I recently attended a fabulous Park Pride Conference at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens where I ran into scores of former colleagues who have helped me build trails during the past twenty-four years. After a handshake or a hug, several of them began recalling their favorite story of the struggles we shared while building a path in their neighborhood.
Honestly, I had forgotten many of the extraordinary reactions we received from nearby neighbors during our campaign to retrofit Atlanta with trails. Some of the comments they remembered are so entertaining, I decided to share them with you.
We were proposing to build the trail around North Fulton Golf Course in Chastain Park back in 1994 when I attended a standing room only meeting of ‘concerned neighbors’ on Lake Forest Drive. In their defense, there were no trails in metro Atlanta and I was planning the very first one across the street from their homes.
One of the concerned neighbors asked me “who’s gonna pick up all the beer cans and stop people from peeing in my front yard?” Looking back, I guess if cyclists on the trail drank enough beer, a pit stop in her front yard might have been an option. To her credit, she wrote me a note six months after the trail was open saying she was wrong about the trail (I haven’t gotten many of those over the years).
During a public meeting in Dallas, Georgia when we were proposing to convert the abandoned railroad into the Silver Comet Trail, a lady said, “I’ve been trying to get the road in front of my house paved for forty years; now you’re gonna pave the railroad track behind me.” (I think the county paved her road the next year.)
During the battle to build a trail between Medlock Park and Mason Mill Park, a woman approached me at a contentious public meeting, sat on the floor in front of me, and proceeded to tell me that it ‘hurt’ trees to run equipment across their roots and it hurt the earth when we tore it. (She was barefooted so I guess she hurt the earth a little less when she walked on it than I do. She showed up in a belly-dancing outfit when we started construction and proceeded to dance in front of the bulldozer until the police arrived to escort her away.
One of my old friends at the Conference had been on the walk through Tanyard Park with the representative from the Audubon Society when we proposed the trail through the park. Neighbors opposing the trail claimed the destruction of the forest to build the trail would drive all the birds away. We summoned the Audubon Society expert to make the call. I was naïve enough then to think we would win neighborhood support if we could show them the birds would stay.
The concerned neighbors and the bird expert moseyed along, chatting about birds until they reached the road. The nice lady said, “It will actually attract MORE birds to the forest if these gentlemen build the trail. It will create two new edges to the forest where birds like to feed.” One concerned neighbor told the expert she didn’t know squat about birds and huffed away. Everyone else huddled to decide on their next concern. (one lady still shows me her favorite bird every time I walk by her house).
We had a neighbor with a big imagination tell us the South River Trail would be so covered up with snakes people would be running for their lives. Another lady sent an Op-Ed to the AJC saying our trail would be a conduit for Coyotes to enter her neighborhood and eat her pets. (Maybe the Coyotes can be trained to eat the snakes and solve two problems at once.)
We encountered some very interesting elected officials while building the Silver Comet Trail through northwest Georgia. One of them told me, “There are a lotta folk out here that don’t want those queers in spandex zooming behind their houses.” He subsequently voted in favor of the trail and became one of our biggest advocates. I suppose they’ve all gotten use to spandex-clad folks from the city by now.
Every now and then crazy things happened; the stars aligned; and I decided someone, somewhere was looking out for us. We had a man on one side of the Silver Comet who was absolutely opposed to the trail and a lady living on the other side of the corridor who was similarly inclined. The county commissioners were not keen on letting us build the trail at his location because their constituents were so opposed.
One afternoon the gentlman decided to “call” on the lady across the tracks His advances were (permanently) shunned with an iron skillet. She was carted off to prison and voila, the commissioners agreed since there was no longer opposition, to let us build the trail.
So there are lessons to be learned from my encounters with concerned neighbors: when you are walking or biking on your favorite trail, remember to watch for coyotes, dodge the snakes, pick up the beer cans, listen for the missing songbirds, and don’t be surprised by the stares you get in your spandex.