Summer Guide - Atlanta by Segway? Sign me up.

Viewing the city through a tourist's eyes

Thursday May 14, 2015 04:00 am EDT

"You make it look so easy," the young man says to me as I pass him at just under 12 mph on my way to the King Center.

Yes I do, young tourist. Thank you. I am upright in a helmet on a Segway, touring the city that I have called home for the majority of my life. In front of me are Yousra and Iman, two young women from Qatar. Leading us like a pack of ducklings across streets and state roads is Drew Quillian, a lifelong Atlanta resident and tour guide with ATL-Cruzers, pretty much the only company in town that entrusts strangers to stand on gyroscope-powered scooters and joyride like idiots.

Over the past two weeks, I learned about the city I know the same way that many tourists do — on tours by bicycle, in an open-air electric car, and on a Segway. Yes, we looked ridiculous, but once we got over that fact, we were proud. And despite long ago having seen the sights and visited the sites, I still learned something.

I have typically felt terrible for the estimated 45 million annual out-of-towners who visit metro Atlanta and spend $13 billion while here. (And those numbers only include U.S. residents who visited.) I see them walk out of the Five Points MARTA station, obviously with time to kill before a connecting flight. They expect the subway hub of a major city to lead them to bustling activity and excitement. They exit to the city's streets and discover ... Underground Atlanta. I want to grab their shoulders and shake them, screaming that there is so much more to our city than a kiosk selling incense.

My greatest fear going into my tourist excursions was that I would be alone — that I would have no one to endure this experience with me and that my friends' and neighbors' eyes would gaze upon me with disdain and disappointment. "Gather round and look at the grown man in a helmet by himself on a Segway," they would say as I rolled along. I would be vulnerable. A big vulnerable nerd on a Segway, wearing a helmet and gobs of sunscreen to protect my Irish ass from the sun.

ATL-Cruzers, which touts itself as the "best first thing to do in Atlanta," operates two Segway tours. The one I took focuses on the city's close-in historic east side neighborhoods including Downtown, Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, and Cabbagetown. A Midtown version includes trips to Piedmont Park and Ansley Park. The company also operates the open-air electric cars wrapped in Southwest Air ads that ferry up to five tourists at a time on a route that slightly follows the east side tour. If visitors are interested in bike tours, Bicycle Tours of Atlanta has been operating out of Studioplex in Old Fourth Ward for more than six years. The company's tour guides, including founder Robyn Elliott, offer three-hour rides through many of the same neighborhoods as ATL-Cruzer, a new tour that highlights the roots of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, plus corporate trips and customized rides.

Before we take our Segway tour, Yousra, Iman, and I watch a safety video teaching us how to operate the ridiculous vehicles that, before they debuted in the early 2000s, were hyped as potentially being more impactful than the Internet. For good reason, attention is focused on emergency stops and not colliding with people carrying stacks of books. We place pins on a map showing the places we call home, joining people from all over the United States — hello, Mandan, North Dakota — and afar, including as far south as Charcot Island near Antarctica.

"We get a lot of Danes," Quillian says. "They tend to come for tech conventions."

After learning how to actually get on the machine, practicing in "turtle mode," and riding in circles around a statue of Andrew Young, we venture into the city, earning snickers and stares from everyone we pass. We wind down the Freedom Park path and my compatriots snap photos at the Jackson Street Bridge, eyeball Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King's tombs and the civil right leader's childhood home. After popsicles at King of Pops' headquarters along the Atlanta Beltline Eastside Trail, we roll throughout Inman Park, learning about the neighborhood's metamorphosis from Atlanta's first suburb to blight to a highly coveted (and high-priced) place to live.

From Iman, my Segway partner, to the bike-riding German gentleman who was trying to introduce his wife to Atlanta, where he is considering buying a second home one day, time and again I heard people say, "I could live here."

Inman Park presents a compelling contrast to Cabbagetown, another neighborhood well past resurgence and established as a vibrant community to call home. For so many decades, as Elliott points out during the bike tour that also included a thorough route through Little Five Points, it was literally the "other side of the tracks."

There are quizzes along the way and stops in front of homes that belonged to the city's pioneers and titans. Outside Asa Candler's mansion, we learn that he designed the house himself. There are confused looks during the Segway and group tours when it's mentioned that Atlanta holds parties and weddings in Oakland Cemetery, as well as the fact that the burial place was ever segregated. We eat snacks outside of Octane's Grant Park location and marvel at the murals popping up around town thanks to Living Walls and other artists and groups.

I finally saw one of the TARDIS-like jail cells in Inman Park that used to house drunkards and ne'er-do-wells until the paddy wagon that used to patrol the former suburb arrived. I didn't know that the State Bar of Georgia building in Downtown was once the Federal Reserve Bank, despite it literally being written on the façade. Or that the original owner of the Winecoff Hotel was among the 119 people who died the night the hotel, which advertised itself as fire-proof, caught fire. I'd never seen the Cabbagetown Pac-Man bush or known about the ghost of Duane Allman allegedly haunting an Inman Park bed-and-breakfast. Or seen how, on the side of one of Inman Park's original homes, elaborate brickwork stretching up the chimney denotes when the house was built.

I was also reminded that, for all the growth the city has seen, we are still the city of villages, most of which are disconnected. Woe is the visitor without a Segway or bike, plus a trusty guide, to help them traverse the no man's lands between the neighborhoods. They need someone promising them that past these vacant lots and over this massive freeway, far from their hotels and the Hooters on Peachtree Street, are vibrant places with character. It's nice to hear from visitors staying in town for a few hours or days on their way to somewhere else — one retired couple from Sacramento on the electric-car jaunt is touring the country's baseball stadiums — that the city is livable. Iman urged Yousra to look into moving to Old Fourth Ward. The Japanese woman, Dutch family, and German couple pedaling in the heat, who politely didn't laugh at my wide-brimmed hat under my helmet, were smitten with Cabbagetown.

The tour companies don't present themselves as the be-all, end-all to Atlanta. Hours could be spent at Oakland Cemetery or checking out Downtown. But what the tours show visitors, and even some locals and new arrivals to the city, is that the city is remarkable for all its warts. It's nice to be reminded by someone who hails from Frankfurt or Amsterdam, one of the world's most bikeable cities, that Atlanta is beautiful and changing. And that riding a Segway along Downtown's sidewalks, weaving in and out of college students, is incredibly fun, regardless of how ridiculous you look.

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