Mark Nelson hiked up some of the historic stone stairs he recently exhumed from head-high weeds in Chastain Park, part of months of his work to uncover fine stonework that is little-known even among park regulars.
“It reminds me of north Georgia,” said Nelson, who joined the Chastain Park Conservancy as director of operations and volunteer programs in January in a busy year for the park.
A devastating Jan. 4 fire at the conservancy’s headquarters – the day after Nelson started work – was the first challenge. The conservancy is now preparing for a move into a new headquarters building, while projects and changes keep coming, from a new playground addition to the completion of the multiuse path ringing the park.
And Nelson, sometimes joined by volunteers, continues the work of battling invasive species, revealing hidden features of the park, and opening up new areas, including what may become a new volleyball court along Alex Cooley Parkway.
“We’re adding usable acreage to the park with Mark’s work,” said Rosa McHugh, the conservancy’s executive director, in a recent interview at the temporary headquarters at Chastain Horse Park.
Small but powerful, the conservancy raises money, conducts programming and carries out maintenance to “go above and beyond what the city parks department can support,” says McHugh. It works from a 2008 master plan for park improvements. The latest item checked off was an addition to the popular playground on Alex Cooley Parkway, which was scheduled to celebrate an official ribbon-cutting on Sept. 14.
The July 2018 death of Ray Mock, a cofounder of the conservancy and its director of operations at the time, was a loss that shook the park’s many friends and supporters. Nelson came in with an impressive resume, having served in a similar position at the Piedmont Park Conservancy.
But then another tragedy struck, as a fire destroyed the Barn, a 1940s Quonset hut that served as the conservancy’s office. Nelson says he had just had time to move into his office there, and lost many personal items, including photos and professional certificates.
“That was bananas, unfortunately,” McHugh says of Nelson’s start. “But he’s risen up from the ashes and done a great job.”
“It was like a pizza oven,” she said of the fire. The exact cause remains unknown, though McHugh and Nelson say that city workers were installing electric wiring and heaters on the walls shortly beforehand. A surviving memento mounted in the temporary office is a corrugated steel panel from the Barn’s wall, painted with a picture of the old headquarters by McHugh’s father, Salvador Soltero.
The conservancy is preparing to move into a new home in an old city Department of Watershed Management garage that has been vacant for several years, ever since community opposition to the industrial-style use got it shuttered.
The renovations will cost about $290,000, according to City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, who cofounded the conservancy. He’s covering $100,000 of that from Renew Atlanta bond program funds his office is authorized to distribute.
“My goal is we will be in that building by the one-year anniversary” of the fire, he said, adding that there will be further “visioning” about future uses of the former headquarters site.
“We need to continue to make it world-class and focus on maintenance and completing the master plan,” Matzigkeit said of the park.
That’s the focus for Nelson, a longtime professional landscaper who, for now, is the conservancy’s only full-time employee doing maintenance. Many sections of the park, like sports fields and the golf course, are maintained by government or such other groups as the Northside Youth Organization.
But Nelson is responsible for about 65 of the gigantic park’s 268 acres.
“Piedmont Park was a challenge with all the events they have every weekend,” said Nelson. But Chastain “is actually larger if you factor in the golf course.”
He hopes to get at least one other full-time assistant, but for now, it’s just him and volunteer groups. And they’ve accomplished a lot. In the park’s wooded northern area, they’ve cleared invasive species and towering weeds to improve the sense of safety and to reveal elegant stone stairs, walls and picnic facilities, some of which McHugh says she didn’t know exist. The stonework has many fine touches, such as low walls with built-in benches.
Matzigkeit says the stonework was built in the 1930s or 1940s by prison crews and people employed by the New Deal-era federal Works Project Administration. Much of it has gone through cycles of being overgrown and cleared again, he said.
In a similar effort about 15 years ago, Matzigkeit said, he recalls helping to clear a grill site. “A person came by, crying, saying, ‘My mom and dad… were engaged at this grill,” he said.
Nelson is continuing the work so that today’s park-goers can create new memories. He and conservancy partners have other plans as well. Nelson has a proposal to redo the playground’s landscaping, and Watershed Management has a plan to dredge Hamburger Pond, he said.
And construction of a new multiuse path on Chastain Park Avenue is expected to start by the end of spring, said McHugh. That will connect to the path already running around most of the park and complete its loop.
Also on the conservancy’s agenda is raising funds to pay for all the work. Its big annual fundraiser concert, Rock Chastain, is scheduled for Oct. 3, with featured acts including the Gin Blossoms, Mama Dear, Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics. For more information, see chastainparkconservancy.org.