pride and joy. The aquaponic system, a little higher than my waist, consisted of a black plastic tank on the bottom in a U-shape with shallow trays on top. The tank contained tilapia, the wastewater from which was pumped into the bottom of the trays and is filtered through duckweed before flowing into trays of tomatoes and small leafy greens, and then back into the tilapia tank.
When I arrived a week later, the tilapia had been stolen.
“You’re great luck, Candler,” he jokes. “Maybe you should come around more often.”
In all seriousness though, this is far too common. A few months ago, the education garden Imran and his colleagues have put so much of their hearts and hard work into was vandalized, leaving the stormwater reclamation system, made of reclaimed materials itself, and the hand-made hoop houses in shambles. A few moments later, Imran told me how he was mugged just before the New Year only a couple of blocks away. They stole his MacBook and WAWA’s checkbooks from his backpack, but he got away unscathed.
The Future In The Fields
We pull up to the education garden, the Urban Garden and Resiliency Oasis (UGRO). In the thaw of winter, it looks drastically different from when I last visited, lacking life and in need of a little love. (“We’ve been really busy, man,” he tells me.) According to Imran, it sits on the site of an old Atlanta public school that burned down in the ’70s and you can see the old brick and cement foundations. There isn’t much lucidity on the history of the place or the nature of the fire; some suspect it was an act of arson and a hate crime.
With UGRO, Imran and the OAC want to share their knowledge of regenerative gardening with community members, students on field trips, and volunteers. The garden showcases such techniques as crop rotation, composting, and Hugelkultur mounds to enrich and add much need nutrients to the soil. During the springs and summers at the height of UGRO’s productivity, the small garden produces quite a harvest for less than an acre, yielding 900 pounds of produce last year alone.
“Promise me you’ll come back when its in full bloom,” Imran implored. The last time I visited was in 2013, when this picture was taken.
We walk through a gate, past the storage building and the patched up rain barrels, to the other side of the site, a section strictly for members of the community to garden, and through another open gate down a short slope into an open meadow. Surrounded by tall pines and old oaks, the meadow is seemingly innocuous, just a small field of tall, tawny grass and brush.
“This,” Imran says with a hint of reverence, “is the original practice field of the Atlanta Black Crackers.” Lost to time, you can still see the shape of the diamond imprinted on the land like the face of a coin held too tightly. The gravity of our conversation has shifted with the tone of Imran’s voice.
“That’s one of the things that we want to do… To show people these magical areas.”
In 1867, the National Association of Baseball Players banned African Americans from participating. Twenty years later, black baseball clubs began at schools and universities across the States, including Atlanta University and Clark University in Atlanta, and the League of Colored Baseball Clubs was established in 1887. Atlanta actually had two African American teams before the Atlanta Black Crackers, the Deppens and the Atlanta Cubs. It wasn’t until 1919 when the Cubs changed their name to the Atlanta Black Crackers, a nod and a wink to the (white) Atlanta Crackers. The Black Crackers played their games at the home field of the Atlanta Crackers, Ponce de Leon Ballpark, which was right across the street from the Sears Roebuck southeastern headquarters, or Ponce City Market as you probably know it now.
Though segregated, the ballpark had an equal (but separate) number of seats for white and black fans, with a total capacity for 20,000 fans. The Atlanta Black Crackers won the second half season title of the Negro American League Championship in 1938, with the championship eventually ruled a “no-contest,” and in 1939 the Atlanta Black Crackers franchise relocated to Indianapolis. A new Atlanta Black Crackers team was born in 1940 and joined the Negro Southern League in 1940, but the League eventually dissolved as integration of baseball leagues occurred after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Since then, Imran has started a campaign on Indiegogo to revitalize and honor this space using the same agroecology techniques demonstrated at the UGRO garden. There is little official history of the Atlanta Black Crackers and most of what we know is compiled from newspaper clippings and personal accounts from team members and observers, but this little piece of land tucked away on Bush Mountain is a place where that history can be preserved.
“That’s one of the things that we want to do,” he says softly. “To show people these magical areas.”
From here, we drive a couple of blocks North to the Good Shepherd Agroecology Center, yet another project that Imran is a part of. Nestled next to I-20, the Good Shepherd Agroecology Center is in a sense an embodiment of one of Atlanta’s greatest tragedies.
Long before the farm was here, this was a vibrant African American neighborhood in Atlanta, just south of the Atlanta historic black colleges, close to the prominent Downtown and Sweet Auburn business districts. According to the Sweet Auburn Curb Market’s website, “in 1956 Fortune magazine called [Auburn Ave] ‘the richest Negro Street in the world’ and was dubbed ‘Sweet Auburn’ in a nod to that prosperity.” During the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, the West End was linked to the rest of the city by Atlanta’s network of private streetcar businesses, which by 1947 were almost entirely owned by Georgia Light and Rail Company (the progenitor to Georgia Power).
Then in the 1950’s, a few things happened that drastically altered the landscape of Atlanta, both physically and socially. In the late 1940’s, Atlanta and Georgia Railway and Electric Company commissioned multiple studies to plan for future roads, interstates, and transit. These studies resulted in Atlanta’s streetcars being replaced by buses and trackless trolleybuses in the change in ownership from Georgia Railway and Electric Company to the Atlanta Transit Company. The last electric streetcar in Atlanta was removed in 1949. Under new ownership, the system would be more racially integrated and be a more flexible system, but would ultimately divest from the locations and places formerly bolstered by the streetcar routes.
This time also saw the construction of I-85, I-75, and I-20, the paths of which would cut through the heart of Atlanta. We all know how this story ends: these expressways plowed through Sweet Auburn, Downtown, the West End, and North through Midtown, geographically severing Atlanta’s black residential neighborhoods from the historic black colleges and business districts. “The Connector” strategically separated and isolated the centers of African American culture in Atlanta. It was a devastating blow to the largest center of black culture in America at that time.
In a city infamous for socioeconomic inequality, however, the Good Shepherd Agroecology Center is also a sign of hope. It anchors the neighborhood, acting as a reminder of the district’s history through the church community and its legacy through agriculture, while simultaneously employing restorative agricultural techniques and modern farm business strategy. Presently, Good Shepherd partners with Empire State South, Gunshow, and Restaurant Eugene to provide fresh, local produce. But Imran thinks they could easily supply 10 or 12.
From what they’ve told me and the bounty I see, I believe them. The farm has two large hoop houses full of lettuces, chards, kales, and more. The air inside is think, heavy with humidity and the smell of fresh woodchips. I ask Imran how warm it is: “About 75 degrees, at least,” he replies, as I wipe the perspiration forming on my forehead. The temperature outside is in the mid 50’s. While I’m taking a picture of lettuce, Imran pulls a mushroom growing from a bag of mulch and tosses it to me. I don’t remember what variety or how it tastes, but I remember his advice: “Cook it first.”
We walk back out into the fresh air, past the Hugelkultur mounds, like those at UGRO but three times larger, towards Imran’s minivan. He used to have a truck, but it broke down. “The van is really great for taking the crops to restaurants though,” he adds. This week, Imran informed that the transmission on his van broke, so now he’s back to walking. As much as he despises driving, he needs a reliable vehicle to effectively get his work done.
We say our farewells to Deacon Lewis and head East towards Maynard Jackson High School in East Atlanta Village where Imran has a couple of co-workers, Eugene Cooke and Nicole Bluh, are helping with a service-learning event planting fruit trees led by Robby Astrove of Concrete Jungle with students. There was even a drone at Maynard Jackson High to record some of it. (I promise I did more than just stand off to the side.)
Eugene, Nicole, and Imran are all part of a social enterprise dedicated to fostering “local food systems to feed, educate, and employ people in philanthropically underserved communities,” called Grow Where You Are, LLC. Grow Where You Are works at farms across Atlanta, and both Eugene and Nicole have been pivotal in the successes of UGRO and the Good Shepherd Agroecology Center. Helping out with Robby Astrove is just another example of how Grow Where You Are is committed to building community and engagement through gardening. “Being involved in community gardening helps identify social connections, reciprocity, mutual trust, collective decision-making, social norms, civic engagement, and community building as highlights of our work,” Imran later wrote me.
Drinks & Discussion
Afterwards, we head to the Inman Park MARTA station and walk next door to One Eared Stag, one of my favorite spots in Atlanta to have a quiet drink and listen to the sounds of the city. When we finally sit down outside, hands washed and beers brought, we took a moment to recap our busy afternoon. Finally, I get to ask the questions I originally intended to before we went on our afternoon-long adventure.
When I ask Imran about how the OAC’s initiatives have been received by the community, he pauses.
“Going to places like Chattahoochee Nature Center, there’s very strong community support… we find that to be very challenging in West Oakland, in Richland Hills.”
Vandalism is a large problem, and a recurring one at that, but Imran and his colleagues have persevered it all. When the hydroponic system was vandalized, they doubled down on UGRO, which has been a success by all accounts, both in engaging the community and producing food. When URGO was vandalized, the gutters torn down and rain storage barrels knocked over, volunteers from the community and beyond helped repair it.
Imran thinks UGRO has been so successful because urban agriculture is a multifaceted tool: it is engaging and appealing to community members not just for the fresh food, but also because it adds beauty to the neighborhood. “Before UGRO, when we found this lot, there was nothing but a field full of syringes and beer bottles and cans,” Imran tells me. Now, there’s a garden that produces upwards of 900 pounds of produce and brightens the neighborhood instead of being urban blight.
One of the most promising initiatives to increase their impact is MARTA’s plan to make farmers’ markets at select stations.
“You know which station they’re starting with?” Imran asks me, almost rhetorically.
“West End, I believe.”
“It is! And we’re too psyched about it. But, you know, they’ve made the announcement and that’s great, but we’re waiting on the details. We want to know exactly how we can do this. We’re already doing a farm-stand at the Whole Foods in Midtown, which is amazing, so we are so excited to do this with MARTA, too. We just need the details and we’re there.”
“What about a farm-stand nearby a MARTA station in Downtown or near Georgia State?” I ask.
To my surprise, Imran and Grow Where You Are has already had multiple farm-stands at Georgia State, Imran informs me.
“Higher education institutions in general… the have been some of the strongest institutional support partners we have faced, because what we’re trying to be–we are small time, a grower-led collective–it’s very hard to get support, very hard. But higher Ed institutions, like Georgia State, they are open to meeting with us.”
Setting up a farm-stand at the MARTA station would be a huge boon for the Grow Where You Are collective, as it would enable them to drastically expand their outreach and education in the West End beyond Richland Hills, as well as continuing to partner with higher education institutions in Atlanta. Increasing that awareness and acceptance of urban agriculture is one of the biggest transformations Imran thinks could come to the West End.
Speaking of change, eventually (of course) the conversation turns to the Atlanta BeltLine.
A decade and a half after Ryan Gravel introduced the concept in 1999 with his master’s thesis at Georgia Tech, The Atlanta BeltLine, the 22 mile loop of obsolete and abandoned train tracks that encircle Atlanta, is ushering new life into Atlanta’s intown communities. Though it has not been completed yet and will not have light rail running on it for decades to come, the Eastside branch of the BeltLine has already exceeded expectations, generating over $775 million in private investment since it opened in 2012. When it is finally completed, it will connect 45 neighborhoods across in-town Atlanta, 1,300 acres of public parks, and develop 5,600 affordable housing units (though “affordable” is a relative term).
With more and more Atlantans becoming aware of the personal, environmental, and social health impacts, not to mention the economic burdens, that result from car-centered planning, the attitudes in Atlanta around residential development are gravitating towards “New Urbanism,” “Smart Growth,” and all those other friendly-sounding catch-phrases of the planning community. On one hand, this is a great thing: more people are choosing to live densely inside the city, to be more active, to walk and bike more, to support local arts and eat local food and drink local beverages, and choosing to drive less. Boasting water-reclamation landscapes, multiple public parks, a thriving local arts scene, and even a skate park, The BeltLine continues to amaze and Atlanta’s affinity for it continues to grow. It has spurred countless apartment and condominium developments focused on the idea of denser, healthier, sustainable lifestyles on The BeltLine.
“Will there be tremendous amounts of gentrification? Yes, there will be. My neighborhood will drastically change.”
On the other hand, there is a darker side to this rapid transformation: Gentrification. There is no crystal clear consensus on gentrification and depending on who you ask it is either a powerful force or a total myth; whether gentrification is a good or bad thing is almost entirely relative. For the individuals being gentrified out of their neighborhood, it’s obviously the former. For an official responsible for the health and image of a city however, gentrification is typically a sign of improving times for a region.
“As someone who lives less than a 1/2 mile from the current Westside trail, I’m very concerned about being able to continue to live in my neighborhood,” Imran wrote in an email to me after that day. “Ultimately, as a civically engaged resident, (who wants to turn from a renter to a owner) I need to see strategies for long-term affordability. Landtrusts, cooperatives, other tools. It’s important to have rentals that are affordable, safe, and decent. We have to make sure people who’ve invested in the city can live here as long as they want to.”
The academics and researchers can go back in forth on the virtue of the matter, but the thing that remains a constant is gentrification itself; it seems an inevitability in our dynamic, ever-changing cities.
Thankfully, The Atlanta BeltLine is taking steps towards those sorts of actions as it announced on March 2 its new financial assistance programs for residents to either buy or repair their homes near the Westside Trail. We’ll see what other initiatives and solutions arise, but this is a promising start.
Still, Imran is skeptical of that it will prevent the community from drastically changing: “Will there be tremendous amounts of gentrification? Yes, there will be. My neighborhood will drastically change.”
Like any urban revitalization project, the Westside Trail will have its pros and cons. As Imran says, there will be tremendous gentrification; however, there will also be tremendous benefits for the community and the city as a whole.
The BeltLine has changed the perception of what Atlanta can be, what living in Atlanta can be like… It has fundamentally transformed the fabric of this city.
“The Westside Trail is the largest expansion of the BeltLine to date, with $43 million in public and private funds that serve as an investment in the future of southwest Atlanta,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at the groundbreaking ceremony for the project last November. “We are moving quickly toward our goal of completing the Atlanta BeltLine to connect every corner of our city. The Westside Trail will bring new vitality and investment to the neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta.”
Talk of The BeltLine is everywhere, even in Atlanta’s far-flung suburbs. It has become an attraction in itself, on par with Atlanta’s other attractions like the Georgia Aquarium (the largest in the world), The National Center For Civil Rights, or the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District. The Lantern Parade, a celebration of The BeltLine and the urban renewal that has resulted, drew over 20,000 participants last September, and it was a sight to behold.
The BeltLine isn’t just a trail or a path, and it hasn’t just changed how some people live in Atlanta by fostering denser development; The BeltLine has become something that all Atlantans are proud of. You hear it in coffee shops and bars across the city, in offices and parks, on the streets and on the radio. It connects the city, not just physically, but under a vision of what the future of Atlanta can be. It has changed the perception of what Atlanta can be, what living in Atlanta can be like. The BeltLine has fundamentally transformed the fabric of this city. If you think otherwise, I’m sorry but you’re wrong.
When I ask him about what impact he thinks the Westside Trail will have on the OAC and UGRO, he gives an answer. I wasn’t expecting.
“So, for disclaimer purposes, for a little bit of history, the BeltLine, ABI (Atlanta BeltLine, Incorporated), released a RFP (request for proposal) for a full-fledged urban farm at the Allene Ave site. Allene Ave is at the beginning of the southwest trail… They released that back in October, we went through the application process, pretty intense… we were one of the finalists to be the management entity of that site, Grow Where You Are was. One of two finalists, and ultimately we were not chosen.”
“On one hand, this is still great news since the urban agriculture movement in Atlanta is getting the full backing of the Atlanta BeltLine, and it’s only the first of many sites that the BeltLine wants to develop along the Westside path. Yet for Imran and his colleagues in the West End, it’s only more of the same that they’ve been struggling with for decades.
“So essentially we find ourselves in this ultimate catch 22, where a big institution like The Atlanta BeltLine with a lot of money on the line and a lot of spotlight on the line, they want a demonstration project to succeed, they want a commercial, viable farm to succeed. That’s their ultimate goal. And what they’re saying is ‘you have to have the capacity to prove that you can do that.’ And here we are, a grower-led collective with over 30 years experience, demonstrating that capacity with Good Shepherd Agroecology Center’s 6 acre urban farm production with over 30 years experience, we’re showing that. But for some reason, they felt hesitant and I’m sure in their eyes they’re like ‘you don’t have the capacity.’ At the end of the day though, we’re all about supporting growers. It’s not us, but we support whoever it is. And I’m not just saying that to be politically correct.”
When I ask Imran about other developments on the South side, he just gave me a grin. “There’s so much drama, so much history here.” I ask him to elaborate and he explains to me how long people on the South side have been trying to make the kind of changes that are beginning to materialize now.
“For a city that’s supposedly too busy to hate, there’s very little love, especially for the least among us.”
The problem, he tells me, is that many people in the West End and South Atlanta think that these changes are just going to continue to alienate them. The Fort McPherson redevelopment project, the Tyler Perry Studio, the BeltLine, all of it is seen with suspicion, which is understandable, but a shame nonetheless. Imran is acutely aware of it too. Though he is looking forward to The Westside Trail, for one because he thinks more people will visit the OAC since it’s so close to the trail, Imran is still torn about how gentrification will play out in the neighborhood. “We’ll just have to see,” he says with a shrug.
For Imran, all this talk of development and the future hits pretty close to home. I could hear it in his voice as we discussed it, talking about how his neighborhood could change, positively and negatively, with the influx of outsiders. This really came out when I asked him one of my last questions, so I’ve included some of the audio of our conversation for your listening pleasure.
“So… Why Atlanta?” At first he just chuckles. “It’s a really short question, it’s probably hard to answer,” I add.
“Yeah… I mean, ‘Why Atlanta’… I mean, I was gentrified out of New York. I mean, real talk, I couldn’t afford to live in New York City anymore… I was able to move down here. I was able to establish some really great friendships and connections… I mean, it’s such a beautiful city, I mean, it’s really majestic… I mean, Yeah, I mean I may develop a really pessimistic outlook sometimes ’cause like, those are my experiences, those are real challenges we’re-we’re facing. And maybe I might have a different tone a year from now, when I’m like, yeah, I’ve finally got the support that I’ve been looking for, and I can say an example of like, ‘Yeah, we went through challenges, but we overcame.’ You know, right now, it’s like, ‘Ugh! We’re at these challenges! I want to overcome them!’ But I’m not there yet… I’m waiting for the breakthrough.
“And there are very few cities, I imagine–I could not do this in Los Angeles, I couldn’t do it in New York, I can’t do it in San Francisco… But Atlanta’s still an amazing place to be because you can DO the change. Like, I’ve been here since 2009, I’ve not made more than $20,000 in my tax returns. BUT! Look at all of the amazing shit I’ve done. I mean, real talk, I’ve done some pretty amazing work. And like, I literally could not do this anywhere else. So, I love it, I love it because of the people.
“You know, Atlanta and business leaders, they say ‘Atlanta is a city too busy to hate,’ you know, it’s all business and we just move it… but for a city that’s supposedly too busy to hate, there’s very little love, especially for the least among us.”
“Too busy to love too,” I interject.
“Too–WAY too busy to love, love is way–an afterthought. I’d love to see it and hopeful in future mayors to, you know, understand that people are having real problems, and people want to be self sufficient. People are not asking for handouts. And so I hope Atlanta can help change the conversation of politics. Absolutely there are challenges, but I’m very hopeful about the future… I love-I love Atlanta.”
A Legacy Lives On
As the sun sets, we swallow the last sips of our beers and I thank Imran for telling me his story before I catch the train.
But this isn’t just Imran’s story, it’s the story of the West End itself. The thing that remained constant as I talked to Imran, or to Eugene and Nicole at the tree planting, or Deacon Lewis at Good Shepherd Agroecology Center, or Darryl at the OAC, was that Imran and his colleagues are not the only or the first people to try to make these changes. It’s the story of everyone that has been trying, for decades, to accomplish the things that Imran is working on, to bring the neighborhood back up, to return it to its former glory, in Atlanta and so many other cities like it across this nation.
With the OAC, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance provides a model for communities everywhere in America that have been subjects to systems set against them. From its humble beginnings as a collective of community members wanting to keep the crap out of their streets (literally), it has grown into a group that illustrates how multiple problems of the built environment can be addressed by learning from the environment and building on those lessons.
Furthermore, these initiatives can have greater impacts on more than just the community, they can reverberate out. While working to create food sovereignty in South Atlanta, Veterans like Imran can simultaneously benefit from the therapeutic and hands-on nature of working in gardens like UGRO, as was recently explored in the Southern Food Alliance’s Gravy podcast about a month ago. By combating stormwater sewage overflow, old growth forests are simultaneously being revitalized and protected, the public health benefits of which span from positive impacts on mental health, to improving air quality and reducing asthma rates, to reducing the urban heat island effect, to the simple benefits gained from exploring the woods as a child. Even in making a new farm from an old field, a legacy lives on instead of being lost.
Deep in the woods of the Outdoor Activity Center on a trail leading up the face of Bush Mountain down in the West End, there is a beech tree that has stood for nearly two hundred years. Its smooth skin is marred by the passage of time and the people that have lived here, carved with initials and weatherworn. It’s representative of the West End, a record of the neighborhood’s long, hard, proud history, a physical sign of the story of this place.
Down in the West End, the roots run deep.