“… From the wrong side of the tracks.”
Though the phrase marinated in Michi Meko‘s great, dreadlock-covered head for a lifetime, the thought leaves an aftertaste.
Meko is one of 30 local artists selected to participate in the Art on the BeltLine exhibition, on display through October this year, spanning eight miles of train tracks encompassing nearly one-third of the total BeltLine loop.
The exhibition includes performances of African folktales, drum and dance, percussion duets, lantern-making workshops, minimalist sculptures, street muralists, bamboo meditation spaces, and political art about graffiti and the green movement.
The BeltLine—an economic development undertaking slated to take 25 years and cost nearly $3 billion—will revive the 22-mile stretch of rail road tracks, connect green spaces and trails, and possibly redirect Atlanta’s erratic pockets of urban sprawl. The project is designed to connect to the existing MARTA system and is estimated to generate $20 billion of economic development and thousands of jobs. Funding includes corporate and private donations, to the tune of $60 million in private fundraising ($35 million raised to date), and some federal funds. The majority of the funding will be local, however, through the BeltLine Tax Allocation District (TAD). Rather than raising taxes, TAD allocates future tax funds to invest in the project.
But how does all this land with artists like Meko? With a snag.
“I guess things change …. They have to,” said the solid-stature graphic designer with a sigh and downward glance Monday at his studio in the old mattress factory off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
The way he sees it, there is no wrong side of the tracks—just the “haves and the have-nots.”
Meko’s biography resembles the quintessential American story: rural, Alabama beginnings; two educators for parents; brothers to love and fight; a journey and a few gray hairs to show for it all. That journey landed him in Atlanta to make it as an artist and fortified his affinity for urban life, for all its flaws and charm.
He believes the project may be positive but worries that more gentrification could force out existing communities near the BeltLine.
“People wanna get ahead at all costs … but who benefits and who does not?” he asks.
Despite his profession, Meko’s art medium for the exhibition isn’t based in computer graphics. His project is titled Coexist, where he intends to build series of birdhouses, both plastic and organic gourds, to see if different birds can live in harmony. Various houses will have different entrance locations and sizes to accommodate all species.
“I think my own investigation toward the end of the project will help me answer a lot of my own questions,” he said. “At the end of the project, I am going to move a lot of houses and displace a lot of birds; whether they have families or not, they are going to be displaced.”
“It will be my symbol for the residents that live along the BeltLine,” he said. “What are you going to do if you’ve been living there for 40 years?”
Ethan Davidson, Director of Communications for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., pointed out the importance of context.
“The Atlanta BeltLine is transforming the city by connecting 45 different neighborhoods and creating new transit, trails, parks, affordable housing, public art and spurring new development, services, amenities and jobs,” he said over the phone Tuesday.
“From the BeltLine’s inception, the threat of displacement of existing populations was recognized and proactive measures were instilled in the legislation creating the BeltLine,” Davidson continued. “As a result, the BeltLine will make the largest single investment in affordable housing in the city of Atlanta’s history. In addition, it will create thousands of new jobs over the life of the project.”
The BeltLine TAD has a built-in Affordable Housing Trust Fund designed to raise $240 million over 25 years. The trust fund is only one of several short- and long-term initiatives to help residents, including local partnerships and citywide Community Land Trusts for acquiring land and managing its development responsibly.
While too soon to validate or deny Meko’s suspicions, other residents point out that the tracks could also connect everything, including social classes.
Longtime Little Five Points resident Stewart Varner has a different take. “Any kind of public service has the potential of bringing different kinds of folks together,” said Varner in an email Tuesday.
The 34-year-old recently finished his Ph.D. and accepted a Digital Scholarship Coordinator position with Emory University. He also only uses public transportation, walks or bikes, and co-founded the Sopo Bicycle Co-op, stating that cars “encourage bad urban planning and personal laziness.”
“Depending on your personal attitude, this could be good or bad and it will probably influence whether or not you are interested in using the service. Racism and classism has always plagued public transportation but I would like to think that Atlanta in the 21st century could move past this,” he said.
Class issues aside, such a system, he contends, would ease the city’s “… dependence on imported, and/or Gulf-Coast-destroying fuel,” and, “enable people to easily get to other parts of the city in a fun way.”
To learn more about BeltLine and see the art: www.beltline.org
Learn more about Sopo Bicycle Co-op: www.sopobikes.org
See more of Meko’s art: www.michimeko.com