Roman Mars Describes Athens GA As It Is

This is the third and final episode in a three-part series of Roman Mars recording on-location guides to the design features and interesting spots in cities he loves. Roman moved to Athens, Georgia, to pursue a PhD in plant genetics, but dropped out and got into the local music scene instead, and started making his way toward radio. Note: this series is made possible by the all-new 2024 Lexus GX and SiriusXM who heard this idea, gave no notes, and said just go make something cool. 

There’s an arch in Athens where the town transitions to the university. This pretty modest three column black metal gateway arch was erected in 1857, and it stands at the top of a couple of stone stairs that marks the entrance to the campus. Roman himself isn’t supposed to walk through the arch, in theory, because he never graduated.

Legend has it that a freshman by the name of Daniel Redfern in 1905 vowed to never cross under the arch because he believed that until he graduated from the university, he did not possess the three virtues for which it stands: That’s wisdom, justice, and moderation. And this morphed into this widespread superstition. And it is now believed that passing under the arch before you get your diploma will bring you bad luck, or maybe even cause you not to graduate (or both).


Walk up the cobblestone street and you’ll find a tree protruding out into an intersection — more specifically: a tree that owns itself. It is a white oak that according to legend has legal ownership of itself and the eight feet around it. Back in the 1820s, a local fan of the tree decided to try and preserve it by making the tree its own master. Of course, there’s no real legal basis for anything of the sort, yet for nearly 200 years, the stated position of the Athens Clarke County Unified Government is that this tree, in spite of the law, does indeed own itself. It is the policy of the city of Athens to maintain it as a public street tree.

An inscription on its plaque reads: “For, and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree, and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself, and all land within eight feet of the tree, on all sides.” – William H. Jackson. (This is also a brass plaque that reveals that this is not actually the original tree, which fell down in 1946 and was replaced, so some people call this the son of the self-owning tree).

Walk a bit more and you’ll stumble on this is a lovely example of the rails to trails movement, which gained traction in the early 2000s as people saw more and more opportunities to convert disused railway routes into urban trail systems. In New York City, a series of old elevated rail lines on the west side were slated for demolition until citizens got really serious about saving it, and ultimately those raised routes became the now super popular Highline Park trails.

Meanwhile, also in the early 2000s, an old elevated rail line trestle was going to be torn down in Athens where this park is, but it was saved because of the trestle’s cultural significance. And that cultural significance is that in the spring of 1983, one of the greatest bands to ever exist, R. E. M. released its debut album, Murmur, and The track list on its reverse side was overlaid on a photo of an old local wood railway trestle that stood right here. Over the decades, the bridge has been this destination for fans of the band.

Coincidentally, The same year Murmur debuted in 1983, something else happened that led to this park being here, and to the trestle’s preservation. Congress amended the National Trail System Act, and in doing so, they made rails to trails conversions easier to implement. So there was cultural significance, thanks to REM.

Thanks to the National Trail System Act, there was a pathway to turn this into a park trail. But there was still the issue of what to do with the old wooden trestle itself that went over the river. So park planners wanted to use the bridge as part of the trail. But the old abandoned structure that’s depicted on the album was deemed too unsafe. They considered using a series of switchbacks to just bypass the bridge entirely. But the solution was seen as defeating the greater overall goal of creating a continuous, safe, flat trail open to people of all ages.

So there was talk of replacing the old structure plank by plank, like the Ship of Theseus, but that was deemed a little too unrealistic. Ultimately, it became clear that the original framework had to come down and be replaced by something new. Most of the structural elements had been just rotted beyond repair.

The resulting replacement bridge mimics the overall aesthetic of the wood framed Murmur Bridge, but also features new robust engineering elements like a set of arch steel supports as well as overlook platforms up along its length, midway across the new Trail Creek trestle bridge.

It is a really worthy tribute to the past, but it’s infused with new life and new function. It’s this perfect mix of nostalgia and real progress, like making this community better and more welcoming for all citizens.
At the official opening of the Firefly Bridge in April of 2023, R.E.M’s Murmur played in the background, an apt accompaniment.

Projects like this can be this huge boon to the public. Railway pathways tend to be rare direct routes passing through the hearts of cities — their grid-defying lines would be impossible to carve out from the filled-in fabric of modern urban environments. So they’re really special and worth the effort of converting them for modern use.

This segment of the Firefly Trail is a small part of this 39 mile proposed path (see map to the left. It joins a host of really impressive “rails to trails” projects across the US, including: the 606 Trail in Chicago, the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles River Greenway, and other urban projects still under development. Kurt and Roman have a lot more to say about this in our book, The 99 Percent Invisible City.

It’s worth noting that there is a lot more to Athens than we’ve talked about here, including a rich variety of historical architecture, some of which was photographed by the Lexus team alongside Roman Mars as they wound their way around town for this episode:

You can stream your first 3 months of SiriusXM free on the new SiriusXM app, where you can listen online or on other compatible devices. Get closer to what moves you with more than 425 channels including ad-free music, plus sports, news, comedy, and more. Offer Details apply. Subscribe today.




Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt


Roman Mars

Production help

Isabel Angell and Sarah Baik

Mix and sound design

Dara Hirsch

Executive Producer

Kathy Tu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize