Last week a homeless camp appeared beneath the bridge carrying Freedom Parkway over Atlanta, Georgia’s, BeltLine trail. The camp sprouted in corridor that has become world-renowned for its public art installations and its more vernacular graffiti tags and ephemeral performance art.
Beltline users passing the new homeless camp stopped and snapped iPhone pictures and talked about the new art installation. One woman I spoke with Saturday described it as provocative. I thought so, too. After all, Atlanta’s artists and art institutions have a long history of pushing buttons and expanding the envelope of acceptability. Whether it’s large-scale murals painted in gentrifying neighborhoods, the Little Five Points scene, or gender-bending performance artists, few can credibly challenge Atlanta’s street art street cred.
The Beltline “camp” appeared steps away from places where Atlanta’s homeless do sleep and cache their belongings. Homeless sites are common in the Freedom Parkway corridor; a short ways off to the east, a walk through Little Five Points any evening yields multiple encounters with women and men who busk and beg in the daylight and who sleep in doorways at night. Several more blocks eastward, there are homeless camps in the woods around Emory University and beneath a bridge carrying Ponce de Leon Ave. through the wealthy Druid Hills neighborhood.
The homeless are ubiquitous in and around Atlanta. An artistic rendition making a statement about homelessness doesn’t require too much imagination among Atlanta’s cultural landscape consumers. And that’s what BeltLine users — myself included — thought when passing by the new camp. “It’s nothing that deep,” said one of the security guards hired by a production company to watch the “camp.” I had stopped during a Sunday morning bicycle ride to ask about the “art installation” He explained that it was a television production set for the NBC show, “Constantine.”
After leaving the guard and the faux homeless camp, I pedaled away with more questions than answers about what I and so many others had mistaken as art. What if the “camp” had been an art installation that commodified homelessness? Did art in a context on the edges of real-life homeless camps cross some sort of propriety line? That may be a debate worth having.
The realization that settled in my mind as I rode away from the BeltLine was how effective the new urban amenity has become. Though the BeltLine is not without its critics — gentrification, displacement, higher housing costs along its edges — it has redefined a relict industrial rail corridor and created a critically important economic and creative engine.
It’s that creative engine on which I settled towards the end of my ride. I observed a cluster of signs — materials recycled into shelter and furniture — and I decoded them as art because of the setting: the BeltLine. In this simple act of semiotic gymnastics I arrived at an inarguable conclusion: The BeltLine works. Its users are conditioned to decode stuff that appears within its corridor in certain ways. I and all of the others who thought the “camp” was art are proof that the BeltLine is much more than a place for jogging, walking, biking, and dog walking. It is a space that challenges imaginations.
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein