When Mark Pendergrast left Atlanta for college in 1966, no one was calling his hometown a poster child for sprawl. The metro population was little more than a million, and the Perimeter had yet to encircle the city. But there was another beltway, a loop of railroads built in the late 1800s and early 1900s to service the factories and warehouses that once ringed the central business district.
Decades later, when his literary agent suggested he write a book about Atlanta, Pendergrast struggled to find a narrative path through the jungle of growth that had transformed the city of his youth into a metropolis of almost 6 million. He found his story in the Atlanta Beltline, the 22-mile halo of pedestrian paths and parks being developed on abandoned rail beds.
“City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future” (Basic Books) chronicles one of the nation’s most closely watched examples of new urbanism. Part densely reported history, part personal memoir, it’s one of the most comprehensive books about Atlanta since the flurry of titles that preceded the 1996 Olympics.
Pendergrast spoke about the book from his home in Vermont, where he has lived for 45 years, with frequent trips South to visit his family and research two earlier books, on Coca-Cola and the CDC.
Q. Why did you focus on the Beltline?
A. Because Atlanta, which is famous for its traffic and suburban sprawl, is trying to remake itself as a more walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented city.
The Beltline also interested me because it goes through a cross section of neighborhoods — from the affluent, primarily white area where I grew up on the north side to some poor, primarily African-American neighborhoods on the south and west sides. I got to really know Atlanta for the first time. I grew up in a Buckhead bubble. It was wonderful, but it was an isolated world.
Q. Did you know there was a rail belt around central Atlanta when you were growing up?
A. No. My mother worked in the Sears building on Ponce de Leon for a while, in the garden center, and I visited her there, but it never occurred to me that there was a railroad out back. Few people knew about it. Cathy Woolard, who first championed the Beltline project on City Council, told me her constituents used to complain about this derelict rail line covered in kudzu where homeless people lived. They’d say, “Can’t you get rid of this eyesore?”
Q. You write that the Beltline is a matter of life or death for Atlanta. Is it really that crucial?
A. Richard Fausset of The New York Times called it a glorified sidewalk, and he’s right in a way; it’s a 14-foot-wide strip of concrete. But what it represents is much larger. Getting people out of their cars, walking and biking, meeting strangers, creating more community — this is what needs to happen all over the Atlanta area.
Q. You spent considerable time in the neighborhoods along the Beltline talking with residents. What did you learn?
A. A lot. In Washington Park, one of the first African-American neighborhoods in Atlanta, I came upon a tailgate party and met Cherine Carter, who took me on a walking tour. He was contemptuous of the Beltline. He thought it was just going to bring bad elements into the neighborhood to rob houses.
Q. You also spent the night with a drug addict in Grove Park. His toilet didn’t work, so you had to go in the back yard to relieve yourself in the middle of the night.
A. I called him Gary. I felt bad for him. He was trying to heat his house with the gas on his stovetop, which is dangerous. I drove him to Walmart and bought a couple of space heaters. It was eye-opening. (Pendergrast has posted audio from his interviews on the book’s website, cityontheverge.com.)
Q. And you hung out with a man who actually works on trains along the Beltline.
A. Angel Poventud. He’s a conductor for CSX and drives a train through the northwest corridor. He’s a big advocate for the Beltline. He bought a derelict house in Adair Park and fixed it up and became friendly with the neighborhood kids. He was telling this kid how great the Beltline was going to be, and the kid asked: “Is this going to be for white people or black people?” Angel said it was for everyone. That kid came from a very troubled family who were later evicted from their home.
Q. Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who first proposed the Beltline as a Georgia Tech graduate student, resigned from the board because he was concerned that they weren’t doing enough to promote affordable housing. Are you concerned about gentrification?
A. Yes. Look at the east side trail and all the development there. If the south and west sides are that successful, what’s going to happen to the poor people who live in those areas? Will they be able to stay there, or will this wonderful thing turn into a yuppie boulevard that drives out everybody who can’t afford it? Affordable housing is a crucial element in the future of the Beltline and Atlanta.
Q. Why should the Beltline matter to people outside the city of Atlanta?
A. Cities across metro Atlanta are creating their own versions of the Beltline. They’re building trails and new town centers to make their communities more walkable. The lessons of new urbanism are finally being taken seriously.
Q. Do you think the Beltline will get built out as planned?
A. I hope so. The part I’m most worried about is the northwest corridor because it’s next to an active rail line. That’s going to be expensive and difficult. But it also has one of the largest features on the Beltline: the west side park, where the old Bellwood quarry is being turned into a reservoir. That could jump-start the west side.
Q. You have a touching epilogue about the maid who worked for your family for more than 20 years. You said that finding out about her Atlanta was one of the reasons you wrote the book. What did you find?
A. Her name was Willie Mae Pughsley. We called her Nee. She rode the bus to our house and then went home to a place on Simpson Road (now Joseph E. Boone Boulevard). The house was condemned and torn down while I was working on the book.
This whole thing is upsetting to me. Nee had a stroke after I left Atlanta, and I didn’t go to see her or go to her funeral. I was a young father living hundreds of miles away. When you’re growing up, you take everything for granted. It never occurred to me to ask: Where does she live? Where’s her family? It turns out she didn’t have much of a family; she had lost two husbands and her only son. When she had her stroke, she told the people in the hospital that she had seven children. That was us.
I’m worried that when I give talks and come to this part, I might cry. She was a wonderful person.
Q. Do you like the Atlanta of today better than the Atlanta you grew up in?
A. In some ways I like it a lot better. You have really good restaurants and an incredible music scene and all kinds of arts and recreational activities that weren’t available before. It’s much more vital.
But I have a great nostalgia for the city I grew up in. Buckhead had a small-town feel then. I’d go to the hobby shop and the movie theater and the Ida Williams branch of the library. Now it’s this blown-up monstrosity with all these skyscrapers. I’m not keen on all that. I’m not keen on suburban sprawl either. We’ve deliberately built suburban neighborhoods where we have to drive everywhere and have few alternatives. I’m hoping the bridge collapse on I-85 will be a wakeup call for how overly dependent we’ve become on automobiles.
Q. Could the Beltline help change that?
A. Yes. I think it could have a bigger and more long-term impact on Atlanta than the Olympics.
Mark Pendergrast, author of “City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future.”
7 p.m. May 23. Free. Carter Presidential Library & Museum, 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. 404-865-7100, www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov.
7 p.m. May 25. Free. Tall Tales Books. 2105 Lavista Road, Atlanta. 404-636-2498, www.talltalesatlanta.com.