Macon residents struggle to save historic black neighborhood
MACON, Ga. (AP) — At the edge of First Avenue, just past the Little Richard House on Craft Street, the quiet residential road drops off at a cliff. The turn-through Peter Givens used to call “No-name Street” is gone, and a multi-lane freeway has taken its place. As sporty sedans and hulking 18-wheeler trucks speed by, the sound of zooming cars roars through the neighborhood at the top of the hill.
When Givens looks out at the interstate that splits Pleasant Hill in two, he can envision both the past and the future.
Givens was born and raised in this neighborhood. So were his parents. His grandparents migrated to Macon from Americus in the early 20th century and set down roots in the tight-knit community many of the city’s most prominent African-American leaders once called home. Givens moved away after college to pursue a career in construction management and engineering. He spent nearly 50 years building highways, schools, housing and commercial buildings throughout the northeast.
Givens felt like there was nothing for him in Macon. No jobs. No fancy restaurants. No hope.
But in 2003, Givens’ father died. He left behind an empty house in Pleasant Hill that needed attention. Then the Georgia Department of Transportation announced it would expand the highway that had bisected the historic neighborhood four decades before.
It was time, Givens decided, to come home. Givens moved back to Macon in 2004, and he and his wife, Naomi Johnson, have spent the past 15 years working with GDOT on a mitigation plan that would take the needs of both the transportation department and neighborhood residents into account. The first round of road work had, quite literally, torn Pleasant Hill apart. Givens couldn’t stand to watch history repeat itself.
“The old folks were saying, ‘Don’t let them do this again,’” he said. “That’s what the word was. ‘Don’t let them do this again.’”
The past few decades have been difficult for Pleasant Hill. Since interstate construction began in 1965, many residents have died or moved away. Unoccupied homes pepper the streets where kids used to play. Vacant structures have fallen into disrepair.
In recent years, residents and local organizers have doubled down on their efforts to revitalize the once-thriving neighborhood and restore a sense of pride. GDOT has agreed to invest about $10 million in neighborhood improvements. Nonprofits and churches have also banded together to help with cleanup efforts.
The county spent a portion of its blight bonds to demolish dilapidated structures, rehabilitate neglected blocks and even build a new sports field. But there’s still work to be done, Johnson said.
“To me, it’s just, they’ve given us some crumbs. Now, I want more than crumbs,” she said, sitting across from her husband in their living room on Culver Street. “I want our big piece of the pie. That’s the way I feel. Big piece of the pie.”
MACON’S MOST HISTORIC AFRICAN-AMERICAN NEIGHBORHOOD
Pleasant Hill was organized in 1872 as a neighborhood “built by blacks, for blacks,” Gregory T. Floyd wrote in a 2007 report for the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission. Officially established in 1879, Macon’s most historic African-American community saw a period of rapid growth between the 1870s and 1930s, according to Floyd.
During the twentieth century, doctors, dentists, educators and business owners roamed the streets of Pleasant Hill. Founder of the Douglass Theatre Charles Douglass, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer “Little” Richard Penniman and Medal of Honor recipient Rodney Davis all hailed from the one-square-mile neighborhood west of downtown.
Pleasant Hill’s history isn’t bound into textbooks, said Yolanda “Y-O” Latimore, a founding board member of the Macon Cemetery Preservation Corporation.
“I think if that history is shared, it would really motivate a lot of younger people and young adults, and it would make a lot of the elders proud to know that the legacy isn’t lost,” she said. “From the arts, from economics, from a social standpoint, even a religious standpoint, there’s a lot of history that was birthed out of Pleasant Hill, and it needs to be shared.”
As part of the mitigation plan Givens and Johnson helped to develop, GDOT has interviewed over a dozen current and former residents in an effort to preserve the history of the community it nearly destroyed. Everything changed when the freeway cut through Pleasant Hill, Givens said.
“It’s like somebody reached in and snatched your gut from your body,” he said.
Givens remembers watching construction workers knock on doors and tell residents their houses would be demolished.
“It was basically, ‘Hey, there’s a bulldozer sitting here. We’re gonna knock your house down. Here’s a few thousands dollars, and go,’” he said.
But the I-16/I-75 interchange construction erased more than just homes.
As bulldozers and jackhammers razed through the neighborhood, residents who had lived in Pleasant Hill for decades moved away, taking their collective history of the community with them.
The home ownership rate plummeted, and absentee landlords swooped in to transform single-family houses into rental properties. Many homes sit vacant, completely neglected by owners who live out of town or have died and never left a clear plan for their heirs.
Lifelong resident Amanda White said Pleasant Hill is “not the neighborhood that it was when I was growing up.”
White, 62, has lived in Pleasant Hill her entire life. She’s worked at L.H. Williams Elementary School for nearly four decades and resides just around the corner from the yellow house on Third Avenue where she was raised.
As a kid, White was friendly with all of her neighbors. She knew she’d be scolded if she didn’t greet every adult she passed on the street with a warm “good morning” or “good afternoon.”
“That’s the way I was raised, to, you know, to respect your elders,” White said. “And that’s the way Pleasant Hill was back when I was growing up.”
When Givens and Johnson were kids in Pleasant Hill, their neighbors all felt like extended family. You couldn’t walk more than a few blocks without someone recognizing you, Givens said.
If Givens strayed too far from home, “someone would say, ‘Well, aren’t you Raymond’s son? Yeah, you’re Raymond’s son! You’re not supposed to be this far from home,’” he said. “It really was a village raising its kids.”
Many residents tended gardens in their yards and shared fresh-grown tomatoes and collard greens with their neighbors, Johnson said. Evening visitors were always invited inside for dinner, Givens said, even if everyone had to eat a little bit less to make room for one more at the table.
In its heyday, Givens could feel the “essence” of Pleasant Hill as he walked down the street.
“It wasn’t physical,” he said. “It was the people that made Pleasant Hill.”
‘WITH CONDITIONS BEING AS THEY ARE, IT CAN CAUSE DESPAIR’
One of the starkest difference between the Pleasant Hill of Givens’ childhood and the neighborhood he lives in now is the excess of empty homes on nearly every street.
In census tract 101, which comprises the majority of Pleasant Hill, about 200 houses sit vacant, according to the Macon-Bibb Property Survey. Neighboring census tracts 102 and 119, which encapsulate the remaining pieces of the community, have 59 and 68 unoccupied structures, respectively. The majority of empty buildings in the worst shape reside within the historic neighborhood’s borders.
When White walks to work from her house on Pursley Street each day, she doesn’t recognize the neighborhood she’s always called home. The families that filled each house are gone. Blighted structures and bulldozed lots stand in their midst.
“They’ve torn down houses where we used to run and play,” she said on a stroll through the neighborhood one foggy January morning. As she walked along Third Avenue, White pointed out the pale yellow cottage where her mother raised 11 children. The brick roof sits slightly off-kilter and tears run through the screen that wraps around the front porch.
The corner store where White and her friends used to pick up sweet treats after earning good grades on their report cards is now a parking lot. Other mom and pop shops around the neighborhood shuttered their doors years ago. Faint black lettering on the facade of an old store a few doors down has all but faded away.
White’s nephew, Antonio Williams, knows the county and GDOT have taken steps to address urban decay in the neighborhood where he grew up and now lives with his family. But he thinks blight is treated differently in neighborhoods like Pleasant Hill, where the first instinct seems to be to tear down instead of build up.
Williams has watched contractors demolish unoccupied properties and then leave the lots behind, without any maintenance plan.
“You get small jungles where a structure is torn down and it’s not maintained,” he said. “It’s overgrown with kudzu, and that’s even more of an eyesore than the structure that was torn down. Not to mention the safety hazard that it present(s).”
Williams wishes elected officials would be more transparent about what resources are available for rehabilitation. He worries about the impact dozens of boarded-up homes and empty lots will have on the children who see them each day on their way to school or as they play in the yard.
“With conditions being as they are, it can cause despair, hopelessness in the youth, because the visual, I feel like, is very strong,” Williams said. “When they say a picture’s worth a thousand words, that’s powerful, because it’s like, how do a youngster who hasn’t been exposed to anything can see beyond their current conditions and have hope?”
More than 80 percent of children in census tract 101 live in poverty, according to data site Census Reporter. In census tract 102, which also encompasses the more affluent and predominantly white neighborhood of Historic Vineville, only 15 percent of children live below the poverty line.
The median household income in census tract 101 is $18,333, compared to a county-wide median of $38,183, according to latest estimates by the United States Census Bureau. The national average income for a household in 2017 was $61,372.
About 40 percent of housing units in Pleasant Hill’s largest census tract are vacant and 70 percent of occupied housing units are rented out, rather than owned by the occupant, according to Census Reporter. Throughout Bibb County, about half of homes are owner-occupied, the Census Bureau reports.
Most Pleasant Hill residents owned their homes when Latimore was growing up. Now, she said, renters stream in and out, without establishing deep ties to the community.
“The blight has taken over,” Latimore said. “A lot of people who don’t have a vested interest are gonna move in, and it gives them every reason why, because, you know, it’s run down. It’s run down and it’s neglected in a lot of places where it didn’t used to be. It was vibrant all over.”
‘THERE’S A DEFINITE NEED HERE’
Despite the struggles Pleasant Hill faces, Antonio Williams is hopeful about the future.
Williams graduated from Historic Macon’s Neighborhood Leadership Institute, which trains residents of neighborhoods across the county to lead organizing efforts in their communities. Last year, the nonprofit awarded Williams a Neighborhood Small Grant to fund a Pleasant Hill Reunion for current and former residents.
He’s also organized neighborhood cleanups with Sundra Woodford, community relations manager for Macon Area Habitat for Humanity. The housing nonprofit recently adopted Pleasant Hill as one of its partner neighborhoods, and Woodford hopes to work with residents to rebuild and restore.
“There’s a definite need here,” Woodford said as she toured through Pleasant Hill with Williams and White on that cold January morning. “Our total approach is about helping these neighborhoods and these residents and partnering with them based on their aspirations for their neighborhood. We want to make sure that their voice is not lost.”
Habitat has already built one new home on Forest Avenue and plans to conduct a housing stock assessment and resident survey to get a better idea of the community’s needs, Woodford said.
A healthy community needs more than homes, Williams said. It needs residents who know how to take care of them — and who want to. The ultimate goal, he said, is to educate residents and to give them the tools they need to play an active role in their neighborhood.
Williams hopes to see more black-owned businesses that will employ local residents and bring revenue back to Pleasant Hill. If he had unlimited resources, Williams would bring in job training and GED classes. He’d repave roads, fix up dilapidated structures and open a grocery store with plenty of fresh produce.
Williams has watched his neighborhood suffer over the years. But he’s still proud to call Pleasant Hill home.
“What does Pleasant Hill mean to me? It mean a lot. It means good times. It means family. It means education. It means pride. It means, you know, it mean the world to me,” Williams said, adding, “my identity is linked to this community.”
THE LONG CLEANUP AHEAD
On an overcast afternoon in early March, Latimore tread carefully through tangles of vine and overgrown grass that have consumed a circular path running through the heart of Linwood Cemetery.
The historically black cemetery was founded in 1894, and approximately 4,000 graves fill its 14 acres, which span both sides of the interstate that now cuts through Pleasant Hill. Veterans, educators and Georgia’s first black U.S. congressman have all been laid to rest beneath its soil.
Neglect began to set in during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Latimore said. Friends and family still maintain some graves, she said, but as loved ones have passed on or moved away, she worries many descendants no longer know they have ties to the cemetery.
The connection isn’t hazy for Latimore. She buried her little brother in the cemetery after he was shot to death in 1999, and her late father rests beside him in a quiet spot near Walnut Street. One day Latimore and her mother will be buried there, too.
In 2001, Latimore and a group of concerned citizens started the Macon Cemetery Preservation Corporation, an organization dedicated to the revitalization of Linwood Cemetery. Progress has been slow, Latimore said, but with support from the county and local nonprofits and universities, she hopes to see a full restoration within her lifetime.
“I don’t have any children. I don’t have a husband. I feel like the community is a part of what I’m supposed to take care of, and I just make the time to put in any efforts I can,” Latimore said. “And it would be lovely to see it come to where it’s preserved and looks decent and can take care of itself.”
When Latimore sits between the graves of her baby brother and her father, she likes to soak in their presence. It sounds silly, she said, but it’s nice to visit the spot where her loved ones were last placed and chat with them for a bit.
Latimore has always considered herself a “daddy’s girl” and also shared a close bond with her younger brother, who died when he was just 19. Both men always pushed Latimore to dream. Their memory motivates her to keep pulling weeds, organizing cleanups and writing grants.
Latimore knows she has her work cut out for her.
As she waded through the sea of shrubbery and underbrush that’s overtaken the cemetery’s central path on an unseasonably warm March afternoon, she pointed out a massive dead tree that had uprooted itself from the soggy ground and fallen on its side. Volunteers had started to chop up bits and pieces, leaving a small pile of logs beside the wooden monstrosity.
Cemeteries are a place of death, Latimore said. But they also have the power to bring the past back to life. Latimore thinks there’s too much history buried beneath Pleasant Hill to let it fall to the wayside.
It’s time for the community to come together, she said.
“Somewhere along the line, we did, kinda, we had to fall apart. And things do fall apart,” Latimore said. “We have to bring it back together and revitalize it and restore it the best way we can.”
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com