Freedom's just another word

Freedom Park seeks identity

Thornton Dial's sculptural tribute to U.S. Rep. John Lewis is supposed to be the folk art centerpiece of Atlanta's Freedom Park.

Instead, the 50-foot-long, iron depiction of Lewis' evolution from country boy to icon has been sitting for about a year in the artist's yard in Bessemer, Ala.

The marooned sculpture is one outcome of a vicious cycle that has locked Atlanta's largest park into its current status as an undefined swath of green in some of the city's hippest neighborhoods: The sculpture is part of a planned overhaul intended to make the park look more like a park. But it's been tough finding money for those improvements — including money to site the sculpture. And, without the improvements, the park lacks the visibility to inspire donors to give to the private organization, the Freedom Park Conservancy, that is spearheading the upgrades.

The result: Ten years after the settlement that nixed an ill-conceived highway through intown neighborhoods and created the 207-acre greenspace, Freedom Park still looks like a series of vacant lots with some bike trails through it.

"Democracy is messy and it takes a while," says conservancy member Don Bender.

Bender is one in an energetic cadre of Freedom Park advocates who hopes the park will start to take more form next month when construction begins on new trails, entrance plazas on Moreland and Ponce de Leon avenues, and a ton of landscaping work.

The new features are part of what's envisioned as a 15-20 year construction schedule that will see caretakers continually shilling for donations, sometimes from donors who have their own ideas about how the money should be spent.

The challenges the park faces today seem far easier to solve than those residents confronted 34 years ago, when the state began bulldozing 500 homes to make way for a thoroughfare that would have run through Candler Park, the Old Fourth Ward, Poncey-Highland and Inman Park. And building up the park isn't quite as dire as the fight residents waged in the 1980s against the state Department of Transportation, when neighbors chained themselves to trees and got arrested to stop earthmovers.

Bender, one of the "roadbusters" and a member of Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Older Neighborhoods [CAUTION], recalls being hauled into jail where he shared a cell with a man arrested for pimping.

"The guy asked what we were in for," he says with a laugh. "He said, 'You mean you wanted to get arrested?' "

After much legal wrangling, the 1991 settlement limited the road to the 3.2 mile, four-lane parkway that runs between the Down-town Connector and Ponce de Leon with a separate arm that runs to Moreland Avenue. In place of the right of way that wasn't used for the highway stood more than 200 acres of kudzu-choked land that, from above, forms a rough 'X'-shape.

The nonprofit PATH Foundation built the first paved trail through the then-nascent park in 1996. Last year, a second major trail, funded by the city and a variety of other entities, was officially opened.

But given the fanfare — complete with a ribbon cutting by Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, Gov. Roy Barnes and former President Jimmy Carter — you'd think it wouldn't be so difficult to recognize Freedom Park as a greenspace. There's still no marker to indicate that Freedom Park is a park, there are few trees taller than a human being, and the grass — depending on the city's mowing schedule — often competes with the trees for height.

"The park is very much a work in progress," says Al Caproni, an Inman Park activist who helped spearhead the park's creation. "One of its biggest challenges is getting its identification as a park."

It hasn't helped that, for their own reasons, neither the state nor the city has taken much responsibility for maintaining the park. The 1991 settlement required the state to hand over the land as part of a 99-year lease. The DOT handles only the road's upkeep, though it did build the first leg of the first path back in 1994.

What irks park advocates is that the DOT, which for so long had done its share to threaten intown neighborhoods and depress real-estate values, now may be the settlement's biggest beneficiary — while it, typically, gives little back to the community. The DOT sold scores of separate residential lots that also were to be used for the highway, some for more than $200,000. "We really need to get more money from the DOT," says conser-vancy member Ruth Wall. "It's like trying to nudge a huge elephant." (The DOT's Glen Kendrick didn't return calls from CL.)

The city, meanwhile, pleads poverty when it comes to park improvements and maintenance. The Parks Department was even reluctant to accept groundskeeping responsibilities.

Conservancy leaders say the city has done the best it could with limited resources. But the scarce resources show. It's not unusual to see the park's bristly grass grown calf- or knee-high.

Part of the problem is that it's hard to justify spending money on a new park in upscale neighborhoods when older parks in poorer neighborhoods already are poorly maintained.

"The budget is now structured so there's just enough money for simple maintenance," says District 3 City Councilman Michael Bond. Parks like Freedom and Piedmont are lucky that they're able to attract private money. Bond has the city's third largest park in his district — the 60-acre Mosley Park — but says few people even know it exists.

So any way you cut it, the park's development will rely heavily on the conservancy, a private, all-volunteer group that grew out of CAUTION. Wall notes that Freedom Park never is going to look like Piedmont. Its linear shape prevents that. And the neighborhoods adjoining the park opted for a "passive" design, without ball fields, playgrounds or concerts.

But Bender acknowledges that the lack of a strong identity has hurt donor interest, and the lack of donor interest means improvements have either been slowed or scaled back. The conservancy is going to have to raise an additional $400,000 to pay for all the upgrades it envisioned for this phase of construction.

To help with the search for money, the conservancy board was expanded several years ago with the intention of bringing in members with connections to downtown and charitable foundations. "So far, there have been no results from that," Bender says.

Plans for a $270,000 "rain garden" that would have helped collect runoff water at a problem area in the park recently were shelved because the money hasn't been there. The soon-to-be constructed plaza on Moreland was supposed to feature a sloping, terraced look with steps between each level. Now it's just going to be sloping.

The new paths and landscaping come with a price tag of around $1.1 million — paid for with federal money and matching funds from the city. Work is slated to begin in July with landscaping along the paths beginning as early as November. After that, Bender envisions mature trees being planted along the paths.

At the same time, donors have to be willing to buy into the park's passive vision. An $800,000 donation to create a cancer survivors' park had to be turned away when its design was turned down by the city's Urban Design Commission.

While securing private dollars is tough, getting federal money means waiting. The money to build the base and do the landscaping for the Dial sculpture, about $200,000, came in the form of a federal transportation grant.

"It's taken us four years," says Wall, who oversees the sculpture project. "The process was like asking for a $50 million bridge."

Now, however, she's encouraged. Couple the landscaping and new trails with the Dial sculpture, and when people drive by the park, they might recognize it as such. And with a clear identity, maybe it will be easier to attract money and speed up the timeline for projects.

It's going to "put Atlanta on the map," Wall says of the Dial sculpture. "On the open market, it would bring $750,000 to $1 million."

What Wall should hope is that the sculpture simply puts Freedom Park on the map.??