I had the pleasure of walking in Freedom Park recently with a friend. Born out of formidable citizen activism linking the movements of environmentalism, urbanism, historic preservation, and more, Freedom Park is now one of Atlanta’s largest public green spaces. It’s cool to know that this park resulted from prolonged community activism.
Originally, it was planned to be a toll road that would link the Stone Mountain Freeway with Downtown Atlanta and extend Georgia 400 south to I-675. This crisscross of interstate-like toll roads had what are now some of Atlanta’s most desirable neighborhoods in its path – Inman Park, Candler Park, Druid Hills (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, father of landscape architecture and designer of New York’s Central Park), Poncey-Highland, Virginia-Highland, Morningside, and Lake Claire and that did not sit well with residents of the historical and beautiful neighborhoods.
By the early 1970s neighborhood groups had formed and banded together to fight the highway and in 1971 a judge suspended construction until an environmental impact study could be completed. All the while road protesters continued the fight and gained the attention of then-Governor Jimmy Carter, who in 1972 signed legislation to stop the road projects. The land laid dormant for the next decade.
Although he initially supported stopping the highway, President Carter helped the idea reemerge in 1982 as the Presidential Parkway. His support for the road project was now tendered on the understanding that part of the land would be used for his Presidential Library. Neighborhood groups reignited their advocacy and began assembling. Road Busters, an informal collective, participated in nonviolent civil actions while CAUTION Inc (Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Older Neighborhoods – isn’t that a grand acronym for an advocacy group?) led the legal battle against the DOT roads. Over the years CAUTION spent more than $600,000 in legal fees and received nearly $600,000 more in pro-bono services to defeat the roads.
In 1990 with a change in Mayor and the 1996 Olympic Games looming, a final push was made to resolve the fighting and come to a final resolution. The final settlement between CAUTION, the City of Atlanta, and the GaDOT was signed in June 1992 and effectively killed the toll roads as planned. In turn a dramatically scaled down road, the modern day Freedom Parkway, was agreed to.
In 1990, CODA (the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta) hired an architecture firm to plan and design Freedom Park – the more than 200 acres of leftover greenspace surrounding Freedom Parkway. Already set forth was a plan for an Olmsted-ian theme for the park which would use public open space to build a sense of community, respect the landscape and preserve the topography, use indigenous plants, create wide paths and drives, and sensitively integrate built elements into the plan.
The first phase of Freedom Park opened just before the 1996 Olympics and in 1997 CAUTION changed its name to Freedom Park Conservancy, adopting a new mission to steward this new park. The Park was officially dedicated in 2000 and was designated as Atlanta’s Public Art Park by Atlanta City Council in 2007.
Atlanta’s Art Park, Freedom Park hosts permanent and temporary public art installations spanning 200+ acres of linear park land. Six miles of PATH Foundation biking and walking trails weave together eight unique neighborhoods containing first-class attractions, beautiful homes, and diverse commercial establishments, starting at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park to the west and at Deepdene Park in Decatur to the east. .
On our walk, my friend and I jumped in just east of Moreland Avenue and walked in Freedom Park towards Decatur. We came upon several art exhibits on our way. The first one is titled One Woman Rising and was commissioned to honor the participants in Eve Ensler’s first global call to action to end violence against women and girls.
A little further on, we saw New Endings, a multi-part bronze fountain sculpture. The artist’s work deals with transformations and transitions as they exist in nature and human beings.
Just before we crossed Oakdale Road was the third sculpture we saw that day, Tree of Life. These art works are intended to be viewed together as a grouping and were originally part of a major outdoor solo exhibition entitled “interconnected” at Millennium Park in Chicago from 2010-2012. In 2012, the artist dedicated to donate each of the six public artworks to cities across the US and Atlanta’s proposal was chosen by the artist.
After the golf course, we veered off the path and walked for several blocks in Candler Park neighborhood, enjoying the beautiful spring flowers, landscaping and historic homes before turning around and heading back to Freedom Park.
Freedom Park links the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, Poncey-Highland, the Carter Center and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Candler Park, Druid Hills, Virginia Highland, and Little Five Points, thus connecting the revived in-town neighborhoods that once fought to stop the roads.
Freedom Park Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the improvement and preservation of the park for the benefit of a diverse public. Its vision is for Freedom Park to be Atlanta’s most innovative green space, celebrated for its inspiring origin and beauty.
*Photos and videos by Jane Lomas