The historical city… is not of one time, but of many times, not of one style but of many styles, not of discrete functions accommodated in specific areas but of a jumble of functions that may crowd together in the same area. As an early nineteenth century writer on the city put it, "the [city] plan must be designed with taste and verve, so that order, whimsy, eurythmy and variety may co-exist in equal measure." Or, another writer of the period: the city "should be a varied picture of an infinity of chance occurrences, with great order in the details and confusion, chaos and tumult in the whole." A twentieth-century architect in Paris gives us a powerful image: "Build the city on top of the city"—do not wipe out its physical history for some presumed modern advantage; save its past, build in the interstices. What was there should remain and should not be fully effaced.
— Nathan Glazer, The Public Face of Architecture
The BeltLine Chronicles were inspired by many wonderful bicycling adventures that I’ve enjoyed over the years, including a grueling solo trip from Albania to London in the 1980s, via Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland, and France. After navigating the very precarious Yugoslavian coast, I entered into Italy tired, and desperate for some company. Fortunately, I had an unexpected encounter with Lord Byron in a Trieste bookstore. He appeared in the form of his Collected Works, perched on a shelf that was otherwise entirely populated by canonical Italian authors. It was several years before I connected the dots, and realized that his presence there was probably because of his great fondness for Italy, or perhaps to honor the role he’d played in the Greek struggle for independence from Ottoman rule. Be it what it may, I carried Byron’s works to my tent that night, and fell in love with his witty, racy, wandering, urbane and digression-filled writing. Within a week or so I was deeply immersed in Childe Harolde, and when I realized that he (and Don Juan) were themselves on a tour of Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece, I modified my bicycle route to accommodate visits to many of the places Byron describes in his addictive rhymes. By that stage in my life I’d read lots of writings by Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, but somehow I’d managed to miss out on the pleasures of Byron’s work. I’ve subsequently made up for lost time, obsessing about him, and seeking out the many destinations he describes in his rich corpus.
I still have that same volume of Byron’s work, and I brought it with me when my wife and I moved to Atlanta, in 2019. We were immediately captivated by the city and its history, and inspired by Byron’s work and many other literary quests I had the idea of creating a poem about our favorite destination, the BeltLine. This huge project has faced enormous challenges since its inception, as a 1999 Georgia Tech Master’s thesis project by Ryan Gravel; and in spite of how far it has evolved, Gravel expresses some degree of disappointment about its direction, and bemoans some of the opportunities that have been lost along the way. The keys to the project’s success hinge on affordable housing, protection and promotion of greenspaces, and the success of a long-promised light rail that undergirds the initial vision. Nevertheless, it's difficult to overstate how extraordinary this pathway is, even in its current unfinished state (it’s slated for completion by 2030), or the ways in which it is transforming a city that's mostly famous for its traffic, its sprawl, and its massive airport.
The range of lofty ambitions for the project provides a sense of its monumentality: 33 miles of multi-use urban trails, 22 miles of pedestrian-friendly rail transit, 1,300 acres of new greenspace, 1,100 acres of environmental clean-up, 46 miles of improved streetscapes, 50,000 permanent jobs, and 5,600 units of affordable workforce housing. Atlanta owes its existence to transportation industries since it was founded on a spot chosen for the final stop of the Western & Atlantic Railroad line. It’s therefore appropriate that this 22-mile project be built atop a ring of railway tracks that circled the city's urban core, and that plans call for a modern rail system to connect with the existing MARTA subway system. Even in its current state, the BeltLine has emerged as a magnet for investment, tourism, and urban activity, and a catalyst for remarkable artworks. Art on the BeltLine has already hosted almost 500 public art exhibitions in an array of media, including graffiti, sculpture, painting, dance, music, performance art and…an epic poem, the product of a year-long investigation into ways of transforming the experience of the BeltLine into Beltline Chronicles.
I needed a poetic template for my proposed epic, so of course I returned to Byron’s work for both guidance and inspiration. I adopted the name George, in honor of George Gordon, Lord Byron, and consulted Lindsay Waters’ scholarly works about Byron’s poetics. Waters led me to discover some really inspiring work by Luigi Pulci (1432-1484), whose works I’d never read. Byron loved Pulci’s poetry, and translated part of Morgante Maggiore (1483) in late 1819 and early 1820, during which time he was writing Canto III of Don Juan. Based loosely on the Chanson de Roland, Morgante Maggiore catalogues improbable knightly deeds in delightful verses, which makes it a fun precursor for George’s BeltLine adventures. Byron also admired John Hookham Frere (1769-1846), most notably his mock-heroic Arthurian poem called Prospectus and Specimen of an intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers, which emulates the Italian medley style that Byron adopted for Don Juan, which George in turn harnesses at times for his Chronicles.
The BeltLine Chronicles thus feature an array of rhyme schemes, lengths of line, rhythms, and other stylistic characteristics that I learned through the process of exploring Byron’s poetics, and which George hones in the course of his explorations. The rhyme scheme is fairly regular throughout each Canto, as are the line lengths and the rhythms, but these and other formal elements vary and shift over time (a bit like the pathways it describes). The poem is also filled with references to, and citations from, a broad array of epic quests, treasure hunts, and heroic adventures of well-known characters who were inspired, or forced, to travel through space and time. There’s a long history of writers who commemorate or unify existing spaces, and when George sets off on his own epic quest he reflects upon all kinds of precursory voyages: Odysseus’s return home to Ithaca, Arthurian legends of romance and adventure, Dante the Pilgrim’s travels through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; Don Quixote’s great knightly feats; Frankenstein’s monster’s quest for safety in the higher climes of Chamonix; Alexander Pushkin wanderings along Nevsky Prospekt; Dracula’s successful crossing of the English Channel; Blaise Cendrars’ travels on the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Harbin (in Mongolia); James Joyce’s epic 24 hours in Dublin; Alice’s great adventures in Wonderland; Haven’s founding families attempt to create a paradise for themselves in Toni Morrison’s Paradise; and Ismail Smile’s quest for love in Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte. Texts like these can create a sense of wholeness, and provide new meaning, to disparate spaces. People can return to these works to experience the places described, and they can visit those places thinking about the works that invoke them. I hope that readers will do the same with the Atlanta BeltLine, and the BeltLine Chronicles.
My poet George shares with me a special interest in social justice, and the relationship between equity, peace, community, and public space. I have conceived of this work as a form of healing because the BeltLine – by connecting previously segregated neighborhoods and experiences – becomes a space of hope for a better world. To prepare for the process of writing this collection, I scoured archives devoted to great figures from the civil rights movement in Atlanta, including Ralph David Abernathy, Maynard Jackson Jr., Coretta Scott King, Bernice Albertine King, Gladys Knight, John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Roslyn Pope, Hermann Russell, and Andrew Young. Martin Luther King emerges as the great hero of this epic exploration, and his words resonate throughout the Chronicles. I’m very grateful to the archivists, librarians, teachers and guides who have helped me to understand the painful journey that has led us to contemporary Atlanta, and the many miles we still have to travel if we hope to find purpose and hope for a better tomorrow.
I have loved my daily excursions on different sections of the BeltLine, and it has been a great joy to reflect upon the relationship between urban spaces and poetic stanzas. To better understand the former, I’ve met with urban planners, including Ryan Gravel, who have conceived of, and developed, the BeltLine and spaces adjacent thereto. After one memorable bike trip with Stacy Patton and Angel Poventud, I was inspired to buy an electric mountain bike and, like them, to make excursions on various sections of the BeltLine a regular activity. The bike has become my powerful steed and, honoring Sir Gawain, Don Quixote and Lord Byron himself, I’ve mounted it and sought out adventures. In the course of these amazing treks I’ve met dozens, nay hundreds of people who have told me about their BeltLine.
Stacy Patton came over to my house one day with a massive bag of developers plans, pamphlets and maps, as well as a host of books including Ryan Gravel’s take on the whole project, and a copy of the remarkable work of Mark Pendergrast called City on the Verge. Since the earliest days of this work I’ve had many inspiring conversations with amazing friends whom we’ve come to know and love: Kent Alexander, Armando and Louisa Basarrate, Meredith Bell, Alison Cross, Tom and Hope Dlugozima, Liz Gillespie, Jonathan Hiskey, Deanna and Gene Kansas, Susan and Max Ker-Seymer, Miranda Kyle, Max Mandelis, Stacy Patton, Karen and Todd Stansbury.
Knowing of their remarkable artistic talents, I asked Susan Ker-Seymer and Lauren McKee if they’d be willing to create drawings to accompany this project. Susan has created the extraordinary abstract works that invoke BeltLine-like worlds on the cover and at the beginning of each Canto, and Lauren has created an array of different Georges, taking cues from the indeterminate descriptions of this poet that run through the Chronicles. I’m grateful to everyone who has contributed to this project, and to the thousands of people who have been involved in the ongoing work to build Atlanta’s BeltLine. And as always, I’m especially grateful to Marsha, who has, in her words, always been “along for the ride”.
The Guggenheim Foundation has provided me with the world and time to build this story, and Vanderbilt University subventioned their generosity with the gift of a sabbatical. And thanks to a grant from the BeltLine Arts Commission, we will have several performances of The BeltLine Chronicles that will feature the venerable Ismail ibn Conner who will play, imitate, reflect upon, and create…. George.
The Atlanta BeltLine is by far the most transformative urban revitalization project in Atlanta’s history. It brings together connectivity through transit and trails, as well as the creation of public gathering space through new parks. It’s also shaping both economic and equitable development.
— Rob Brawner1
When artists and moviemakers picture the city built by modernism, it is to evoke the alienation and anonymity of city life, rather than those aspects of urbanism that bring people of different walks of life together in some common pursuit or in sociable interaction. Most current efforts to create a more interactive and attractive urbanism, to bring life back to the city, revert to traditional elements of design—a smaller scale, a degree of irregularity, a multiplicity of uses, the reuse of older buildings, and even traditional architectural elements in new buildings. The difficulties in producing an attractive urbanism constitute perhaps the greatest problem for modernism.
— Nathan Glazer
Then whoever was born a poet became an architect…. All other arts obeyed, and placed themselves under the discipline of architecture. They were the workmen of the great work…. [A]rchitecture was, down to the fifteenth century, the chief register of humanity; that in that interval not a thought which is in any degree complicated made its appearance in the world, which has not been worked into an edifice; that every popular idea, and every religious law, has had its monumental records; that the human race has, in short, had no important thought which it has not written in stone. And why? Because every thought, either philosophical or religious, is interested in perpetuating itself; because the idea which has moved one generation wishes to move others also, and leave a trace.
— Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame2
In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame. Already the poor man saw himself crowned by the might of his arm Emperor of Trebizond at least; and so, led away by the intense enjoyment he found in these pleasant fancies, he set himself forthwith to put his scheme into execution.
— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of Don Quixote3
Last August, the Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization held three weeks of hearings on the crisis of the American city…. As the hearings progressed it became apparent that we lacked some basic knowledge about life in the city. If we don’t know enough about the problems, we know even less about the solutions. This is what we must explore. If we are going to develop an urban policy at the national level, we must begin to learn the basic facts of urban life. We must determine what the actual needs are and organize our programs accordingly. We must question all past assumptions and concepts previously taken for granted.
— Abraham Ribicoff4
Sometimes you have to not just dream about what could be—you get out and push, and you pull, and you preach. And you create a climate and environment to get those in high places, to get men and women of goodwill in power to act.
— John Lewis5