Race relations, political divisions among Macon residents’ frustrations

Center for Collaborative JournalismSeptember 9, 2013 

  • Crime by the numbers
    When we talked to Macon and Bibb County residents about their frustrations, their No. 1 response was crime.
    Although the types of crime and crime trends vary from year to year and from neighborhood to neighborhood, here’s a look at the overall crime statistics for Macon and Bibb County for the last five years:

    Macon: 82 more reported crimes (8,968) than in 2007, an increase of 1 percent.
    Bibb County: 432 more reported crimes (2,547) than in 2007, an increase of almost 20 percent.

    Macon: 997 fewer reported crimes (7,971) than in 2008, a decrease of 11 percent.
    Bibb County: 82 fewer reported crimes (2,465) than in 2008, a decrease of 3.2 percent.

    Macon: 142 more reported crimes (8,113) than 2009, an increase of 2 percent.
    Bibb County: 148 more reported crimes (2,613) than in 2009, an increase of 6 percent.

    Macon: 446 more reported crimes (8,559) than in 2010, an increase of 5 percent.
    Bibb County: 135 fewer reported crimes (2,748) than in 2010, an increase of 5 percent.

    Macon: 1,100 fewer reported crimes (7,459) than in 2011, a decrease of 13 percent.
    Bibb County: 250 fewer reported crimes (2,498) than in 2011, a decrease of 9 percent.

    The record year for overall crime reports in the city was 1996, when 14,677 offenses were reported.

Susanna Patterson has lived all over the world, but she settled in Macon after law school because she loves the community.

She worries about crime in the city -- something she describes as a realistic part of living in the world.

“I hear a lot of people complain about crime in Macon, and they haven’t lived in a lot of places,” said Patterson, who grew up in an Air Force family and lived in Warner Robins as a small child.

“I’ve lived everywhere. ... Crime exists everywhere. Is it worse in Macon? No, I don’t perceive that it is. The difference to me about Macon and other places that I have lived is that you have the affluent communities right next to the not affluent communities. Where in some cities you can very much separate yourself from it, in Macon you really can’t.”

A childhood spent in El Paso, Texas, has given her a different perspective on crime.

“I think there’s certainly a lot of property crime in Macon,” Patterson said. “You always hear people talking about, ‘Well, my car got broken into,’ Patterson said. “In El Paso, your car doesn’t get broken into. It gets stolen, and it is in Mexico, never to be seen again, before you even know it’s gone. So, to me, it’s like, ‘Well somebody may break into my car, but at least I’ll still have a car.’ ”

Crime in Macon, as well as race relations, political divisions and the lack of growth, were among the frustrations cited most often by nearly 600 people interviewed for the “Macon in the Mirror” project.

Residents mentioned crime concerns most often, though.

“Basically what worries me right now is the crime,” said Ricky Howard, who has lived in Macon all of his life and works in masonry and construction. “Not even the state of the economy, none of that stuff. Just the crime because I see too much senseless crime ... on TV. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Kamlesh “Kenny” Desai moved to Macon seven years ago when he got a chance to invest in a convenience store. A former engineer in his native India, Desai is now sole owner of a store on Riverside Drive. He, too, is frustrated by the crime.

“What happens is that if I am working the evening shift, I will not go home. I will sleep here. Because when you are leaving the store, that is the time you are most vulnerable. And I don’t want to give them a chance. I have seen the gun two times and I was fortunate.”

He added bulletproof glass after the first encounter.

“If they come to rob me, what can they take? I mean, by the time they break through this, the cops should hopefully be there,” he said.

Tiffany Solomon was born and raised in Macon. She worries about crime from gangs she said live on the outskirts of her neighborhood near Montpelier Avenue, in the middle of the city.

“It frustrates me because I have three boys, and I don’t want to lose them to the streets,” she said. “I want them to be safe when they go to school or outside in the neighborhood we stay in.

Macon native Chris Smith describes his hometown as a soulful place, but he worries about crime committed by those born in the 1990s.

“It’s these ’90s babies. They ain’t been raised right,” he said. “The thugs, the gang members. They worry me a lot. Hustling is fine, but when you have to break in somebody’s house, that right there alarms me. Folks work hard for the stuff they get.”

Ann Oxley grew up in Macon and has spent the past 56 years in a neighborhood off Wimbish Road in north Macon.

“I think (crime) is a threat to our whole community,” she said. “Not only that, it stagnates the activities that people can enter into. ... I have seen a number of neighborhoods that I felt were completely destroyed because a different element of people moved into them and businesses began to close up. And then the crime would start, people would not keep up their homes and it would destroy the city, destroy the whole neighborhood.”

Others who cited crime as a frustration were actually more concerned with misconceptions of how much crime there really is.

Toshia Stephens is a schoolteacher and has lived in Macon all of her life. She said she feels safe in any part of town but is frustrated with the image of Macon as a place to fear.

“The perception that the media gives Macon is that it’s crime-ridden and it’s run-down,” she said. “I think just how the media portrays African-Americans and certain areas of the community as not being pleasurable or a good place to live. But in those different communities, there are good people there and lifelong residents of Macon.”

Jobs, growth and the local economy

Many residents brought up Macon’s economy, stagnant growth and a lack of jobs as their main frustrations.

“I worry a lot that there is no manufacturing base anymore,” said Andrew Silver, a Mercer University professor who has taken a lead role in revitalizing Tattnall Square Park. “It’s hard to be a member of the working poor here because it’s hard to live in dignity. You can’t get the kinds of jobs that you used to be able to get in Macon. And so I worry about ... getting jobs in Macon, and that has an impact upon crime and on perceptions of crime and on decay.”

Mark Bevill was born in Macon and has lived here most of his life. Silver’s sentiments resonated with him. He isn’t having luck finding a job.

“All of sudden I find myself in a homeless situation and never had to deal with this. What worries me? That,” he said. “If (people) are moving somewhere, move somewhere other than here. I’m not saying it to be mean. There is just not a lot of opportunity here.”

Andrew Olson, who is from Wisconsin, has lived in Macon for six years. Olson says he is frustrated with the lack of jobs in Macon. “The fact that no matter how hard you look, you can’t find jobs,” he said. “I mean they’re out there, but either you’re underqualified or you’re overqualified or ‘Oh, we’re on a hiring freeze’ or ‘We’re not hiring.’” BEAU CABELL-THE TELEGRAPH--bcabell@macon.com

Andrew Olson is from Wisconsin. He moved to Macon six years ago with his family. He was working in maintenance at a hotel but then lost his job.

“The fact that no matter how hard you look, you can’t find jobs,” he said. “I mean they’re out there, but either you’re underqualified or you’re overqualified or ‘Oh, we’re on a hiring freeze’ or ‘We’re not hiring.’ I mean, me being out of work for going on a year now, it’s been really rough trying to find work.”

Phillip Shields is working in retail and studying to be a lab technician.

“What frustrates me the most about Macon is lack of job opportunities,” he said. “Unless you are trained in a specific field, it’s Geico or fast food or Wal-Mart or some other retailer like that.”

Race relations

Many Macon residents cited race relations as an area of frustration for them.

Myrna Bell is a retired schoolteacher with a master’s degree, but she wasn’t able to attend area universities because they weren’t accepting black students.

“You know 50 years ago when we were trying to integrate things and now 50 years later, it’s still the same problems,” said Bell, who said she was once jailed as part of Macon’s civil rights movement.

“That bothers me that after so many years, the races have not come together here in Macon. That is why progress will never move forward until that happens. We are a city with predominantly black (population), and we’re always at the bottom pole of everything. That disturbs me and when our children don’t take advantage of what they do have, that really frustrates me because I know the people who suffered and did things here to make life better for them, and they don’t take advantage of it.”

Patterson, a Mercer law school graduate who has lived in Macon since 2006, said a friend once described the city as “1952 with Wi-Fi.”

“Within that statement are all of the things I like about Macon and all of the things that drive me nuts,” she said. “The things that drive me nuts are it is really in a lot of ways somewhat backward. Macon is still fighting the race battles that the rest of the country fought in the ’50s and ’60s, and that seems to be still very much a part of our daily lives here.

“My co-worker is African-American, just moved here from Atlanta, and said she’s never really been aware of race until she moved to Macon.”

The Rev. Lewis Paul is a retired fireman who has lived in Macon all of his life. He also expressed frustration with the state of race relations.

“The way that we as a black race and white race don’t communicate with one another enough,” he said. “Everybody has different cultures, but we’ve got to learn how to be together in our city.”

Politics and progress

For others, frustrations focused on political leaders and a belief that Macon is not progressing as it should because of their lack of leadership.

“The only thing that worries me is maybe the political climate,” said Ashli Axtell, who moved to Macon in 1999 to attend Mercer University. “Seems like there’s a lot of infighting that prohibits things from getting done, prohibits, maybe, forward movement in the city that might otherwise happen.”

Ken Neely moved to Macon in 1983 for a job, and he has stayed because his wife loves the city.

“I cannot paint with a broad brush and say that every political leader is poor. I would say most are,” he said. “The hope for the future with the consolidation of Macon and Bibb was that at a minimum, there were term limits that would apply and we wouldn’t have these people forever. But when you look at who has signed up to run, it’s the same people. The same tired, old leadership, and some of them are bad leadership that will likely still be around in the new form of government.”

Gale McDowell had lived in Atlanta and New York before moving to Macon in 1995.

“One of the things I notice about Macon is Macon, to me, is not very quick about taking that next step,” she said. “The next step as far as moving ahead and stuff like improving things. I’ve often talked with a lot of young people, and they always say ‘There’s nothing to do here.’ And that’s why they leave here.”

Bryan Tiller is an investment adviser who moved to Macon as a child. He described the city’s political environment as dreadful.

“Perhaps the consolidated government will help, but the size and the apparent ineptitude of City Council and county commissioners -- the infighting, the lack of progress and don’t even get me started on the school board,” he said. “A town located centrally, near two major interstates with a beautiful river and everything going for it. If you were from outer space and you landed, you would say this ought to be heaven right here, this town really ought to be the center of activity in the state and you would be totally flummoxed as to why we can’t accomplish anything, why we aren’t better than we are.

“We have a lot going for us geographically, historically and we seem to just be stuck in the doldrums, year after year, decade after decade.”

Tiller said he stays here, though, because he has roots in the community and Macon people from all walks of life are great when you talk person to person.

“Like many Maconites, we love to criticize the place, but when it comes down to why don’t you just get the hell out, no one ever does because we like it and we’ve got this grain of hope that this town will live up to its potential,” Tiller said. “I hope one day that it will.”

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