Scott Petersen takes a quick swing at the bramble with a machete from Colombia. Fwang! A path opens in the tangled tract where prisoners once toiled under the sun.
Another few steps. The machete sings again. Petersen points at a live oak, where a limb just furred with new spring leaves casts a shadow on the land. Inmates probably took a break under that tree. That pond in the distance? Convicts herded cows into its depths.
These are just few of the sights at the old Atlanta Prison Farm. The erstwhile farm, east of the city off Moreland Avenue, operated from the early 20th century to nearly its end. For decades, it was the place where judges sentenced Atlanta’s petty thieves, public drunks and others who ran afoul of the law. All that remains now is a handful of crumbling buildings hiding in the rolling folds of 350 acres.
Petersen and others are at the forefront of an effort to convert the site into a DeKalb park. It’s been the topic of meetings, emails and texts. A Facebook page, Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, extols the site’s potential as a link on a greenway path extending from the Atlanta Beltline to Rockdale County.
It could be, except for — Fwang!
“This has been a dysfunctional thing between DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta,” he said.
The city owns the land, in unincorporated DeKalb County. A spokesperson for Mayor Kasim Reed said Atlanta is not negotiating with anyone to sell it.
DeKalb has the money to buy the tract as additional green space, with cash left over. Voters in 2005 approved $230 million in bonds for road improvements, libraries and parks. Of that amount, $36 million, designated for parks, remains unspent.
But some DeKalb officials don’t appear interested. That rankles DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon, whose district includes part of the prison tract. She wants to put the farm on the county’s list of park projects. Gannon hasn’t been able to convince other commissioners to OK that proposal.
“The county doesn’t have a good spending plan,” she said. “It’s got all this potential.”
The balance of the tract lies in the district represented by DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson. On this proposal, and others, Gannon and Johnson have clashed.
In an emailed statement, Johnson mustered limited enthusiasm for the old farm.
“…I am in favor of acquiring the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, but will not purchase this property blindly,” his email read. “There are still many components that need to be considered, and worked through with the appropriate people.”
So Petersen walks, swings his machete, and grumbles.
On a recent sunny weekday, he and pal Joe Peery took a tramp all over the tract. Mr. Butters, Peery’s yellow dog, came along, dashing through bushes and sniffing mysterious scents.
Sun peeked through hardwoods just beginning to green. The land rose, dipped. Petersen stopped at the edge of a lake –lake No. 1, he called it. No. 2 is just over a nearby rise.
“Most people I bring here say, ‘God, Scott, it’s like we’re 100 miles away from the city of Atlanta.’” Petersen grinned. “The Gold Dome is not five miles away.”
Reminders of the city abound. Jets leaving Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport aren’t too high off the ground when they scream past. Traffic from nearby I- 285 is a constant rumble. There’s also the Atlanta Police Department’s firing range, located on the other side of Key Road; it regularly sounds like a young war.
Because the old farm is easily accessible, people have abused the site, which closed in the mid-1990s. By then, farming operations had ceased.
The site is littered with tires, some with trees growing through their centers. Vandals last year set fire to an old prisoners’ dormitory. For reasons lost to history, the remains of a railroad chemical car rest on a hilly slope; skateboarders have embraced it as a practice spot, riding inside its curved sides. On a muddy road in the middle of the farm is a discarded Hammond organ.
Petersen grimaced at the organ. “People have disrespected this property for a long time.”
Movie producers like it. Arnold Schwarzenegger used the site for scenes in “Sabotage,” released last year. The director of a local indie horror film used the farm for some scary segments. Filming also recently wrapped up at “the gardens.” That’s Petersen’s name for a flat tract, hard on Intrenchment Creek. The land is soft and fertile — perfect, Petersen thinks, for a community garden, maybe an expanded picnic spot. Another close-by site, shaded with young pines, would make a great athletic field.
“Here we have something that’s been abused, neglected,” he said. “This could be, for Atlanta, as big as New York’s Central Park.”
Petersen’s ramble took him across a creek and toward Key Road. He stopped midway, where great, gray stones lay among the undergrowth. They looked like the remains of a lost civilization — and, by some measure, they are. The marble chunks, some chiseled with the names of famed authors, once graced the facade of Atlanta’s old city library. The city razed the structure and carted the stones east of town.
The walk ends on the edge of Key Road, a half-mile from Moreland. Petersen regularly conducts tours of the site, and just as routinely telephones Atlanta and DeKalb officials, begging them to work out a deal for the residents, the taxpayers who fund their salaries.
He is, Petersen admits, a genial nuisance. “That’s what I want on my tombstone: ‘He was a polite pain in the neck.’ ”