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Through soccer, dead spaces become community places at West End & East Point

I recently took a walk with Sanjay Patel, of Soccer in the Streets, to learn how they are working to grow the Station Soccer program, we visited projects near the MARTA stations at West End and East Point — and to find out how they connect with neighborhoods.

Through his work with Soccer in the Streets, an Atlanta non-profit that provides soccer programs for underserved youth, Patel came up with the idea of using empty spaces near these transit stations to offer free soccer to kids. Fees for adult pick-up games at the pitches are funneled back into the kids’ programs.

West End Station

There’s much more to the program than simply sports and exercise. Sanjay is drawing from his own experiences in the U.K., where spaces around rail stations can be hubs of activity rather than just places you pass through quickly, to challenge our expectations of community connections to transit-served places.

“If you go into communities in and around stations right now, the station itself is often thought of as a place to take transit and leave,” says Patel. “What we hope to create is a community hub that’s a connection point, but that also becomes a social gathering space. Where people of all ages, all generations can gather, to not only play, watch, learn, grow, but where social capital is being built. You then become proud of the spaces within your community, and that transit hub suddenly becomes a connection hub.”

West End Station, before soccer
For years, this area beneath the elevated tracks at West End MARTA Station was an unused patch of grass and dirt, serving the community in no way.
Today, what used to be an unused patch of grass in now regularly filled with kids and parents, some from the surrounding neighborhoods.

The two pitches at West End Station are built over what, for many years, was nothing but a long stretch of fenced-off grass and dirt beneath the rail line. It was a space that offered nothing to the nearby Adair Park and West End neighborhoods — it didn’t bring people together, it wasn’t activated with events.

Today, it plays a part in developing what Sanjay refers to as social capital. He says: “Social capital really boils down to bringing people together. If you think about this was up until a month ago, it was a totally dead space.”

And after seeing the impressive amount of life that’s here on game days, with parents from the nearby community and from elsewhere chatting as their kids play, it becomes apparent that Atlanta has been accepting vacant, disused spaces near MARTA Stations for too long. We’ve been slow to understand the social good that can be gleaned from better use of these trackside areas.

From West End, we took the train south to East Point Station and took a quick walk across the street to see the amazing transformation of an empty lot into a hub of intergenerational activity.

What was here before Station Soccer came along, across from the East Point MARTA Station: no activity, no mural. A dead space.
After station soccer happened at East Point
Here’s that same space in East Point, now with kids playing soccer and a mural being painted.

Those multiple generations in attendance at the events are important to Sanjay. “We’re looking at it right now and you’ve got over 25 kids and a whole group of adults,” Patel says. “A month ago, there would’ve been no one here. We’ve got three generations of people gathered here.”

The spark of life that this program is lending to East Point extends into later hours as well, which offers a chance for next-door Oz Pizza to join in.

Patel explains: “At night time there are adult leagues here and they go on until 10 PM. It’s lit up at night and people are also out here at the restaurants. The [Oz Pizza] restaurant owner is thinking about making the entire side wall glass because people are wanting the window seats.”

Indeed, the restaurant has embraced the activity to the point that they’ve installed soccer-ball lights outside.

Oz Pizza, soccer-ball lights outside.
Oz Pizza has really embraced the activity happening next door with the soccer pitch by adding soccer-ball lights outside.

As we stood on the sidewalk watching a game, we saw random pedestrians stopping to enjoy the new vibrancy (this pitch opened only a few months ago). I asked Sanjay what he’s heard from locals about this new life for a formerly-empty property.

He said: “There’s been a lot of positive feedback not only because of this revitalization of a dead space, but they’re really proud of things like the mural, and the fact that there’s activity now. Often what can happen in these dead spaces, it can create activity that you don’t want to see. Now you’re seeing things that are vibrant, healthy, energetic, and there’s the color — the art is a big part of this as well.”

Several organizations have partnered with Soccer in the Streets to help fulfill the Station Soccer vision including MARTA, TransFormation Alliance, the City of Atlanta Dept of Planning and notably Atlanta United FC. Players from ATL UTD have come to visit the kids, and the team has donated benches and more to the program.

One organization that could stand to become a partner: the Georgia Department of Transportation. Main Street in East Point separates the MARTA Station from the soccer pitch. It’s a state road, meaning neither MARTA nor the City of East Point can make any improvements without GDOT approval. A safer crossing for pedestrians is badly needed. On the way back we stood at the crosswalk as a couple of cars zoomed by, not stopping for us as they should.

Main Street in East Point separates the MARTA Station from the soccer space. It’s a state road, where neither MARTA nor the City of East Point can make any improvements without GDOT approval. One needed improvement: a safer crossing for pedestrians.

A flashing beacon or some other signal would be appreciated. Lee Street outside of West End Station is also in need of some fixes for pedestrian safety. As we continue to challenge our expectations of what spaces around transit stations can do for communities, we also need to expect new things from the design of streets that surround the stations and nearby neighborhoods.