OPINION: Urban waterway needs city, county investment

Progress of South River Forest development in Atlanta stalled despite plan approval

From where I stood at the intersection of Norman Berry Drive and Calhoun Street in East Point, I could hear the water. I looked down a steep incline and finally saw where the South River daylights.

The actual headwaters are in underground pipes, a fact that I didn’t know those three years ago when I went searching for the starting point of this invisible urban river.

I followed two of the South River’s tributaries — Intrenchment Creek and Sugar Creek — through a tangle of neighborhoods in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The river led me past innumerable warehouses, through overgrown foliage, to private homes and an elementary school where a chain-link fence kept children from getting too close to the water.

Like many of the communities through which it flows, the South River is polluted by sewage and industrial waste and neglected by the local authorities charged with cleaning it up.

This is the plight of many urban rivers, even one as mighty as the South River, a headwater of Georgia’s largest freshwater system, the Ocmulgee and Altamaha River basins that flow into the Atlantic Ocean.

Rivers were once the heart of our communities, used for domestic, agricultural and navigational purposes. But they also have social, cultural and historical context. They connect people and communities. They are linked to our sense of place, our religious beliefs and our identities.

The South River is at the heart of a plan to revitalize 3,500 acres of forest into a massive urban park in south Atlanta. The forest would be bordered by I-285 to the south with an east-west border between Bouldercrest and Jonesboro roads.

The Atlanta City Council adopted the plan in the Atlanta City Design, but the South River Forest has stalled even though a similar project along the Chattahoochee River has moved forward.

Parcels of land that would have been part of the South River Forest — the Old Prison Farm and Intrenchment Creek Park — are slated to become an 85-acre police training facility and a movie studio expansion respectively. The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.

Residents who have spent decades battling DeKalb County, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division to clean up the South River and revitalize the watershed said this is the latest in a string of injustices targeting the river and the communities that surround it.

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

“Both developers took advantage of the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County’s willingness to renege on the promises made to vulnerable communities,” said Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) in a recent statement.

The South River Forest touches areas that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers some of the most vulnerable to social health stress factors. The river itself was named one of the most endangered rivers in the nation and the protest over development has become a national cause.

Once it flows outside the Perimeter, the South River is used for recreation. The South River Forest development offered an opportunity to bring a similar cachet to the urban portion of the river and to communities within the city limits.

But while local government has invested in Chattahoochee River Park, no such investments have been forthcoming for South River Forest, said Margaret Spalding, executive director of SRWA. Instead, there has been divestment.

“Why would people in Buckhead assume people in south Atlanta wouldn’t want the same thing in their communities?” she said. “Just because we have neglected this area and all of south Atlanta for so long doesn’t mean it is OK to continue to do that.”

Atlanta’s infrastructure was never built to highlight the waterways as an asset, Spalding said. But many major cities, such as Chicago and Paris, have used government funding to transform rivers.

The City of Atlanta and DeKalb County have the opportunity to do something few U.S. cities have done, and it only requires following through on a plan that has already been conceived and approved.

At Intrenchment Creek Park, the concrete barricades that once blocked the parking lot have been pushed aside. The Forest Defenders, a group of environmental extremists, have taken over the park and reopened it for the people.

I can’t pretend I’m not pleased to have access to the trail — for now.

The South River Trail is where I ride bikes and roller-skate with my daughter. It is where we took our puppy two years ago for her first long walk. It is where I have spent countless weekend mornings walking with friends.

The South River watershed is more than parcels of land to be carved and divided among influential entities. It is a place of community, history and tradition that is worthy of protection and preservation.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.