Waiting for the train

 

Does Forest Park need MARTA to make Main Street relevant again?

 

By Hannah Palmer

September 13, 2021

  The Forest Park Issue

How we reported this story: Canopy Atlanta asked more than 120 Forest Park community members about the journalism they needed this past spring and summer; this story emerged from that feedback. 

GROWING UP IN FOREST PARK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were still plenty of reasons to go to Main Street. Our dentist, accountant, bank, and pediatrician were all located there. We took our car to Crumbley Tire Center, picked up 2 percent milk and frozen Cokes at the drive-through Golden Gallon, and got haircuts (and a few unfortunate perms) at Lou’s Coiffeurs. 

 

A simple two-lane street parallel to the railroad tracks, Main Street offered most basic goods and services. By the time I was a kid, the hodgepodge of mid-century storefronts on Main Street were aging and small, but I thought it was cool that our dry cleaners and pharmacy looked straight out of the 1960s, with the retro neon signs. 

 

Main Street was a time capsule of small-town commerce and culture at a time when pre-Olympics Atlanta was sprawling in every direction. Our high school homecoming parades rolled down Main Street, staging at the First Baptist Church and ending behind the Chick-fil-A Dwarf House. As big-box stores colonized greener pastures up and down I-75, my family still went to Main Street out of convenience, loyalty, and maybe nostalgia. It was a point of pride to patronize Smith Hardware before Home Depot.

 

As new shops replaced old ones, and decades passed, Main Street’s all-purpose storefronts remained an incubator for independent businesses. The city was still mostly white then, and Main Street looked like a Leave It to Beaver set, in part because of what Forest Park lacked—public transportation.

 

The back doors along Main Street opened to the tracks, yet there was no station in Forest Park. We fell asleep each night to the clatter of freight trains rolling through the heart of town, but have no memory of riding the train. The city really became Forest Park in the 1950s and 1960s, when it expanded rapidly in population, housing, and auto-centric development. 

 

The Main Street I remember was built for cars.

 

In 1971, Clayton County voters defeated a proposal to fund the new MARTA system. Forest Park’s transit station, sketched out as the southern terminus for MARTA rail, was never built. 

Illustration of proposed MARTA service terminating in Forest Park, from “Atlanta Region Comprehensive Plan: Rapid Transit,” 1961.

Much has been written about voters’ racial motivations for rejecting MARTA in that early referendum. Because they opted out of MARTA rail, Main Street was spared the brutalist concrete stations and oversize parking lots that gutted the central business districts of nearby cities like College Park and East Point. And Forest Park was allowed to remain detached from Atlanta, effectively self-segregating for a couple more decades. 

 

But as Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport expanded through the 1990s, bringing more airplane noise and industrial growth to the area, Clayton County’s population continued shifting to what is now majority-minority. Main Street’s businesses followed their white customers, who were relocating south, to Henry and Fayette counties. As my neighbors abandoned Forest Park, I tried not to be sentimental about the vacant storefronts on Main Street. It was time for another generation of entrepreneurs to make Main Street their own — many of whom were Black, Latinx, and Asian. 

 

But in 2010, the city demolished a block of buildings on Main Street to make way for an anticipated “Multimodal Transportation Station.” In the past, Forest Park residents had seen MARTA as a threat to Main Street; by 2010, the train was supposed to be its savior. Those plans, and the others that followed, have since been scrapped. Yet another Main Street plan is now set to replace them all, and possibly be approved.

Rendering of proposed train station on Main Street, posted during demolition in 2010. Today, the spot remains a vacant lawn.

So, what do today’s community members want to see in these empty parcels and vacant buildings? On one blazing-hot summer afternoon, I cruised Main Street to speak with business owners and their customers.

 

Janice Weldon at Clay Antiques and Upholstery said she would like to see more activity, maybe even a casino. “Places to mingle, but not clubs.” She mentioned Hapeville and Fairburn having a theater for movies and plays. 

 

I pointed out a crumbling old theater, owned by the city, down the street. It’s been an empty landmark my entire life.

 

I asked Charles Baker, owner of G.P. Thrift Store (God’s Property), if he’d like to see a MARTA station on Main Street. He laughed.

 

“Even a MARTA bus would be great. Anything that brings more people to Main Street.”

 

(The bus currently runs along Forest Parkway, which is parallel to Main Street, on the other side of the railroad tracks.)

At night, Forest Park is a ghost town. Ain’t nothing to see on Main Street.” — Janice Weldon

Dontae Brown, a resident of nearby Conley, told me he’d like to see a gym, then a juice bar. Later, I spotted an independent gym tucked away on Phillips Drive, and I recalled that Don Burrito Grill at Atlanta State Farmers Market presses fresh juices while you wait.

 

Everyone I spoke to wanted more restaurants. I specifically come to Forest Park for pho, wings, doughnuts, and tacos. My hometown has an abundance of great restaurants, just not on Main Street.

 

It occurred to me: Forest Park actually has everything it needs, including public transportation, but it’s dispersed across the city. What would it take to connect these assets along Main Street?

I LOCATED RENDERINGS ONLINE of Forest Park’s most recent downtown vision, in a draft of the city’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) plan. Most notable about this latest vision for Main Street is the de-emphasis of a potential train station — moving it east, towards former Fort Gillem. 

Development Framework Plan, Downtown Forest Park Livable Centers Initiative Study.

We picked that location because it has access to both major thoroughfares, Main and Jonesboro Road and Forest Parkway,” James Shelby, Forest Park’s Director of Planning, Building, and Zoning, explained. “There’s still talk about transit, and we identified an area where they can have a station if they want it. But having it in the middle of downtown is not going to work for us.” 

 

The plan was news to Sonya Jewsome, owner of Sonya’s Classic Southern Cuisine. She was attracted to Main Street four years ago while looking for a new location for her restaurant. The city had just installed a suite of quaint streetscape improvements, including brick sidewalks, streetlamps, and a plaza with a fountain.

 

“I drove by and felt that this was a good place to be,” she said. “God led me to this location, and I stepped out on faith.”

 

I caught her after the lunch rush, when her last customer carried a to-go plate of oxtails to his car. We sat at a table under a busy air conditioner, and I told her about the new Main Street plan, which fills the blocks to the east with townhouses and dense mixed-use development, instead of a train station. 

 

“Whether MARTA comes or not,” she said, “the city has to make progress.”

Another speculative fiction. This 2017 mural on a vacant building on Main Street, like much of the mural’s content, has been erased. (Photo: John W. Christian, Georgia Mural Trail)

TODAY, I LIVE IN EAST POINT, in a neighborhood that reminds me of Forest Park. I frequent the Main Streets of College Park, East Point, Hapeville, for lattes, smoothies, cupcakes, and craft beers. Main Streets everywhere have survived by reinventing themselves as everything Walmart is not — historic, artsy, and handcrafted. Once a place that served the basic needs of residents, Main Street now requires disposable income to patronize, part of why “revitalization” goes hand in hand with gentrification. 

 

The city council approved a rewrite of its zoning ordinance and the new LCI plan on September 7. Forest Park owns the land; the Urban Redevelopment Agency has $41 million in bonds and claims to have several interested developers lined up.

 

Ms. Jewsome is optimistic.

 

I can see the city moving forward on their dreams. Making Main Street the main street. I say, put a dream out there, no matter how wild. At least they’re dreaming.”  

 

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