Macon in the mirror: Reflecting on ourselves, our city -- PART I

Telegraph staff writerSeptember 7, 2013 

  • Macon in the Mirror contributors
    The stories and people featured in “Macon in the Mirror” were compiled from interviews done by staff at The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting as well as students, staff and neighborhood liaisons with Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.
    Telegraph staff include: Amy Leigh Womack, Andy Drury, Becky Purser, Christina Wright, Daniel Shirley, Grant Blankenship, S. Heather Duncan, Jenna Mink, Jennifer Burk, Jim Gaines, Joe Kovac, Linda Morris, Oby Brown, Phillip Ramati, Ron Seibel, Sherrie Marshall and Wayne Crenshaw.
    CCJ contributors include: Anna McEwen, Bryson Jones, Burgess Brown, Caley Anderson, Carl Williams, Carly Iannarino, Carrie Redmond, Cedric Ford, Condra Weaver, Conner Wood, Debbie Blankenship, Derrick Lloyde, Emily Farlow, Felicia Fowler, Haley Roney, James Smith, Joel Patterson, Kaleigh Manson, Katey Skelton, Kathyrn Armstrong, Kerri Nidiffer, Krista Holden, Laura Corley, Lia Sewell, Marin Guta, Michael Roberts, Michille Clark-Exum, Mike McIntosh, Nyce Keiyoro, Olivia Vignone, Racquel Richards, Samantha Ballard, Sarah Webster, Shamekia Towns, Sundra Woodford and Tom Dunbar.
  • Macon in the Mirror on the radio
    Hear Macon in the Mirror reports on Georgia Public Broadcasting radio: at 6:35 a.m, 8:35 a.m, and 5:44 p.m. on GPB Macon, 89.7 FM

Pio Nono Avenue is a backbone of modern Macon. From Seven Bridges to Stanislaus, it stretches from a southside side swamp to some of midtown’s most treasured estates. Though its Italian name gets mangled by locals and visitors alike, the road is a reflection of who we are and how we live.

Starting in April, Telegraph reporter Joe Kovac Jr. walked the 5.3-mile stretch three times, talking to everyone from working men and women and retirees to longtime store owners and those just scraping by.

The Pio Nono corridor offers a cross section of our city. It is an evolving -- some would suggest regressing -- stretch of town, one that many Middle Georgians of this and recent generations may now bypass or avoid.

As locals, we often assume we know our town, but do we? This series is an effort to find out and, for some, perhaps open our eyes to the place we call home.

JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF MACON: Civic pride found in seediest surroundings

PART 1

There they sat outside Room 34, two men and a woman in plastic patio chairs next to a chugging ice machine at the post-World War II-era motor lodge where they live.

Charles, Rick and Linda.

Signs of life.

What I was looking for.

None gave a full name, but they were glad to talk about their scene: a fading, horseshoe-shaped motel barely seen by anyone above paying the $130 a week it costs to stay there.

The Magnolia Court Motel in all its stone-veneered dinginess is a welcome mat at a city’s front door. Or is it a blemish at that city’s back door, its long-crumbling bottom edge?

That, in part, was what I’d set out to learn one morning last spring. Not just there at Pio Nono Avenue’s deteriorating southern terminus, at a motel that grew from a diner won in a poker game, but all along its 5.3-mile corridor. The idea, more or less, was to go up to folks and ask, “Who are you and what’s life like around here?”

“You want the God’s-honest truth?” Rick replied.

He stared past one of the motel’s namesake magnolias, toward an intersection that braids 11 lanes of traffic.

“I’ve been here five years, and the worst thing that I’ve seen about Macon since I got here is the south entrance on the way into our fair city,” Rick, 61, a retired plumber, told me. “You’re kind of numb to what it looks like. But think about a visitor coming in.”

“It’s trashy,” Charles, another motel resident, said. “Those cars zipping by don’t see the filth. ... Out of sight, out of mind.”

“You’re kind of numb to what it looks like,” Rick went on. “We don’t have a sidewalk between here and God knows where -- west Texas, as far as I know.”

“Embellish it, Rick, embellish it,” said Charles, a 64-year-old from Ohio, who says he used to work at Geico.

“They don’t take care of the south side,” said Linda, 58, Magnolia Court’s manager. “But the north side is absolutely pristine.”

‘Gun on premises’

Their end of town isn’t on any cherry blossom tours. Pretty much everything there used to be something else.

The view out their windows is of a time-worn fork in the road, a well-traveled trident of state and national highways that funnels traffic to and from Robins Air Force Base and beyond.

Those cruising in from the south the day of my visit were greeted by a billboard lording over the Broadway, Houston Avenue and Pio Nono split. Amid a roadside clot of gas marts, a tire shop and a used-car lot, the billboard declared: “Use Your Creativity to Make a Living.” It was an ad for a tech school.

Over at Magnolia Court, harbored in the horseshoe where the diner, a liquor store and the motel swimming pool used to be, there is now a convenience store with a sign out front warning, “Gun on premises.” In the grass behind the store, not far from the motel office, stands a decorative wishing well.

A man named Julian “Tena” Cranford built the 54-room motel around his diner and liquor store to reel in Florida-bound travelers in the wake of the Second World War. He was an outdoorsman, farmer and entrepreneur extraordinaire.

Cranford also owned a package store and smaller motel across the road. He cashed in on geography. Houston County, eight miles distant, was dry. In the 1930s, another of his establishments, a fish-bait mart south of town called the Cricket Box, trafficked in moonshine.

The Magnolia Court, though, was his family jewel. If you were kin, you always had a job. As a teen, his nephew Mike Cranford was the ice boy. Mike often wondered why some guests backed their cars up to the doors of their rooms. He figured it out after being promoted to manager, when he’d sometimes rent the same rooms two and three times a night.

Now 67, Mike, an attorney and former city councilman, has seen his uncle’s old haunt go from gateway landmark to borderline eyesore. For a time it was a halfway house.

Magnolia Court and Pio Nono Avenue have suffered similar fates at the hands of interstates.

Pio Nono, still a major artery in Macon, used to be more than that. Regionally, it was the main drag through a commercial destination well into the 1980s.

In spots, it was and still is a place to live. But only 70 or so homes remain, all but about a dozen of them entrenched north of Eisenhower Parkway.

In recent decades, a significant stretch of Pio Nono’s tail end -- just up from the swampy bottom at Seven Bridges, where Rocky Creek makes its end run to join Tobesofkee Creek and the Ocmulgee River ­­-- has been reduced to little more than an extended on-ramp to Interstate 75. Not many drivers take Pio Nono all the way into midtown and Vineville Avenue, where it becomes Pierce Avenue. But if you do make the trip, you notice something.

“You can travel up and down that road and see the whole community,” Mike Cranford told me recently. “From the lowest levels of poverty to some of the most expensive homes.”

‘Smells like money’

During my April-morning chat with Charles, Rick and Linda at the Magnolia Court, we talked about how Macon and Warner Robins are so intertwined, and yet the cities haven’t exactly spread toward one another.

We discussed the demise of the Westgate shopping center, once a hive of clothes-buying and moviegoing. Now the Wal-Mart and, later, the Home Depot that tried to fill the void when the mall went belly up in the late ’80s are gone themselves. As is the multiplex theater, once a fixture at the corner of Pio Nono and Eisenhower. These days there isn’t a first-run movie house inside the city limits. The Krispy Kreme that sprouted across Pio Nono from the mall in 1972, however, still lures hot-doughnut-seeking customers from all corners of town.

I brought up how Pio Nono Avenue takes its name from Pio Nono College, which took its name from a pope. The Catholic school was built in 1874 at the Vineville Avenue corner that is now the Stanislaus neighborhood, an enclave where the average house goes for $300,000. Later that century, the school changed its name to Stanislaus College. It burned to the ground in 1921.

But the street name, Pio Nono Avenue, which ended in front of the campus-turned-neighborhood, has endured, a local salute as it were to a pope who died in 1878.

His name? Pius IX.

“Pio nono” in Italian.

“I always thought it was Indian,” Charles said.

The conversation turned to south Macon’s notorious paper mill. In particular, its smell.

“Smells like money to me,” Charles said.

“Smells like a stench to me,” Linda said. “And Crown Candy, you can smell that down through here, too. That’s where that smell of cinnamon and sweet’s coming from.”

“Smells like after-shave to me,” Charles said.

“That’s the paper mill,” Linda said.

She knew some of the motel’s past. She wondered how come it isn’t on the historic register.

Linda didn’t say how long she’d been there, but said, “My gray hair isn’t from the miles I’ve traveled. It’s the stops I’ve made.”

Of the motel’s extended-stay residents, she said, “They go to work, they come home. They have barbecues just like any little community.”

Rick said, “You don’t have to worry about the light bill, the phone bill, the cable bill, the sewage bill. It’s all-inclusive.”

I informed Charles, Rick and Linda that I was walking from one end of Pio Nono to the other, a hike that in coming months I would make three times. My trek was about exploring some of the places we sometimes look at but fail to see.

Charles, Rick and Linda told me not to trip.

They warned of trash and leg-grabbing vines on the sidewalkless span between their place and the interstate.

Out there, Pio Nono is every bit a highway -- U.S. 41 and Ga. 247 -- a racetrack to somewhere else.

As I was leaving, I noticed the open door of a room down the way. Inside, a baby wailed. I peered in but saw nothing. I kept walking.

‘It’s like Route 66’

Modern Pio Nono’s southernmost reaches may best be known for a nightclub.

Opened in 1979 less than a quarter-mile from Magnolia Court, Whiskey River became an institution along Pio Nono’s straightaway to I-75.

It drew name Nashville acts, even if, more often than not, the singers were stars “on their way down,” the club’s co-founder, Donnie Giles, told me last month.

Whiskey River was a mecca for the country-western crowd; home to arm wrestling, mud wrestling and, on at least one occasion, bear wrestling. One night in 1985, tough guys on a padded dance floor took turns tangling with a muzzled, 650-pound brown bear named Victor.

In 1983, singer Johnny Paycheck of “Take This Job and Shove It” fame notably refused to play a second show, a late show he’d been booked for. Paycheck claimed he hadn’t been paid enough. The same year, a bouncer bit a patron’s nose in a brawl.

The venue, which Giles sold in 1984, lives on just up Pio Nono in a manicured, nine-acre, $2.3 million “Entertainment Complex.” In the three miles of Pio Nono south of Eisenhower, there is but one piece of property more valuable: the $2.9 million Roses shopping center near Rocky Creek Road.

But the landscape surrounding the club is one of desolation, the kind of place warehouses go to die. There’s a John Deere dealership next door and a junkyard across the road.

“It’s like Route 66 in a way,” said Giles, 72. “You would think with as much traffic that goes up and down Pio Nono there that somebody could come up with a business where you see it and you stop.”

On my first hike up Pio Nono, I dropped by All Star Tire. It sits next to the former Whiskey River, which, after numerous nightspot incarnations, is now called Club Status. According to the sign out by the road, Club Status is “Macon’s #1 Party Spot.”

Curious, considering it’s closed.

All Star Tire is run by Craig Palmer.

Palmer, 67, moved to town from Dublin when he was 13. He moved his now-45-year-old tire-selling business from Emery Highway to south Macon two decades ago. “Just when Pio Nono was starting to decline,” he said.

All Palmer can figure is that folks don’t think his part of town is safe. Some people he goes to church with refuse to do business with him “because of where we’re at.”

“If I wasn’t buying this property,” he said, “I’d shut up and move to Warner Robins.”

Before I left, Palmer shared his long view of Macon.

“It doesn’t grow,” he said. “It just moves around.”

Aubrey Parten sits in the office of his Houston Auto Auction business near the southern end of Pio Nono Avenue. Parten says the southern end of Pio Nono has been ignored for too long. GRANT BLANKENSHIP-THE TELEGRAPH--gblankenship@macon.com

‘Coldest beer in town’

Aubrey Parten, the man who owns the junkyard across from Whiskey River, may be the south side’s most charismatic character. At 68, he chomps cigars and tells tales the way drive-in theaters used to -- tall and wide -- and with a flair that, had he gone into local politics, would no doubt have made him a household name.

He has property all over town. His company there at the Pio Nono salvage lot, Houston Auto Auction, moves 50 or so cars a week when business is good.

“We sell a lot of $5,000 cars,” Parten, sporting a Panama City ball cap, told me.

From time to time, he said, people try to sell stolen stuff: car parts, tools, you name it. A few days before my visit, some clown offered Parten a pallet of potting soil: $6 a bag.

Parten passed.

I told him how part of my story about Pio Nono would focus on the road’s bottom end.

“Scum area,” he said.

“South Macon’s been forgotten. Forgotten by the city and the county and the state.”

Which doesn’t make sense to him.

“This is the route that the president takes when he comes in,” Parten said. “It needs a face-lift.”

As depressing as much of what I’d seen and heard was, something struck me later.

Despite some of what Parten had said, folks I met tended to stick up for their turf. Civic pride, it seemed, resides in even the seediest surroundings.

The L&W Sports Bar is a windowless pool hall of a pub two doors up from an animal hospital at the intersection of Guy Paine Road.

Since the mid-1970s it has been serving the “coldest beer in town,” according to the boast painted next to a huge frothy mug on one of its yellow concrete-block walls.

It was early afternoon when I popped in. Three or four people were shooting pool. Another two or three were at the bar. I asked if the beer really was the coldest.

“Nick, you just got a beer, didn’t you?” bartender Angel Payne asked a customer. “Who has the coldest beer in town?”

“L&W,” Nick said.

When Nick went to leave, he remembered losing his hat there a week earlier. Then he spotted it hanging on a rack near the back door. Right where he’d left it.

Payne, 32, lives just up the street. She was raised in Twiggs County.

“But the people I choose to call my family are from here in south Macon,” she said. “They’re hard-working. They do the best they can with what they have. ... We’re not millionaires by any means, but I guess you can say that we’re big-hearted.”

Payne looked around the shadowy bar.

“This is home,” she said.

Angel Payne, right, tends bar at the L&W Sports Bar on Pio Nono Avenue, where pool is the game. BEAU CABELL-THE TELEGRAPH--bcabell@macon.com

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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Macon in the Mirror contributors

The stories and people featured in “Macon in the Mirror” were compiled from interviews done by staff at The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting as well as students, staff and neighborhood liaisons with Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Telegraph staff include: Amy Leigh Womack, Andy Drury, Becky Purser, Christina Wright, Daniel Shirley, Grant Blankenship, S. Heather Duncan, Jenna Mink, Jennifer Burk, Jim Gaines, Joe Kovac, Linda Morris, Oby Brown, Phillip Ramati, Ron Seibel, Sherrie Marshall and Wayne Crenshaw.

CCJ contributors include: Anna McEwen, Bryson Jones, Burgess Brown, Caley Anderson, Carl Williams, Carly Iannarino, Carrie Redmond, Cedric Ford, Condra Weaver, Conner Wood, Debbie Blankenship, Derrick Lloyde, Emily Farlow, Felicia Fowler, Haley Roney, James Smith, Joel Patterson, Kaleigh Manson, Katey Skelton, Kathyrn Armstrong, Kerri Nidiffer, Krista Holden, Laura Corley, Lia Sewell, Marin Guta, Michael Roberts, Michille Clark-Exum, Mike McIntosh, Nyce Keiyoro, Olivia Vignone, Racquel Richards, Samantha Ballard, Sarah Webster, Shamekia Towns, Sundra Woodford and Tom Dunbar.

Macon in the Mirror on the radio

Beginning Monday, hear Macon in the Mirror reports on Georgia Public Broadcasting radio: at 6:35 a.m, 8:35 a.m, and 5:44 p.m. on GPB Macon, 89.7 FM

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