Above the Waterline: In praise of Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park

Photos by Michael Halicki

On a sunny November afternoon – just two and a half miles from Georgia’s State Capitol – a large red-tailed hawk flew into a hornbeam tree with something bright red in his (or her) sharp talons. As we slowly approached the bird, I was astonished at its size and magnificent beauty; it held steadfast to what we could now see had once been a squirrel. Because the prey had gotten caught (temporarily) in a tree branch, the hawk did not fly away immediately, allowing several minutes of intense urban wildlife observation.

Another visitor to the recently-completed Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood told us that the hawk has lived in the area for some time. The sighting perfectly capped my tour of the four-plus acre greenspace: a new park developed by the city of Atlanta with three lead nonprofit organizations (Park Pride, The Conservation Fund and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper), community residents and dozens of other partners.

Once a middle-class African-American neighborhood, home to academic, religious, political and business leaders, the English Avenue and adjacent Vine City neighborhoods transitioned in the 1970s, as older residents moved on. The area was allowed to deteriorate into a pocket of poverty and frequent crime with large numbers of abandoned and boarded-up houses.

In 2006, a 92-year-old grandmother named Kathryn Johnston was killed by members of the Atlanta Police Department when they executed an illegal “no knock warrant,” just a block from the park that now memorializes her life and legacy. The tragedy forced needed reforms within the city’s police department and the repeal of an unconstitutional law that allowed for the arrest of any citizen without “probable cause.”

Adding to the community’s economic and social problems were serious environmental abuses: flooding, sewer overflows and stormwater pollution. The neighborhoods had been built on low-lying ground in the upper portion of the Proctor Creek watershed, which starts near downtown Atlanta and flows to the Chattahoochee River. As the urban core became increasing developed in the late 20th century, impervious areas, unable to absorb the storm runoff, repeatedly sent torrents of water downstream, flooding roads and buildings. In 2002, one flash flood resulted in six feet of sewage-filled floodwater that destroyed dozens of homes and damaged hundreds more; the city had to raze 60 homes (in an area that will become another city park) and relocate hundreds of residents.

Park Pride and The Conservation Fund completed a vision planning process in 2010 that was driven by the local community with a goal of identifying potential greenspace and parks that would help address flooding and promote renewal in the long-blighted area. Initially called Boone Park West, Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park is the third and largest of these planned parks to be completed; a celebratory ribbon-cutting event for the $4.4 million project, financed with private and public dollars, was held in late November.

Andrew White, Park Pride’s Director of Park Visioning, managed the development and implementation of the park’s master plan, which included input from hundreds of residents. He believes that the greenspace will become “the heart” of the English Avenue Community, especially as the area is revitalized through targeted, coordinated investments and programs provided by the nonprofit Westside Future Fund and others.

I was particularly impressed with the park’s green infrastructure measures – rain gardens, stormwater swales (shallow vegetated areas) and large underground chambers that capture 3.5 million gallons of stormwater annually. Built with the area’s ecology in mind and using native plants, the structures help clean and detain the stormwater to reduce local flooding and sewer overflows. Colorful and easy-to-understand educational signs in the park explain what a watershed is and how rain gardens and other stormwater control measures work.

Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth says: “While there have been significant water quality improvements in Proctor Creek in recent years, the innovative stormwater controls installed in this park represent another important step toward reclaiming the long-polluted waterway.”

With the climate crisis on our minds daily – as we learn how fast our planet is heating – I am inspired by local successes like Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park. This example of climate adaptation shows how diverse interests can come together to reduce current and future risk for people and communities, as our region experiences the more intense rainfall events that are projected for the coming decades.

Writer Jonathan Franzen wrote a controversial article about the climate crisis recently in The New Yorker. While he is largely pessimistic about our chances to stop the planet’s warming and likely catastrophic consequences, he ends his piece by emphasizing the positive outcomes that can be achieved in our own backyards.

Franzen says: “Any movement toward a more just and civil society can be considered a meaningful climate action… Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically – a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble – and take heart in your small successes.”

I take considerable heart in the Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park and all of the collaborative efforts being undertaken by government, business and nonprofit leaders to provide safe, healthy neighborhoods in our city.

Wishing you all the natural joys of the season!

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

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