ATLANTA -- I've always joked that when I die, whether I go to Heaven or Hell, I will have to change planes in Atlanta. I suspect that many of us who live in the south feel the same. I'm intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but am less so with the city itself.
Oh, I've done the usual -- the CNN tour, Georgia Aquarium, and before they recently closed it, the ribald revelry of Underground Atlanta. Still, navigating Atlanta was not something that came naturally to me.
I decided to remedy that on a recent trip, and chose as my base of exploration, the city's newly revitalized East Side. Much of the area had, over the years, been given over to industrial sites, which in turn, had been abandoned. So, just what is it that has once again turned the tides of fortune for Atlanta's East Side?
In a word -- the BeltLine, a multi-use, 22-mile loop around the city, which when completed in 2031, will go a long way toward making Atlanta an urban paradise (complete with parks, green spaces and public art), or at least a metropolis as welcoming to cyclists and walkers as it is to motorists.
The two-mile East Side Trail was the first segment to open in the fall of 2012, and was greeted with overwhelming excitement by Atlantans eager to view their "City in the Forest," as it's often been called, from something other than a car window.
I began my own odyssey at the Krog Street Market, a renovated warehouse which had at one time been home to the studios of Tyler Perry. It's now home to an eclectic mix of local businesses, from jewelry makers and chocolatiers to flower sellers and restaurateurs.
I was at one of those businesses, the Little Tart Bakeshop, to try their homemade pastries, cheeses and jams and to meet Ryan Gravel, the brains behind the BeltLine. Gravel conceptualized the project as part of his graduate thesis in architecture, and he would be my walking companion on a portion of the trail.
While I walked, I also gawked -- at the public art lining both sides of the trail. I could have been in an outdoor art gallery: railroad overpasses painted in pretty pastels; a piano decorated with bizarre Daliesque images siting under one of the overpasses as if waiting for someone to sit down and play, and other exotic pieces, ranging from a metal bench in the form of a ladybug to a circle of tall cedar stilts.
We talked while we walked and gawked, and Gravel explained all that the trail will mean to this side of town. I was particularly intrigued by one off-shoot he described, the Silver Comet, which continues into Alabama where it connects to the Chief Ladiga Trail, that state's first rail-trail project.
All too soon we arrived at our destination, the Ponce City Market. In the largest adaptive re-use project in the Southeast, the 2.1 million square-foot former Sears-Roebuck warehouse has been redeveloped into an epic urban market.