You meet homeless, racial paranoid, cult of ignorance
The Atlanta Beltline when completed will be 33 miles of multiuse trails along abandoned railroad right of-way. The Westside Beltline runs through the historic Washington Park neighborhood, the first Black subdivision in Atlanta, historic West End, and Adair Park, among others. Overlapping with the West End Trail, it is a 40-minute roundtrip bike ride, door to door, from my house to Adair Park. There is much to like about the trail—the way it ties neighborhoods together and encourages residents to walk, bike or scoot. But it has driven up rents, encouraged gentrification, and failed miserably on fulfilling its commitments to build affordable housing and bring economic development to long neglected neighborhoods.
Assessing the pros and cons of the Beltline is not the intention of this article; perhaps at another time. This column describes some of my experiences with people I’ve met on the beltline and my larger thoughts about the meaning of my encounters.
When I don’t have much time, I like hopping on my Trek hybrid bike at Washington Park, a park donated to the city for black residents in 1919 and the kickoff point for the Westside Beltline, opened last year. One day while riding, alone, to my favorite bench near Adair Park, I met Big Bro, (that is, big as in size) once I arrived. He was sitting on the bench looking, somewhat, wasted from the heat of a hot July day. He rode a strange looking bike that was longer than normal with a luggage container attached.
After engaging in small talk for a few minutes, “brother man” volunteered he had struggled with his weight all his life, but was proud he had, with some effort, lost about 40 pounds. I nodded, saying, “that’s great.” His goal, he told me, was to lose another 50 pounds.
Residency is a relevant and interesting conversation piece to me for those I meet on the Beltline, so I asked him where he lived? To my surprise, I discovered the brother lived in Washington Park, the same neighborhood where I live today and have lived for the past 38 years. We were among the few young families that moved into the neighborhood since it was established in the late 1920s.
Upon discovering this I became excited, as I usually am, when I meet a young person who lives in the neighborhood. This is because for years, after many of the indigenous residents died, investors threatened the neighborhood by purchasing homes from elderly residents, or their heirs, flipping them for profits and or renting to residents with Section 8 vouchers (many of whom seemed ill-equipped to transition from public housing into a stable residential neighborhood where residents took pride in home ownership).
I gave him my usual spiel, telling him that the Washington Park neighborhood was the first black subdivision in Atlanta west of Ashby (now Lowery) street. The park was the only public park that Blacks were allowed to use until the late 1950s.
Big Bro seemed shocked but delighted to hear about the neighborhood he had lived in for over three years, but had never explored. It was clear that he was not drawn to the community because of its rich history. Maybe when he purchased his home, it was because he knew the Beltline was coming soon. Perhaps it was the area’s proximity to transit or the Mercedes Benz Stadium.
The history of Washington Park and the role it played in African Americans expanding into southwest Atlanta was lost on him. He was completely oblivious to the fact that for many decades Blacks could not live west of the railroad tracks behind the Washington Park Tennis Center. He had no clue that the MLK bridge that many pass under everyday on their way to Peyton, Cascade, or Lynnhurst streets was a hard barrier beyond which Blacks could not live. It was an invisible, but real “wall,” that had been erected in both the minds and psyches of black and white Atlanta.
Brother man had no appreciation for the many sacrifices that were made by developer Heman Perry, travel company entrepreneur Jacob Henderson, Judge A.T. Walden, and many others for our right to live west of the bridge or anywhere else we chose in this city “too busy to hate.”
Although, there are no barriers in Washington Park today, something prevented Big Brother from ever entering the bowels of the neighborhood. He had never seen the historical Washington Park great homes like the one once occupied by a college president, Atlanta’s first black judge, or the one owned by the first black man to work as a postal carrier in the city. Homes with two-feet-thick walls, oak and pine floors, high ceilings and hand-painted globes that fit properly on vintage light fixtures. He does not know the home site of the great prizefighter Theodore “Tiger” Flowers who lived on the corner of Flowers Dr. and Simpson (now Joseph E. Boone Blvd.) in a 20-room, stucco Italian mansion.
He had seen only the newer homes built around 2004 on Lena Street. No fences, barriers or nothing, but this brother had never left his house, turned north on Ollie Street and entered a whole new world of Black Atlanta history of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.
And he is not alone. Many of the younger white and black residents of Washington Park today, the ones that are completely enamored with the Beltline and the coolness associated with being a west side pioneer, know little if anything about the rich history of Washington Park. I wish this was not the case, but it is.
Big Bro rose from the bench and said, “Man you sure know a lot of things. You must be older than I assumed when we first met.” I smiled at him. He said, “Well I got my work cut-out for me this weekend. My first activity will be to ride my bike throughout the neighborhood and become familiar with this rich history.”
We both mounted our bikes. I said to him, “Let’s ride back to our neighborhood together.”
White Woman with Two Sons
It is a rare treat when my 5-years-old grand-dog, Banks, comes to visit us in Washington Park. Banks grew up in our home until my daughter and he moved away to the Briarcliff Road area near Emory University almost a year ago. Last weekend when our daughter visited us, I decided to take Banks for a long walk on the Westside Beltline.
Just prior to entering the trail, I saw a small group of white folks, who I believe were in our neighborhood because of a swim tournament at the Washington Park Natatorium. They had one small and another large dog with them. I slowed my walk with Banks, not wanting to get too close to their dogs. Banks still gets a little excitable. He’s friendly, maybe to a fault, but has a lot of puppy energy in him although by human years, he would be a young adult.
Once I entered the beltline trail, I noticed two young black men who may have been between 16 to 18-years-old. They both were wearing hoodies, lingering, and smoking something that looked like a cross between a cigarette and small cigar. My millennial daughter says they probably were smoking “Black and Mild” or blunts.
As I approached the two adolescents with my 50-pound coonhound mix, they both looked a bit menacing. That two young black men wearing hoodies, smoking blunts, and lingering on the trail would invoke fear would not be surprising were it not coming from me. I, of all people, understand the many stereotypes associated with black maleness. But, still, as I got closer to them—particularly as I eyed the one who stood almost in the middle of the trail and showed no sign of fear of Banks—I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is he packing?” “Is he going to ask for my phone?” “Is he up to no good?”
Approaching them I did what I always do, smiled and spoke: “How you brothers doing?” I spoke softly but loud enough for them to hear. Only one spoke back, murmuring, but never smiling or making eye contact with me.
Banks and I passed them by and crossed the bridge over Martin Luther King, Dr., the bridge that used to be the barrier beyond which Blacks could not live. I queried my reactions and thought to myself, if the two young black men invoked such a negative reaction in me, how much more intimidating they must have been to the white folks who passed them before me?
We walked for another mile before encountering a young white woman who seemed to have her hands full with two young boys on scooters. As Banks and I approached her, she never looked up, so as not to have to speak. I could tell she was frightened of us so I pressed on. All my life I have become accustomed to making white people uncomfortable by my mere presence. The last thing I wanted to do was to invoke a fear within her comparable to the fear I felt from the two young brothers wearing hoodies and smoking blunts.
Before Banks and I reached the West End, we turned around and began heading back toward Washington Park. I remember saying to myself, if the two brothers are still lingering on the trail when we return, that may not be so good. But before we reached the point on the trail where we passed them, I saw one of the two little white boys scooting about a quarter of a mile ahead of his mother and younger brother. When the mother saw me, it seemed like she broke into a sprint in an effort to catch up to her child before me.
We both reached the boy about the same time. Again, she failed to acknowledge my presence, grabbed her child by the arm and said to him sternly, “You have to wait for me and your brother.” Seeing, again, how nervous she was, I spoke to her in my most nonthreatening voice, “Are you alright.” Again, not looking at me, she said, “Yes, my youngest boy had an accident and fell off his scooter. I am having trouble keeping up with the older one.” I smiled at her as Banks and I continued on the trail.
Being aware of my own reaction to the two brothers wearing hoodies, I empathized with the white woman’s anxiety. But, on the other hand, I knew if I was a white man with a dog, not only would she not have been afraid; she probably would have felt safe and protected. I thought, “Why in the hell do white people want to live in gentrified black communities if they are afraid of people who were there long before they arrived”?
As Banks and I neared the spot where we had first passed the hoodie wearing, blunt smoking, lingering brothers, they were nowhere to be found. We left the trail, turned east on Lena and north on Ollie—Homeward bound.
Big Coat Man of Brasfield & Gorrie?
My wife, Nisha, and I like to ride our bikes on the Westside Beltline. Last Sunday we enjoyed a light breakfast at home, then off we went. Not a lot of traffic on the trail this nippy day. I commented to my wife it was nice that the workers had installed mileage markers on the trail. We rode to our favorite bench (the same bench where I met Big Bro) at the end of the trail where we usually sit for a while, drink water, and discuss the ugliness of politics in America (and the fascist leanings of the 45th president with the weird orange hair).
Before we reached the bench, we both saw a black man, wearing an oversized coat and carrying a green duffle bag (that appeared to contain all he owned in the world), walk toward the bench. I believe I have seen him there before. Other times, I kept riding, not wanting to interact with someone I thought might be homeless, mentally unstable, or in need of a bath. The homeless among us, regrettably, blend in with the environment like a board on a trail bench. We look through them but rarely do we see them.
This time it would be different because Nisha declared, “We are just as entitled to piece of this bench as he is.”
As we stationed our bikes to sit, the man in the big coat seemed relieved that we did not avoid him like the plague. His hands were dirty; some of his teeth were rotten; he wanted to talk. Not so surprising, he was intelligent and delightful.
He said he often walked around the trail and town. Recently returned to Atlanta, he said he had moved back from Des Moines, IA. I asked him where he was living. After hesitating for a moment, he said he lived in Oakland City, a neighborhood nearby that had become gentrified. He complained about how much the rents and property values had spiked in recent years in Oakland City and on the west side in general.
He told us he worked as a construction supervisor, calling himself, a “jack of all trades.” I asked for whom did he work? Again, pausing for what seemed like eternity, he said. “Yeah, I work for Brasfield & Gorrie.” At 61, he shared that he was looking forward to retiring in about two more years.
After talking 15 minutes longer, my wife and I got up and said, “We better be heading back, now.” He said, “I got to go, too . . . I am on my way to the library down the street.” As we rode our bikes home, I asked Nisha, “Did you believe anything he said?” She said, “Not a word, but I believe at one point in his life, he did all the things he said he did.”
We queried each other all the way home: “What happens to make a smart guy like this homeless? How often do others, like us, avoid acknowledging his humanity? How does he maintain his sense of dignity while on skid row?”
“There is an answer. If we would only invest more in mental health, long term affordable housing, and job training, we could conquer this human tragedy,” says Nisha.