Middle Ledge Cliff-Dwellers

Little clay houses for you and me, Atlanta BeltLine, 2013, Artist Gregor Turk

Cliff castles on the BeltLine.

We are back to explore the area near the condo we consider buying off Monroe Drive, on the backside of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. The condo intrigues us because the view from the balcony shows trees and sky, no skyscrapers, no neighboring buildings. Not what one imagines in the middle of a city of 6 million people, a few blocks from Publix, Trader Joe’s and armies of Starbucks.

We want to find out what’s in those woods. My husband, Chris, and I walk right into the back part of the condo, right into the pool area – no security here to stop us – and through a gate that leads down the hillside, into the wooded area. The hill that slopes down from the pool’s not landscaped. It’s covered in wild bushes that aren’t pretty. On the neighboring slope, kudzu vines crochet a tangled quilt of leaves, squatter weeds that choke every plant that came before.

We walk underneath a canopy of trees. In the August heat and humidity, the leafy shade’s a break, but it doesn’t stop sweat leaking from our pores. We explore and talk, trying to determine if this wilderness is good or not – in terms of the condo purchase. On the one hand, it would be great to have a walking trail so close by. On the other, we aren’t sure it’s safe. Overgrown brush crowds both sides of the trail, which is not really a trail, it’s the suggestion of a trail, with spots of gravel poking up from dry clay, like afterthoughts of a road contractor’s sub-contractor.

We glance back up hill toward the four-story brick condos. Next door stands a mid-20th-century brick office building, whose backside resembles a ranch house. Sidewalks leading nowhere kissed the foundation good-bye years ago and they teeter in chunks. The next rain will carve more ground from under them. They will continue to descend at a glacial, but sure pace. It makes us worry about erosion, sinkholes and the condo foundation next door.

The area doesn’t look like it could flood, but we know from experience that water finds a way. Chris remembers losing everything in the May 2010 Nashville flood. His home on the Cumberland River filled with churning water while he hoisted belongings to higher ground. The water reached the top of his thighs just as the fridge tipped over and he felt electrical current. He dropped everything and fled.

The same day – 10 miles away – I stood in fear at my back door in the subdivision with no stream, river or pond. It rained 15 inches in less than 36 hours. Water rapids attacked the grassy hill between my home and my neighbor’s. Normal spring rains never brought more than a foot’s width of erosive water. The new stream churned eight feet across, white tops tumbling where they never belonged and weren’t welcome.  I threw everything on the ground that might stop water from reaching my house – dirt, bags of play box sand, garden mulch, pebbles, even bags of dried black-eyed peas. Water rose close to the kitchen door, to the chimney, to the floorboards.

When it finally stopped, the underside of my house looked like the bottom of a pier after high tide.  Water damage crept through studs and the threat of mold and rot emptied financial reserves for full repairs and drainage improvements.  

We were water-wary. Neither of us wanted a return ticket to adventures at the water park anytime soon.

On this hot day, we’re looking forward, not back. We know we’re lucky we survived and we’re happy to be here in Atlanta. We want to avoid an expensive real estate mistake.

We continue to explore. Mid-way down the path, I notice something odd. Rock ledges stick out from one side of the trail, the side furthest from the condos. Wedged into some of the rocks are miniature clay masterpieces, tiny little houses, all different. One miniature structure boasts Doric columns. Another speaks of The Parthenon. Yet another whispers its way west, a nod to Native American cliff dwellers. There’s no sign claiming this art. No explanation. No curator.  No entry fee. I snap a few photos. The display makes me think of a little girl’s tea party, where kids play at becoming grown-ups. I imagine at dusk fireflies might take refuge there in the houses, winking lights in the windows, Tinker Belle’s minions making more mystery.

On the way to the end of the rough lane, Chris, my husband, spies a wallet on the ground. We imagine all sorts of things that could have happened to the owner – none of them happy, all full of violence, danger and trysting lovers, especially lovers, lovers whose families don’t know they meet. We make up stories about how he came to be in this isolated wood. We imagine the wallet’s been there for months. We go through it, spy an unwritten check, search his YMCA card for a phone number, anything that might lead us to him. We call one fellow from a business card, but it’s a dead-end – just a voice recording.

On our way back to our car, air conditioning seduces us into a bar, where we ‘force’ ourselves to imbibe chilled white wine. Chris still wants to find the wallet’s owner and he chats up the restaurant hostess. She knows the man – he and his wife dine there often – she phones him and he comes to retrieve it, still dressed in cycling clothes. He lost it just an hour ago while riding his bike. He’s got a few kids and mentions his wife and a trip they’re about to take. Mysteries solved. He buys us another round of wine. We accept.  

We’re refreshed, but no closer to finding a place to live. Our offer falls through on the condo with the view of the trees. We wind up near midtown with a view of an old charmless building, a nice big balcony with some skyward view and dark, elegant hardwood floors.

We’re eight floors up, nowhere near the penthouse, about 12 blocks from Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. There’s a homeless shelter two blocks away. We buy this condo because the price is close enough to our budget, it’s close to my classes, close to the interstate for Chris, who commutes 15 miles every day for work.

When we got married in February 2012, Chris asked me what I really wanted to do ‘when I grew up.’ I took a deep breath and told the truth. “I really want to write and I’d like to pursue an advanced degree in creative writing,” I said. He was all in and together we built the foundation of a plan.

Before the wedding, we began sifting and sorting household wares. We sold and donated furniture, gave away duplicate kitchen items, purged our clothes closets. Since he lost nearly everything in the flood, this meant I gave up a whole lot of furniture and clothes. He lost all his family photos, mine were still stuffed in boxes, begging to be sorted before we moved.

We kept most of our art collected over twenty years and this was the only part of our relationship that clashed. It took several months in Atlanta to achieve an artistic post-nuptial truce.

We agree on the small, easy things. My ‘flying lady’ sculpture, all five inches of her perfectly balanced dark bronze body, gets to stay. She forever dives over the black granite counter, where Chris dangled her on a clear fishing line he tied to the fire sprinkler head.  She could be Tinker Belle’s twin sister, a miniature water-diving goddess, ready for 15 minutes of  Olympic fame. She’s my symbol for taking leaps of faith.

"Does this balcony make me look fat?" "No, really. Annie, does it?"

“Does this balcony make me look fat?”
“No, really. Annie, does it?”

Annie and Louie get to stay, too. They are two decorative lizards each about five inches long and made of brass, covered in verdigris, picked up in New Orleans, at an antique store where I spied them, resting before the next Mardi Gras. We gave them our middle names. Annie is smooth and lithe. Louis is shorter and sports horns and ridges. In Nashville one night before the wedding, I came home to find the two of them on the counter, bellies up, next to a wine glass, dribbles of red wine pooled in the bottom. Chris’s silly sense of humor, the kind that drew me to him from the beginning. A & L continue to show up in odd places around the condo from time to time, frisky little creatures.

Chris’s huge, realistic-styled café painting doesn’t work alongside my petite impressionistic tableaus and soft watercolor landscapes. We tuck two of his smaller café paintings in the kitchen where they fade away, like fireflies sleeping. A large café painting with a dramatic gold frame and expansive matting eventually lands on the wall of my mother’s condo, a bold jewel-encrusted dragonfly that seems at home above her traditional couch.

Chris wants to sell one of my paintings – a large acrylic that depicts two bridges spanning water. It’s not the water that frightens viewers – it’s the color palette that screams 1990s, one bridge a rusty burgandy red, the choppy water underneath pock-marked with turquoise and gold. The piece was painted by a self-taught Van Gogh art lover who stopped practicing art to start practicing more law, a wise decision. I bought it in the 1990s under the influence of two glasses of wine. I agree with Chris – our basement-level storage unit would make the perfect museum setting for this work.

Soft pastel portraits of me in my fiery-eyed youth are confined to time-out on a wall column facing our concrete balcony. There’s no danger a visitor will notice them or that the principal will ever release them from the pokey.

Our household arranged, our new lives take shape. Classes start. Chris commutes. I write.

In late fall, I take a break to walk the same path to see if anything’s new in Miniature Houseville. By now I’ve heard of Atlanta’s BeltLine project, a 23-mile loop inside the city to provide jogging, walking and biking trails, complete with the occasional art installation. The rough road that’s home to the rock ledge shows no sign of being connected yet to anything BeltLine-y.

But this time there’s a sign that explains the project. It’s just a laminated piece of paper stuck on a small post – flimsy – a good rain will wash it away. The project’s the brainchild of an art teacher and part of the plan includes exposure to the elements that will change the color of the clay and crumble away the tiny edifices over time. It seems there are more houses than before. Some now hide others, rows like little suburbs. Some have faded, losing their finer details. Tree leaves above are green, russet and gold, not yet brown and withered.

A few months later, in late January, we return to Miniature Houseville, an urban community in Rock Ledge, Atlanta. Dead leaves on the path and stuck to the mud below the ledges become leaf mold, a nourishing breakdown that will feed tree roots nearby. Plane after plane soars by overhead.

The sign explaining the project, which I planned to show Chris, is gone. But there are lots of new houses. One artist chose a higher ledge, further down the path, quite apart from the others. While others looked to the distant past for inspiration, this artist appears to be focused on the Modernism of the 1950s. Here he’s installed his modern home with clean lines, a lovely two-story house with floor-to-roof windows that open onto the forest. The clay is gray-white, new. The fireflies will have a fabulous view.

Further back, there are mushroom-roofed houses, new ones, nestled among the older houses that are browner and starting to crumble. They overlook a small subdivision of skinny pyramid shaped houses that look like Washington Monuments with pear-shaped bases.  Another nearby subdivision shows the artist succumbed to the temptation of skyscrapers.

Up high where just a few columned houses ruled before, now stand row after row of Greek-inspired homes, each more ostentatious than the last, columns complex with adornment, walls heavy, solid, determined to last centuries.

There’s been a lot of change. Someone cut the overgrown bushes along the path. In just 10 minutes, more than a dozen people amble along. A child rides by on a bike with his parents, a fellow in his 30s talks on speaker phone, his dog trails behind him, leash dragging the dirt. The path no longer seems wild and dangerous. It seems like it will grow into the BeltLine and that walkers and bikers have already accepted it. At least two or three groups of people stop to study the miniature houses.

The sidewalks still teeter at the top of the hill beneath the ranch-style office. Winter stripped away the kudzu quilt, revealing a huge clump of rusted metal ribbons, a still life of industrial waste mounded on the hillside. This in sharp contrast to the roses planted on the far side of the building, next to outdoor porches with empty tables and chairs.  Ceiling fans await the permission of spring.

Two condos are still listed for sale next to the wood, but we’re happy where we are, two middle ledge cliff-dwellers in midtown. We’re still not sure what we want to be when we grow up, but for now the fireflies have a place to tuck their wings at night and Annie and Louie only misbehave on weekends and Mardi Gras.

Modern outlook from the ledge

Modern outlook from the ledge

Epilogue:  The houses are crumbled, the natural result of all the rain this summer. Artist Gregor Turk, who organized the installation, wrote me a quick e-mail to say that he’s planning a new BeltLine installation soon.

Atlanta condos on BeltLine.

Not for sale.

 – by Sybil McLain-Topel


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