While many Atlantans can pinpoint Grant Park as the home of the zoo and Cyclorama, those may be the only things they associate with the 131.5-acre swath of greenspace. The city's fourth largest park, centered in the neighborhood south of Interstate 20 that shares its name, is also home to a swimming pool, ball fields, acres of lawn, towering trees and Fort Walker, one of the last remaining Civil War encampments in town. It also has the distinction of being the area's oldest, dating back to 1883, but that grande dame status means it needs a lot of care and attention.
Thirteen years ago, a group of concerned citizens formed the Grant Park Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining the park's grounds and amenities for future generations.
"The park had been through a lot of changes in 129 years," said Alisa Chambers, the Conservancy's operations director. "In 1999, when the area was going through a resurgence, neighbors wanted to do something to maintain it. So they formed a 'friends of the park' group and became a conservancy to take care of it."
Raising money for park projects has always been a challenge, but 10 years ago, the group created an event that's become one of the city's favorite festivals. The Summer Shade celebration draws about 40,000 visitors who stroll through an artists market, listen to live music, sample food from local restaurants and enjoy the shade of the park's towering trees.
"It's our largest fundraiser that supports projects and programs throughout the year," said Chambers. "But it's also a way to get people who may not have come here before to visit the park. Others just like coming back; they say, 'We want to enjoy the old trees, the great lawns and all the amenities in the park.' "
The two-day festival and some year-round projects are handled by a small army of volunteers who are passionate about the park.
"We could not do it without the community's help," said Chambers. "Especially in the last few years, as the city's park budget has been cut significantly, we're able to augment the work that needs to be done with volunteers."
One of those pitching in is Eric Nankervis, a 7-year resident of Grant Park who is heading the Summer Shade organizing committee for the second year.
"The festival is an annual event that a lot of neighbors not only look forward to, but also look forward to volunteering for," said Nankervis. "We have close to 300 who help out over the weekend. We start planning in January, and once we start, people are stepping up to volunteer."
Having the park as the community centerpiece is one of the best reasons to live in the neighborhood, said Nankervis. "I live about a block and a half away, so I go there a lot. But what's great about Grant Park is that it draws people from all over. They may come first to the zoo, but then they realize there's a big park around it. It's a real gem in Atlanta."
The Summer Shade festival is slated for Aug. 25 and 26. Information: www.summershadefestival.org.
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