Along a bustling strip of the Atlanta BeltLine, 20-year-old twins Rachel and Autumn Read, dressed in fishnet stockings and denim, photograph each other against an old warehouse covered in murals.
The women moved to the city four months ago to launch careers in modeling, acting, standup comedy and circus performance. They frequent this urban trail, they say, because it’s as much a safe place to practice their art as it is to walk, jog or ride a bicycle.
They point across the paved pathway, where a steady stream of people flows past, toward the Ponce City Market and surrounding parkland. This area, they say, was once home to the so-called Murder Kroger, where two murders took place, in 1991 and 2015. Today, it’s the heart of the Eastside section of the Atlanta BeltLine, a partially complete, 22-mile loop of trails and parks that will eventually link 45 Atlanta neighborhoods.
“Someone showed us the BeltLine when we got here, and we love it,” Rachel Read says. “It’s turned Atlanta into a safer city.”
A graduate student at Georgia Tech named Ryan Gravel first came up with the idea to build a trail system along a network of abandoned rail corridors. The plan caught the attention of the president of the City Council and the mayor at the time. Planning began in 2006, and officials landed some federal funding a year later. The first section of trail opened in 2008. Today, nearly 11 miles are open.
“We’re about halfway there, and close to making a huge leap forward,” says John Becker, communications coordinator for Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, a nonprofit organization that raises money for and plans events along the BeltLine. Another agency, Atlanta BeltLine Inc., acquires the land and builds the trail and parks on the loop.
During a recent trip to Georgia, I overnighted in Atlanta and booked a hotel a few blocks from Piedmont Park at a friend’s advice, just so I could explore the BeltLine.
Proponents say the project is transforming the city, and walking down the Eastside portion of the trail on a drizzly night, it’s easy to see why. The wide, winding pathway, dotted with art installations and populated by exercise groups, couples heading out to dinner and parents pushing strollers, serves as more than just a route to get somewhere. The BeltLine has become a destination in its own right, a place where residents and visitors go to explore, shop, take in performances, people-watch and enjoy the outdoors. It’s bringing people — and communities once separated by highways and railroad lines — together.
“It’s breaking down barriers between neighborhoods that previously couldn’t be connected,” Becker says.
Three main chunks of the trail are now complete, along with a handful of shorter stretches.
The short West End Trail was the first official stretch of the BeltLine to open, back in 2008. The 3-mile Eastside Trail that I explored is the longest and most prominent section, and runs through high-profile neighborhoods. The 3-mile section Westside Trail opened last year in an older, more historic area and already has made a positive impact on businesses and neighborhoods, Becker says. A 1-mile stretch of unpaved Northeast Hiking Trail extends the loop to the north, and several other short, unpaved trail extensions, pre-existing trail sections and spurs branch off of the main trails.
In March, the city of Atlanta acquired a 4.25-mile stretch of rail corridor that will eventually connect the Westside and Eastside trails. The new Southside trail is expected to open in 2019 as an interim trail without amenities; it will be paved and lighting will be installed at a later time. When it does open, trail users will be able to hop on the BeltLine and experience 14 miles of continuous pathway.
When I’m back at my hotel, I’m surprised by how many miles I’ve logged. I’ve walked more than 5 miles, felt more connected to the city than I would have if I’d taken a cab or driven, and soaked up a little bit of culture.
The BeltLine is home to a host of events, too, from the Washington Park Jamboree in May to the Slice of Summer event that took place last weekend. The Westside 5K/8K is set for July 14, and the Eastside 10K takes place Dec. 1. If you find yourself in Atlanta and need a free workout, check beltline.org/fitsignup for a list of free fitness classes at various locations on the trail. In August, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine kicks off with an array of sculptures and live performances each weekend through the fall. The Old Fourth Ward Fall Fest is Sept. 21, and the hugely popular illuminated festival known as the Lantern Parade takes place Sept. 22.
Anyone can sign up for a three-hour bus tour of the loop and the 45 neighborhoods through which it passes. Tours leave the Inman Park/Reynoldstown MARTA station at 9:30 a.m. every Saturday. Tickets cost $25. To register, go to beltline.org/tours.
Free, 90-minute bicycle tours of parts of the Atlanta BeltLine start at 9 a.m. every Saturday. The tours alternate between the Eastside and Westside sections, so check the calendar. Bike rental is available. Register at beltline.org/tours.
Docents from Trees Atlanta lead free walking tours of the linear arboretum planted along the Eastside and Westside sections of the trail at 9 a.m. Saturdays from June through August (the Westside Tour moves to a new location in July; check website for details). A sunset walking tour of the Eastside Trail departs at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays. Times will shift in September. Sign up for all the tours at beltline.org/tours.
The project is expected to be finished by 2030.
IF YOU GO
The Atlanta BeltLine Center is located on the ground floor of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s offices, off the Eastside Trail extension just south of Irwin Street. The center features exhibits, interactive displays and programming that highlight the project’s history, scope and impact. The center is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 112 Krog St. For more information, call 404-446-4404.