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

Telegraph staff writerSeptember 9, 2013 

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Pio Nono Avenue is a backbone of modern Macon. From Seven Bridges to Stanislaus, it stretches from a south 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 5-mile-long reflection of who we are and how we live.


Tracks in the grass caught my eye.

I could just make out a trail of small wheels. I figured someone ahead of me had slogged up the hill that starts at Dairy Queen with maybe a lawn mower or a baby stroller.

Out that way on Pio Nono Avenue, you notice grass.

Other than road shoulders, curbs and dirt, there isn’t much else to walk on.

What grass there is, very little of it rises to the level of lawn. But it should be noted, the plushest on Pio Nono -- and perhaps in the city -- grows below Canterbury Road in front of competing funeral homes.

I spotted the tracks in front of a lube joint. It was a muggy Thursday afternoon in early August. The tracks paralleled the road across from Gold Cup Bowling. They reappeared on grassy roadside islands outside a butcher shop, a tax service and a gun warehouse.

I’d been paying too much attention to the ground during what would be my final hike up Pio Nono. A day or two earlier I’d met a man named John Greene who combs the city on his bicycle in search of discarded scratch-off lottery tickets. When I saw him, he had a baggie full of them dangling from his handlebars. He said a few were winners. Most were not. He collected them just the same.

The tossed game cards are not as plentiful as, say, cigarette butts. But they are a leading ingredient in the roadway debris, bummer reminders every block or two of fortunes unwon.

On around the curve at Newberg Avenue -- beyond the KFC turned loan mart and the Waffle House turned dry cleaners turned church -- I saw them.

A man and a woman, maybe 300 yards ahead.

They were pushing a stroller.

‘Turned into nothing’

They trudged uphill past one of the well-manicured funeral homes and the Burger King next to it.

I jogged and caught up as they crested Pio Nono’s summit at the Krispy Kreme. Still, I wasn’t sure they were the ones who’d left the tracks a mile back.

In the shade of an oak tree that guards the shell of a long-ago Wal-Mart, I introduced myself to Cassondra and Daniel Brotzman.

They’d hoofed it two miles from the Safe Haven RV Park where they live. The park sits in a hardscrabble bottom off Glendale Avenue near the base of the on-ramp that slingshots Pio Nono traffic north onto Interstate 75. It isn’t far from the Liberty Inn, a former Days Inn that in one form or another has stood sentry as south Macon’s expressway ambassador for the better part of four decades.

The Brotzmans, both 30, said it wasn’t an easy hike navigating the minefield of curb cuts, uneven shoulders and oncoming cars while pushing their 4-year-old son, Gabriel. They’d stopped at places along the way to cool off.

“Luckily, Roses is still there,” Cassondra said.

I assumed they were headed shopping.

Cassondra, who grew up in Warner Robins, gazed over at the vacant Wal-Mart.

“It used to be Westgate mall and the Quail’s Nest over there,” she said. “And, like, a Shoe Carnival, and they used to have a theater over there, which turned into, like, a PetSmart, which turned into OfficeMax, which turned into nothing.”

She said they were bound for a grocery store. They were tired of always going to the Bell Foods near where they live.

They’d heard about this other place.

A Kroger.

The one way up at the top end of Pio Nono.

The supermarket lies along an unspoken boundary, a line of demarcation that slices Macon into distinct socioeconomic strata: one side of the tracks and the other.

The Brotzmans didn’t know they were just two miles into an eight-plus-mile round trip until I told them.

Undaunted, Daniel said, “This trip we’re kind of just wanting to check it out because we haven’t really been up there yet.”

“We’re probably gonna buy some fruit,” Cassondra said.

They stayed with me until we crossed Eisenhower Parkway, there at the McDonald’s and the Walgreens.

Just up the block, I passed the Long John Silver’s at the edge of the old Kmart shopping center and looked back. The Brotzmans were nowhere to be seen.

‘Cantata of complaints’

Pio Nono Avenue crosses a bridge over some railroad tracks about a quarter-mile from where it ends.

In a tree- and shrub-lined stretch up to Vineville Avenue, which includes the midtown Kroger, are 16 residential properties. Their average value: $129,000.

There are 43 houses south of the tracks in the nearly two miles down to Eisenhower Parkway. Their average value: $38,000.

The cheaper houses lie in a span of Pio Nono that was, as part of a $5 million federally backed project, widened to four and five lanes in the mid-1980s.

A 1977 study had predicted the road might exceed capacity by the year 2000. Even so, by the time of the study, the recently completed I-75 had already siphoned off much of the north-south traffic that Pio Nono -- which is also U.S. 41 -- once carried.

A series of stories in the Macon Telegraph and News about the widening in February 1985 noted how no officials seemed to know whose idea it was to widen the road. It turned out the 1977 study was based on a traffic-flow computer model.

But bulldozers were already at work. Twenty-seven families, 79 people in all, surrendered their homes.

“If the middle-class, mostly black neighborhood were a choir,” the paper wrote, “they’d be singing a cantata of complaints in unison.”

The newspaper summarized the gripes of discontented locals thusly:

“Critics ... charged that the Pio Nono project has floated down the systematic sluice, pushed along by a city government looking to spend state money, a state agency looking to spend federal money, and federal money designated for just this type of project. ... Easier set in motion than diverted.”

Homeowners didn’t care for the plan’s supposed commerce-boosting intent. They decried felled trees, uprooted yards and neighborhood-destabilizing, sinking property values.

“I guess this is what they call progress,” Ann Carswell, who rented a house north of Montpelier Avenue, said at the time.

I looked up Carswell and called her last month. She’d moved to another part of town soon after the widening. Now 65, Carswell recalled the Pio Nono upheaval.

She didn’t sleep well then. Dirt was everywhere. Part of her yard was scraped away.

“But it didn’t displace any of the drug activity,” she told me.

“I would like to think some of it turned out for good, but some of it didn’t. You’ll hear certain people say, ‘I will not go on Pio Nono Avenue.’ They think it’s all bad.”

One of her former neighbors between Montpelier and Napier Avenue, just up from the CVS, stuck it out.

When the road crews roared through, Beatrice Watkins had asked them to let her know when her front yard would be bulldozed. She wanted to know so she could transplant her rose garden.

She grew American Beauties, Bing Crosbys, Bob Hopes.

The flowers were her darlings.

The road men promised to give her ample warning.

Then she arrived home one day and her garden was gone, plowed under.

Not long after that, in early 1985, Watkins told the Telegraph and News, “They just haven’t treated us like human beings.”

I spoke to her by phone in August.

Her caregiver said she suffered from dementia.

Watkins, 79, seemed to remember her roses, though.

The bulldozers, not so much.

‘Not as bad as you think’

Assuming the Brotzmans -- Daniel, Cassondra and young Gabriel -- made it to Kroger that sun-baked August afternoon, they passed 19 title-pawn emporiums. They traversed Unionville and Cherokee Heights and ventured into a part of town north of Eisenhower where the walking gets easier.

Sidewalks appear and houses hug the street as Pio Nono does its best to shed the interstate ambience of its bottom half. Even if, two blocks up from Eisenhower, aromas from the Mrs. Winner’s still drift through the shade trees on Harris Street and make the old-timers hungry.

Up toward Anthony Road, the Church’s Chicken and the Blue Moon Package Store, barber John Hillman has been cutting hair at Hillman’s Imperial since 1972, back when the side streets were dirt roads.

“One thing we’ve got to do is get to know each other better,” Hillman, 73, told me. “You know, we talk about it’s a white thing or a black thing, but, you know, we all are people. ... When you have a certain race on this side, a certain race on that side, see, you don’t know each other. ... You find out it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

Beyond Anthony Road, opposite the Family Dollar, the mini-sweet-potato pies are out of the oven by noon at St. Cotton’s Cafeteria.

John Cotton, 74, formerly a lead vocalist for the gospel-belting Dynamic Cotton Brothers, opened his fried-chicken house in the early ’80s. He started serving up breasts, wings, legs and thighs cooked in peanut oil, and business boomed.

“I know good-tasting food,” he said.

One day, on past the Splash & Dash Laundromat and tidy Vining Circle, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a wide-brimmed garden hat. She stood sweeping beneath the magnolia in her side yard, which overlooks Straight Street across Pio Nono from what used to be Hamilton Elementary School.

Her backyard garden featured as its centerpiece a cedar stump adorned with empty wine and beer bottles, the majority of them cobalt-blue Bud Light Platinums.

In my notepad I wrote, “See lady ... neat yard.”

I planned to visit her later. And I would. More than once.

‘This is a neighborhood’

North of Mercer University Drive, “Amazing Grace” chimed in the late-day haze.

The chimes came from somewhere beneath the weather-vaned steeple at Bethel CME Church.

The church sits next to another one, the Jesus Mission of Love Holiness Church. When the sidewalk in front of the latter was poured, someone scrawled, “God Bless Us All!”

Aside from a couple of the storefront variety, the churches are among Pio Nono’s few places of worship.

There was more music up the street at Montpelier.

Record shop owner Phyllis Habersham Malone sells vintage vinyl starting at $4.98. Everything from Elvis to the O’Jays and Kiss.

“This is a neighborhood right here. This is not only a business district,” the 64-year-old former schoolteacher told me. “When people hear something bad happening over here, they just think the whole place is bad. And that’s far from the truth. ... I think it is one of the best parts of town.”

A few doors up Pio Nono toward Napier, in another residential stretch, Albert Lawson, 70, rode out the widening in the 1980s.

He’d moved to Pio Nono in 1970. He raised his kids, retired from Kmart and has fallen prey to a burglary or two.

“We have pretty good neighbors,” he told me when we spoke on the phone last month.

Lawson’s back bothers him some, but it doesn’t keep him from watching over a longtime neighbor, a woman who suffers from dementia.

Her name? Beatrice Watkins. The rose lover from down the street.

She lives with the Lawsons now.

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

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