STOAPF (Save The Old Atlanta Prison Farm) was born from the desire to raise awareness of and to solve the environmental hazards on one of the most neglected and abused public properties in Atlanta.
The very real problems are reason enough to take action, but there is another side to the story. As sad as the history and current state of this land may be, we have more than just problems to motivate our cause.
We have a vision for the future!
The Old Atlanta Prison Farm is over 300 acres of land, making it the largest greenspace inside the perimeter. We see that it is full of enormous potential for our community.
In a spirit of hope and opportunity, we will be exploring this great potential in a series of visions. We invite you to join us in an ongoing discussion of the very real possibilities for the future of this unique, beautiful, and historic place.
We believe that the multifaceted vision should reflect the needs and desires of the community. We welcome and value your input! Please feel free to share YOUR visions for the Old Atlanta Prison Farm as we explore ideas of what is possible.
A SERIES OF VISIONS:
Not only are each of these individual visions possible, but the sheer size of the land means that they are literally ALL possible on this one piece of public property alone. There is plenty of room for everyone’s visions. With so much land available, so much could be done.
How about a top-notch, world class dog park?
Dogs are such intelligent animals. They are so close to their owners and truly members of the family.
A dog park allows a dog to run, play, learn, and socialize with other dogs and people. Especially for dogs with lots of energy or without a yard of their own, this is a priceless experience.
We want to build the largest and best designed dog park in all of Atlanta, perhaps the entire country. We envision a multiple acre park with ramps, stimulating courses, training areas, classes, and programs for training working dogs. This would be a fantastic attraction to our major regional park. We could make this the best dog park in America.
A park can have many different purposes. One of the most important purposes, especially in an urban environment, is to provide people with a place to gather and socialize – a place that doesn’t cost money to enjoy, but offers a variety of functions and opportunities to recreate.
A conventional park usually includes several basic features:
Grassy fields for casual sports
Picnic tables and benches
Playground for children
It may also include grills for cookouts, specific types of sports fields, walking trails, a dog friendly area, statues or monuments, and natural features like bodies of water.
In the middle of cities, parks are a welcome break from the concrete, steel, and asphalt of urban infrastructure. Just as importantly, they provide an autonomous zone where people can meet and enjoy each other’s company without the pressure of making a purchase or being hassled for loitering. In a world where almost all property is inaccessible to the public, a park is incredibly valuable resource for any neighborhood.
As we continue our series of visions, we will explore certain features that a park can include. Because the Old Prison Farm property is such a large and diverse piece of land, there are plenty of potentials to explore.
Without a doubt, a nature preserve is the most obvious, inevitable, and important potential use of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm property.
So much of the appeal of this place is its natural beauty, wildlife, and unique landscapes.
It is home to many types of plant and animal species whose existence continues to be threatened by the elimination of natural habitats in the name of progress. The trees that populate the land mitigate the air pollution caused by urbanization and provide the oxygen we breathe, among other benefits. The streams and ponds are part of a larger network of waterways that are crucial to our entire ecosystem. None of these things are abstractions. They are a very tangible reality that we would do well not to ignore.
There are countless ecological reasons why cleaning up and taking care of this land is especially important. For the sake of environmental preservation, protecting the majority of the property from development is the ethical thing to do.
Because the majority of the land is within a flood plain, it also makes practical sense to leave most of it in its natural state.
Even from a cost perspective, a nature preserve is the best and easiest way to take care of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. The price of maintaining nature trails is very small compared to the environmental cost of allowing the continued abuse and neglect of this beautiful and beneficial place.
The land has seen a massive infestation of exotic, nonnative plants, but it can be restored to a more native piedmont forest with the use of careful planting. We are in favor of forest canopy restoration, and we envision keeping the land as a nature preserve along all the waterways. We seek the options that will support the greatest diversity, like song bird habitat and open meadows. We envision incorporating aspects of permaculture, like an “edible forest” with fruit trees. (We’ll go into more detail on this in our Eco-park part of the vision series.)
We envision walking the trails teeming with life – life that is protected from the abuse of illegal dumping and pollution caused by neglect.
We envision a gorgeous oasis of natural beauty and wildlife that acts a regional landmark of environmental preservation, an eco-tourism destination, and simply a beautiful place to enjoy nature – a place that this neighborhood and our whole city can be proud of.
Thanks to sheer size of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm property, there is more than enough space to incorporate a variety of features and functions without compromising the vision of environmental preservation. Potential use of the land includes sports fields for a variety of athletic activities.
By providing the neighborhood with a place to play, we offer people the opportunity to get outside, get some exercise, and enjoy the camaraderie of a good game. This can be a great way to meet your neighbors and socialize in a safe, fun environment.
Perhaps there are some sports that are underrepresented in the Atlanta area. There may not be too many places to play a game of Cricket, for example. Another great possibility is a Frisbee Golf course, which can be integrated into a landscape with minimal disruption to the environment. Even a simple grass field can host an exciting game of Soccer or Rugby.
Certain sports can have cultural connections as well. As more folks move into Atlanta from countries like India, Trinidad, Nigeria, Hong Kong, and Jamaica, we’ll see an increased demand for the games of the commonwealth countries.
Some potential sports fields and features include:
Baseball / Kickball
An ecological park is different than a conventional park or nature preserve, though there is some overlap in functions. What makes a park “ecological”?
A greenspace with natural habitat is what links a space directly to ecology - a place that provides the opportunity to observe various plants and animals in their native environment. A true ecological park aims to protect the ecosystem of the land and is managed with special attention to caring for the species that inhabit it. Protected areas can offer the opportunity for research and scientific study in addition to leisure and recreation.
As mentioned in the Nature Preserve vision, this land has seen a massive infestation of exotic, nonnative plants, but it can be restored to a more native piedmont forest with the use of careful planting. This could include native species such as crabapple, blackberries, blueberries, pecan, pawpaw, elderberry, and many other edible producing plants. Forest canopy restoration and cleaning up and preserving waterways are two main goals of environmental protection.
In addition to preserving, protecting, and fostering native plants and species, so much open space can incorporate aspects of permaculture. Permaculture is, very simply, “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient”. It is actually an entire field of study that observes and utilizes the patterns of nature to design both human and natural habitats that maximize the benefit to both.
A major example of using permaculture principles is the idea of an “edible forest” or “food forest”. By mimicking the stages of natural forest growth, humans are able to co-create a productive environment with nature, rather than against it (unlike most conventional agriculture and development). This would include a variety of noninvasive trees and plants that produce useful food, medicine, fiber, and fuel, as well as providing habitat for native species. By growing low maintenance, productive species, visitors can enjoy fruits, herbs, and flowers by simply taking a walk through the (edible) woods. Depending on the stage of forest growth, available species will vary in time. Even the more manicured areas of a park can incorporate edible landscaping – useful species of plants and trees planted in and around human use areas. These sorts of projects can provide endless opportunities for ecological education and can taste good too!
Another way to utilize permaculture and ecological principles is to design them right into the features present in an otherwise conventional park. Restroom facilities can include composting toilets to prevent excess water use and skylights to prevent excess electricity use. Parking lots can be made out of less impactful materials than asphalt and any electric power could be provided by solar panels, for example. The more ecology is inherent in the overall design of the park, the more opportunities it provides for environmental education and demonstration. In this way, the Old Atlanta Prison Farm property can lead the way to a new type of park in Atlanta. If designed well, it serves as an example of the future of development - a vision of stewardship that embraces the natural environment for future generations.
The only thing better than a good concert is a good concert – outdoors!
For anyone who loves music, seeing musicians perform live in person is one of life’s greatest pleasures. All the better if it’s outside in a beautiful environment where you can enjoy the fresh air along with great tunes. It’s especially nice to be able to roll out a blanket and have a little picnic too.
Here in Atlanta, we love our festivals and outdoor events. There’s always room for another beautiful place to enjoy these events. As a matter of fact, there isn’t a single outdoor music venue in all of DeKalb county. That’s right. Not a single one. For the first outdoor venue in DeKalb, there is likely to be no better a place than the Atlanta Prison Farm!
Behind the original prison buildings, there is an old gravel quarry. If the venue were located in this area, it would offer a unique, expansive view of the surrounding land as a backdrop to the concerts.
While some venues may boast things like large expensive sound systems and auditorium seating, an outdoor music venue can be as simple as a small covered stage and a grassy field. Despite its simplicity, it can provide a wonderful opportunity to gather together for a good time that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, all for relatively little cost.
A good outdoor venue also provides the opportunity to host community oriented events like fundraisers. Having an event outside allows for room to breathe and the freedom to enter and exit at your leisure. Another benefit to having a stage is the opportunity to enjoy other types of performances as well. An outdoor venue is great way to have conventions, speakers, theater groups, or stand-up comedy.
Sharing food is one of the most effective ways to bring people and communities together. This is especially true if the community grew that food themselves. All across the country, there is a movement to reconnect people with the food they eat by forming community gardens and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs. Atlanta is no exception to this. Yet, we still have areas of the city that are considered ‘food deserts’ – that is, there is no easily accessible way for locals to acquire fresh, nutritious food. One means of addressing this issue is establishing gardens run by the community.
In the Atlanta area, there are plenty of examples of successful community gardens in neighborhoods like Oakhurst, Grant Park, Poncey-Highland, Edgewood, and West End. On a map of Atlanta, you can find them to the north, east, and west. To the south, in the area of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm property, there is a definite lack. This is a void that would be entirely possible to fill by dedicating a portion of the land to a large community run agriculture program.
This could include small individual plots, raised beds, greenhouses, chicken coops, shared fields, orchards, or even a food forest. Produce could include fruits, vegetables, herbs, medicines, mushrooms, eggs, fibers, and fuels.
The benefits of a community garden are plentiful. It can bring neighbors together to share in meaningful work and enjoy the fruits thereof. Many hands make light work, so while it would seem that gardening and farming are labor intensive, a small group of volunteers can work wonders in a short time. It provides an opportunity to get to know each other, learn new skills, interact with nature, learn ecology and nutrition, and eat delicious, nutritious food for pennies on the dollar! Gardening allows children, as well as adults, to learn or be reminded of where their food comes from. The educational opportunities are endless.
As a garden becomes established and provides harvests, excess food can be donated to local shelters or people in need. It can also be sold at local farmers markets or a roadside stand, which can provide funds to reinvest directly back into the community. Anyone who is a member of the garden has access to the tools and knowledge of the group. People living in apartments or situations that make gardening impossible can enjoy their own plot of land to work. A good community garden opens up possibilities for people with fewer options, and connects people to each other in a meaningful way by uniting them towards common goals which benefit everyone.
Many aspects of a community garden overlap into ecology, permaculture, and the eco park. In some ways, coming to together to grow food is a return to a society and culture that values people, community, nature, good food, and the ways these things relate and mutually support each other. The Old Atlanta Prison Farm property is a unique opportunity to grow in this direction. It’s a win for everyone!
Many words have been written about the importance of the arts and culture in society. A world without creativity and expression isn’t a world most of us would want to live in. As the efficiency and automation of our machines and systems continues to increase, creative works are more important to humanity than ever before. They help us communicate about deeper subjects at deeper levels. They entertain, educate, and perhaps even enlighten us. The arts certainly allow us to express in ways that may not be possible in other contexts of life. Art breathes life into the inanimate and brings color to gray walls. Creativity in art, music, architecture, food, and fashion help us define our identities as members of groups and as individuals. Without it, culture would just be an empty word.
People are what define culture. A concert without musicians is just a stage. A festival without a crowd is just an empty field. When we gather to share our offerings with each other, we create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. The value of this is more than just economic. In our globalized world, we now have the opportunity to see sights, hear sounds, and taste flavors from all over the planet without leaving our own city. The diversity of our city’s population affords us the luxury of being exposed to new sensations and understandings about the greater world around us.
Cultural events temporarily transform an ordinary place into an exciting opportunity to meet new and different people, learn about different subjects, and actually experience a bit of something we may never have experienced before. Almost without exception, we are all the richer for it.
A beautiful place like the Atlanta Botanical Garden hosts world class exhibits like the breathtaking glass work of Dale Chihuly. A wide open expanse like Piedmont Park hosts events like the Atlanta Arts Festival and the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Stone Mountain Park hosts cultural events like the Indian Festival and Pow-Wow. Whether they bring artists from far away, support local and regional artists, or host specific cultural events, the value of these places cannot be underestimated. The Old Atlanta Prison Farm property is poised to be Atlanta’s next great venue of this kind.
Aside from a nature preserve, there is one other obvious and very important potential use of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm property: A historical site.
This land is rich in history. Though not all of the history is particularly pleasant, we would be wise to remember and honor those who have come before us. There are stories to be heard and lessons to be learned from this particular and peculiar piece of land tucked away in a quiet corner of Atlanta, Georgia. Sharing these stories helps paint a picture of what was here before us and provides invaluable perspective to where we come from as a people. A place with history is an opportunity to preserve the knowledge and teach the lessons that would otherwise be lost in time. Learning our history helps to determine where we will go in the future.
The Old Atlanta Prison Farm has several storylines to follow:
US Penitentiary in Atlanta – Honor Farm No. 2: This unique landscape is probably best known as the former site of a working prison farm. From the 40s up until 1995, inmates of the Honor Farm No. 2 worked the land and produced agricultural products like vegetables, grain, dairy, and hogs. Many of the existing buildings on site are ruins of what was once the correctional facility.
Battle of Atlanta – Civil War – Cobb’s Mill Historical Markers: DeKalb county pioneer William Cobb once operated a grist mill on the land adjacent to the property. It served as an important landmark for the Confederate troops in the Battle of Atlanta, fought July 22nd, 1864.
Carnegie Library Stones: In 1902, Atlanta’s first public library opened, and it was demolished in 1977. To this day, various pieces of this historic building are scattered throughout the property.
Zoo Atlanta burial grounds for large animals: In more recent history, the property may have also served as burial grounds for an elephant, a gorilla, and possibly a giraffe.
Native American Land: Before any prisons or Civil War battles, there were Native Americans living on this land. This is one of the few remaining undeveloped places in Atlanta that may be able to teach us more about the people that lived here long before us.
Before this land was a prison farm, it was the Old Key Plantation, named after James Key, a former mayor of Atlanta. It was also the site of Cobb's Mill, which played a critical role in the Civil War and the Battle of Atlanta. The Old Atlanta Prison Farm and the Old Fulton County Prison Farm (which is now Chastain Park) have long, very mixed histories. Just as we did with what is now Chastain Park, we should save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. We need a historical marker.
The Old Atlanta Prison Farm was a federal farm which spanned all of the way to what is now the GBI and Georgia Regional Hospital on Panthersville Road. For a very good read about the federal prison farm system (and an excellent read overall), check out the book Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk and John G. Neihardt.
The oldest buildings along Key Road are part of the era of federal prison farms. Without central heat, it was a very difficult place to be at best. Many see the prison farm system as part of the brutal enforcement of post Civil War segregation. The term "Honor Farm" may seem dishonest to many who died here while serving time for what was often nonviolent offenses. The cemetery on the land has many unmarked graves. There is a sadness in that place.
Sam Massell was the last mayor to manage the Old Prison Farm. Sam began the official process of shutting it down. (It would be many years later before it was entirely closed.) Over 50 years ago, Mayor Massell had seen enough long lines of ambulances taking sick or injured inmates to get treatment at Grady's ER. Consider that at that time, over 50 years ago, Grady still had segregated hospital services. Closing the Old Prison Farm was a bold move on Sam's part.
And now it’s time for us to make the next bold move.
It’s time to clean this place up for good and allow it to fulfill its true potential as an amazing destination for our community.
Incorporating the Old Atlanta Prison Farm as a historical site is a very important aspect of the STOAPF mission. This could be as elaborate as a museum, statues, and monuments. It could be as simple as a few sectioned sites with historical markers or placards. The purpose is what’s important – Let’s remember our history and honor those who came before us.
We started this series with nine visions total, but due to popular interest and relevancy, we felt this one deserved a vision of its own.
Trails are the original roads. Long, long before the invention of the automobile, or even the domestication of animals, humans have been walking on trails to get where they're going. As roads for cars have become the dominant type of "trail" in our cities, we've lost touch with the human scale of things. It's easy to zip through a place in a car without seeing or experiencing much of anything. Yet, when we slow down to walk or ride a bike through, we are immersed in the place we're exploring. The journey becomes as or more important than the destination itself. We can actually get to know the place we live in or are visiting, rather than seeing it pass by in a blur.
No one needs an explanation of the danger of our dependence on fossil fuels and the automobiles that burn them. Around 70% of global warming gases come from cities. Clearly, a good bit of that is from the cars we drive. While there is no one obvious or easy solution towards decreasing our carbon footprint, we would be wise to genuinely consider how we can make car-less travel a real option for people. One of the ways this happens is by establishing trails that connect different neighborhoods, cities, and sites to each other.
The Old Atlanta Prison Farm has fantastic potential to be a nexus of crossroads and extended trails in the Metro Atlanta region.
The property is the current end of the South River Trail, which will one day go all the way to Arabia Mountain and on to Rockdale county. The trail system can connect to the Beltline via the Intrenchment Creek flood plain. Trails can connect to Constitution Lakes Park and to Brownwood Park in East Atlanta. Imagine trails connecting to the Chattahoochee River. How about a trail that runs right up to the international side of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport? A good trail system can act as a major connecting artery for residents and visitors to walk, run, or bike to and through the Old Prison Farm property and surrounding areas.
So why do we see trails as critical? Well, they work, and they're safe. In other parts of the country, there are already great examples of trail systems in place. Many far-sighted cities like Denver, Colorado have over 1000 miles of trails that link the federal parks and surrounding communities. Many western counties like San Mateo, California have even more extensive networks. Trails can take many cars off the road and provide opportunities to explore places that cars can't go.
STOAPF is not particularly in favor of a park district. Instead, we support a regional park and trail network, and we propose that the Old Atlanta Prison Farm acts as a major hub.