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Dogwood Festival kicks off big events at park

By Bob Paslay

bpaslay@news-daily.com

Starting next week, the News Daily will be publishing a series of stories on day trips. Each week we will focus on one place that can be visited in a day.

It's the crown jewel of midtown Atlanta, an oasis in a sea of brick, metal, glass and traffic. Piedmont Park's 130 acres stand as a green and watered beauty holding steady against the growth and progress in which the grab for the almighty buck has become routine.

Thousands of people, all ages, flock to the park each weekend. It is a gathering place for the celebration of outdoors, with Frisbee throwing, dog walking, picnicking, jogging, swimming, walking, and even an occasional wedding.

And this weekend the legions will swell by many thousands as the annual Dogwood Festival gets under way. The festival is a mix of music, art, crafts, food, special events, a gathering of metro Atlanta companies trying to sell you something or give you something.

It is estimated that the Dogwood Festival, in its 69th year will draw 300,000 people, many from Clayton and Henry counties. Festival hours are noon to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Among the events will be canine Frisbee demonstrations at noon, 2 and 4 p.m. Friday and competitions from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The event is free but festival organizers "suggest" a $1 donation. Just drive to midtown, and this is the tricky part, find a parking space and walk into the park from one of the many entrances. Even attractions like the Margaret Mitchell House and the High Museum are within walking distance - if you are in reasonably good shape.

Bounded by Piedmont Street on the front and 10th Street on one side, the park is laid out in such a way that you can enjoy the sea of people or find a little cool relief under a shade tree away. Both 12th and 14th streets end at the park and both have wrought iron gates so the park is easy to find.

The National Weather Service says the weather this weekend will be pleasant with a high Friday of 64 and in the 70s Saturday and Sunday with partly cloudy to sunny conditions.

On a recent early spring afternoon, Derrick McFadden of Buckhead and Cheryl Williams of Marietta were sitting watching the ripples in the lake as other park visitors sat at the edge watching ducks drift by in a line. Already the white dogwoods and multi-colored azaleas are in full bloom.

"It reminds me a lot of Central Park in New York City," Williams says. "There is skating, walking running and everyone enjoying the park. It is a place of rest in the middle of all the hustle and bustle."

McFadden said they visit the park once or twice a month, "not nearly enough. It offers a lot." One advantage, he said, is there are restaurants only blocks away.

Kicking off a whole season of events, the Dogwood Festival will have a little something for everyone. An expected 220 artists will be displaying and selling their works. A large stage will be the venue for many different musicians while smaller performances will be held throughout the park.

Young Atlanta professionals Ritchie Halliwell of Grant Park and Richard Barron of downtown said they like the fact that you can find every type of person in the park enjoying different things.

"I like the Dogwood Festival. You can bring your blanket and beer and watch the bands play. You can come out and meet people," Halliwell said. Barron said, "It's good to have a place like this so you can come and get back to nature."

For new visitors to the park, the usual concerns are safety and parking.

Halliwell said "if you come early enough you can find a lot of side streets two or three blocks away. Then there is the MARTA which is only a few blocks away. You can ride it in and out."

"Just take the same precautions you would anywhere else. Just use common sense," Halliwell said. "If there are a lot of people as it is getting dark you are OK but I wouldn't straggle along if there aren't many people."

As one testament to the universal appeal, Deirdre Warren and Leslie Dowe, both of Edinburgh, Scotland were visiting the park Sunday. Friends in Atlanta advised them to take in the park. "It is lovely, beautiful," Warren said.

The park is managed by Piedmont Park Conservancy, a group of concerned citizens and civic leaders that formed a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Piedmont Park. In 1992, The Conservancy established a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Atlanta, making official the public-private partnership and mutual goals to rehabilitate and maintain Piedmont Park. Through corporate, foundation and individual contributions, Piedmont Park Conservancy has raised nearly $20 million in private funds to complete the first half of a master plan of restoration. Through its member support, Piedmont Park Conservancy funds landscaping maintenance workers and off-duty police officers to keep Piedmont Park safe, clean and beautiful, and offers a variety of educational programming through its new Community Center. If you can't find answers to your questions about the park on its website (www.piedmontpark.org) you can call the Consortium at (404) 875-7275

"Piedmont Park is so many things to so many people," said Consortium Director of Marketing, Allison DeShaw. "We see it as Atlanta's common ground." It is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Getting there

Finding the park is pretty easy, even for those unfamiliar with midtown Atlanta. Driving north on Interstate 75, exit at either 10th or 14th streets. You will then come up one of those streets and cross Peachtree Street, Juniper and come to Piedmont Avenue where the park begins.

If you take MARTA get off at the Midtown station which is on 10th Street, walk three blocks and you are at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and 10th Street. Either turn left onto Piedmont or keep walking on 10th. On Dogwood Festival days there are so many people you can just follow the crowds.

A shuttle bus will operate Saturday and Sunday to and from the Arts Center MARTA Station.

Parking

Midtown Atlanta near the park is filled with residences so on-street parking may be harder to find. You can park on 10th or Piedmont if you can find a space. A number of parking lots right near the park also open up for the Dogwood Festival and other events. Some people park a little farther away and walk. The police in Atlanta will tow so don't block driveways or park in no-parking zones.

A number of other parking garages this year have partnered with the Dogwood Festival. They are:

Colony Square: Corner of 14th Street and Peachtree $8; The Proscenium Building: Corner of 14th Street and Crescent Ave.; Midtown Plaza I & II: next to the Arts Center Station on W. Peachtree; Woodruff Center: 1280 Peachtree St.; 1293 Peachtree St. facility; 1175 Peachtree St. facility and First Union Building: 999 Peachtree St.

Other events

Starting April 16, tours of the park are offered each Saturday at 11 a.m. at the visitor's center. No reservations are required. Large groups can also ask for tours during the week. Saturday Safari, a weekly environmental adventure for kids begins June 16 with a different program each Saturday morning. The Atlanta Jazz Festival is Memorial weekend May 28 to 30 with a list of well-known performers. Screen on the Green are free movies every Thursday night in June. A Shakespeare Series will begin the first week of May. Atlanta Pride weekend is June 24-26. Updated lists are posted on the conservancy website.

History

To enhance your enjoyment of the park it might help to know a little about its history. This is a capsule from the website www.piedmontpark.org.

In 1887, the Gentlemen's Driving Club purchased 189 acres of land from Benjamin Walker to establish an exclusive club and racing ground for horse enthusiasts.

Several features of the park created between 1887 and 1895 remain evident today, including:

* Today's ball fields were carved out of the hillside below the Driving Club to form a horse racetrack. Five years later, this field hosted the first game in what has become the oldest intercollegiate football rivalry in the South, Georgia vs Auburn. From 1902 - 1904, the Crackers, Atlanta's original professional baseball team played ball on the fields of Piedmont Park before moving to a stadium on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

* A small lake was created from a spring that flowed into the park near today's Visitor Center for the exposition in 1887. In 1895, the lake was enlarged to approximately its current size of 11.5 acres and named Clara Meer.

* The stone balustrades scattered around the park once held steps leading to the major building built for the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition.

On June 15, 1904, the City of Atlanta purchased Piedmont Park and extended its city limits north to encompass the park acreage, as well as several developing neighborhoods between West Peachtree Street and North Highland Avenue.

In 1909, the City elected to transform the decaying fairgrounds into a park and enlisted Olmsted Brothers, pre-eminent landscape architects of the time, to develop a master plan for the park. Due to budget limitations, their plan for Piedmont Park was not fully implemented. Nevertheless, the Olmsted Brothers' 1912 plan greatly influenced the development of Piedmont Park. In fact, the current master plan, adopted by the City of Atlanta and Piedmont Park Conservancy in 1995, honors the brothers' original vision for the park.

While the park experienced few physical changes from the 1930s to 1960s, the next two decades were a sea of change. In 1976, the high ground of Piedmont Park was leased by the City of Atlanta to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. In 1979, the golf course was closed, freeing up 70 acres of green space on what is now Oak Hill and the Meadow. In 1983, Piedmont Park was closed to through traffic, creating a more pedestrian-friendly park and opening the pathways to a new mix of wheeled traffic - skateboarders, bicyclists, and rollerbladers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the rapid growth of organized events produced a dramatic increase in park usage. The Dogwood Festival (est. 1936), the Arts Festival of Atlanta (est.1954) and Gay Pride (est.1972) attracted large, diverse crowds to the park. In-park musical performances also took center stage, ranging from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Allman Brothers concerts, to the Montreux Jazz Festival. All of this increased usage and decreased funding resulted in citizens forming the Piedmont Consortium that has upgraded and continues to improve the park.

Coming next week: The Georgia Renaissance Festival.