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Atlanta’s Lake Claire Land Trust is a Sanctuary in the City

Go for the crunchy, calm vibes, and stay for Big Lou the Emu.

Lake Claire Community Land Trust is a hidden green gem in the city of Atlanta — one that many locals don’t even know about. Founded in 1986 by a group of visionary neighbors on land purchased at auction from MARTA, Atlanta’s mass transit system, the Land Trust was created as an oasis within the city limits, a place where people could enjoy nature and each other. Just a few minutes from downtown, locals regularly come to the Trust to walk their dogs, participate in a potluck or drum circle, take their kids to visit Big Lou the Emu, or just stroll through the calming gardens. Truly a communal space with peace and love at its core, the Land Trust also welcomes visitors and encourages them to start land trusts in their own neighborhoods. Their maxim: Every community should have a green retreat to call its own. With one visit, it’s clear why.

The Community Land Trust is located in Lake Claire, the eastern Atlanta neighborhood named not for an actual lake but for the intersections of Lakeshore and Claire Drives. Because most of the land was originally sold as empty lots in the early 1900s, each home is unique, with real stunners and historic gems hidden among the leafy trees. But the neighborhood is varied: Georgia’s first co-housing development is here, as is the oldest operating house of worship with a homeless shelter.

In 1986, MARTA completed its work on the East rail line and was ready to sell 1.3 acres of surplus land covered in trash and kudzu where Arizona Avenue dead-ended north of the tracks. A few enterprising Lake Claire neighbors who had been following MARTA’s progress bid on the land with the goal of turning it into a community green space and nonprofit. Their mission statement says it all: "The mission of the Lake Claire Community Land Trust is to acquire, maintain, and protect green space for neighborhood enhancement and education; and to provide a place for neighbors and friends to celebrate nature, community, and the arts."

All are welcome at the Land Trust, and many in the neighborhood and city take advantage of its friendly atmosphere. Surrounded by trees, gardens, and art, it is truly an urban oasis.

A hippie commune ethos reminiscent of the 1960s pervades the garden.Visitors immediately feel the love and good vibes manifested in colorful art and signage, Buddha statues, communal gardens, and the neighborhood kids frolicking about. There are composting bins and toilets and a solar powered pump to irrigate the gardens. Bee hives? Of course. The co-ed sweat lodge, one of the first structures built on the property, is the cherry on top. Peace and love, friends. Peace and love.

The Land Trust is perhaps best known for its drum circles, held in the moonlight on the first and third Saturday nights of every month for more than 20 years. But the Trust hosts multiple events throughout the year, including the No Nukes Y’all Jamboree fundraiser, a holiday crafts fair, a biannual Harvest Fest, and a Peace and Love Fest in the spring. To say nothing for the cook-offs, after school programs, and workshops like shiitake mushroom-growing.

What’s the nine-fingered society? It doesn’t even matter. The quirky plaque is charming in itself. There’s an eclectic assortment of hand-painted signs and sculptures throughout the garden grounds.

When the original trustees purchased the land from MARTA, it was covered in kudzu, a fast-growing vine that had completely overtaken the land. One could never tell, given the number of trees and plants surrounding the property now. Wood chip-covered paths lead to vegetable and flower gardens, a Japanese meditation garden, and a pond. Spots for quiet reflection abound. So successful has the redesign been that the Audubon designated the Land Trust as a wildlife sanctuary.

Plots within the 70 individual garden beds inside the Land Trust cost $35 per year to rent and maintain.

Families are the core of the Land Trust, and the many play areas and gazebos allow for impromptu performances. All Together Now, a program for families and kids of all ages, includes a puppet show about composting and a storytelling-and-s’mores session around the firepit.

Big Lou the Emu, the Land Trust’s most famous resident, originally belonged to founding trustee Norman Glassman, who brought Big Lou to Lake Claire in 1993 when he was just a little chick. The friendly emu enjoys being fed leaves and raw veggies found in the garden. Through the years, Big Lou has shared his enclosure with various animals including goats and chickens. His current housemates are Aidan and Eddie, two mallard ducks.

People of all ages come to the Land Trust just to see and feed Big Lou. He responds to calls of "Big," "Lou," or even just "Emu," and will happily amble over to the fence to say hello, especially if you have his favorite snack: grapes.

Aidan and Eddie, male mallard ducks, are the latest residents to make their home at the Land Trust. They spend most of their time swimming in Peace Pond. Lake Claire welcomes species of all stripes.

Photos by Jason Thrasher.

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