Census trends show sea change in parts of Macon, Warner Robins

mstucka@macon.comOctober 9, 2013 

In the four decades since Macon’s population peaked, the hearts of both it and Warner Robins have been ravaged by population loss, a Telegraph analysis shows.

The worst-hit area is largely east of Broadway in Macon, where nine of every 10 residents have vanished since 1970, since the city finished razing the old Tybee neighborhood.

In parts of Macon’s Fort Hill neighborhood off Emery Highway, located around the city’s birthplace, empty lots lie next to empty houses. Even years of demolitions can’t hide the fact that three of every four residents are gone. Where more than 3,000 people lived just decades ago, fewer than 800 remain, the Telegraph analysis of U.S. Census Bureau figures shows.

Nor are the population losses limited just to Macon. In two areas along Davis Drive in Warner Robins, more than half the residents are gone.

Instead, suburban areas have boomed as the central city emptied out. North Macon and Lizella increased in population fivefold, going from about 8,200 residents to about 43,000. The construction of Interstate 475 and Lake Tobesofkee made those areas more attractive, while thousands of people moved to Lake Wildwood.

In Houston County, a single swath along Ga. 96 added about 50,000 people to an area that had started off with around 6,000. The stretch includes parts of southern Warner Robins, Bonaire and Kathleen, which have drawn much of the new development in Houston County. While portions of the area look like classic suburbia, with a mix of housing and services for residents, other employers have also moved in.

The Telegraph analyzed tracts from the 1970 Census through the National Historical Geographic Information System, then matched them up with population levels from the 2010 Census. The Ga. 96 section ran all the way from U.S. 41 to the Ocmulgee River, the entire width of Houston County, in the 1970 geography because there were so few people there at the time.

Bill Head, the historian for Robins Air Force Base, said the base had a comparable employment level in 1970, during the Vietnam War. But the military began consolidating its air logistics centers. The area now boasts better connections to Interstate 75, more restaurants and other service industries -- and more jobs related to the base that happen outside its fence.

“I came here 30 years ago, and the difference is like night and day,” Head said. That’s still a far cry from when construction of the base, once known as Wellston Air Depot, began during World War II.

“When the place was built, we had 47 families between Macon and Perry,” Head said.

The base had housing for thousands in 1970, but most of that is gone.

Other communities grew quickly in percentage terms, though density remains relatively low. Swaths of Monroe County and Crawford County tripled in population. An area centered on Byron actually quadrupled during the suburbanization movement.

In some parts of Jones County, everywhere there had been two residents there are now five.

Other parts of Twiggs and Crawford counties have grown slowly.

Race’s role

In the last four decades, many Middle Georgia neighborhoods saw their racial composition change dramatically.

Al Tillman, a Macon-Bibb County commissioner-elect who has lived in the Bloomfield area for two decades, said he’s seen big changes in the last 10 years alone.

“I remember being a little boy and wanting to live in Bloomfield because it was a nice area,” said Tillman, who says the area has been declining.

But Bloomfield’s big racial swing began long ago. The Census Bureau figures show that a section of Bloomfield, along Rocky Creek Road, was almost entirely white in 1970. Census Bureau figures showed the area had about 8,800 residents -- and just six of them were black. By 2010, the area had lost about 7,000 white residents and added nearly 8,500 blacks.

Tillman, who is black, said the area may have gone through several cycles of changes.

“I think back in the day, if you were African-American and moving up, you moved to Bloomfield or you moved to Shurlington,” he said. Housing prices may have continued to drop as more people moved out.

“People wanted brand-new houses instead of staying there to fix up mom or grandmother’s house. That’s what we see,” he said.

Others have stayed put. Bill Freeman, a white Korean War veteran whose late wife had grown up in their house on Rocky Creek, said racial changes have come harmoniously by and large.

“I’ve got white neighbors beside me and black neighbors behind, and we all get along,” he said.

Other racial changes were dramatic. A section of east Macon around Millerfield Road and Bowden Golf Course flipped its racial composition in the last four decades, losing about 4,600 whites and adding about 4,700 blacks.

Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards moved to the area in 1976. He pastors a church and runs a legal practice there. He said the phrase “white flight” is misleading because upwardly mobile blacks also keep trying to do better for themselves. He saw longtime residents replaced by poorer whites or poorer blacks, and says the area is still a step up from some rural locations as families try to do better.

“Black folk have the same interests white folk have,” said Edwards, who is black. “They want the same things for themselves and their families. They want a good school. They want decent housing. They want a good quality of life. I think what these patterns suggest is people are willing to move to get a better life for themselves and their families, and who can blame them?”

Edwards said he saw the trend in the early 1980s while working with then-Mayor George Israel.

Andrew Manis, an associate professor of history at Middle Georgia State College, wrote in his book “Macon Black and White” that school integration led many parents to leave Bibb County’s school system over worries about integration and funding.

“In addition, ‘white flight’ to wealthier suburbs left poorer families in the majority in the inner city schools and severely reduced the tax base for the public schools,” Manis wrote. “The general loss of public support also hurt the public schools. In the South, the region of the country that historically supported public education the least, the result would be devastating. These developments became realities n Macon after 1970.”

The Telegraph analysis suggests that Houston County, which boomed in the last four decades, added almost as many blacks as it had whites.

Looking ahead

Some neighborhoods stabilized after residents banded together.

Maryel Battin said she found many homes on College Street run down in 1973 when she arrived there, with “white flight” fully in evidence.

She watched some vacant homes burn from her bedroom window, and other houses were razed or converted into apartments. Some businesses tried to leave downtown; Battin said soon after she moved in she was offered a $10,000 premium by a law firm that wanted to buy her house, and dentists and doctors were also interested in moving.

Residents of the Intown Neighborhood banded together and decided downtown should be for business while Intown should be for single-family homes. Residents launched associations that helped get grants and more zoning oversight. And people realized that grand houses were cheap in an area that was close to Mercer’s law school and The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

Battin, a former member of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, sees some of the same potential in downtown Macon, where dozens of lofts are under construction and a study suggests vastly more potential for downtown lofts.

“People could buy these buildings downtown for a song,” she said, before describing tax incentives for renovation.

But some of the change is attitude.

Battin said she’d met a woman who’d recently moved downtown from near Rome, in north Georgia.

“People said, ‘Why do you want to move to Macon?’ and then “Why do you want to live downtown?’ ” Battin recounted. “It wasn’t just people from out of town who were negative. It was people who lived here were negative.”

“If we were more positive and could take more pride in our city, then we’d get somewhere,” she said. “But nobody is blowing Macon’s trumpet right now.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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