The opening of Interstate 75 through Macon in the 1960s was a major milestone in the city.
It aimed to spur economic development and improve traffic flow, but one community at the heart of the new thoroughfare was split in half, leaving some residents feeling left behind.
Now, with progress being made on an estimated $250 million interstate expansion of I-75 and I-16, the project is also providing a direct economic impact to the historic black neighborhood : People living in the Pleasant Hill community are helping with the relocation of houses — and the construction of new ones.
Contractors have hired them temporarily as part of an agreement between the Department of Transportation and the Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority.
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One of the neighborhood workers is 28-year-old Kentaurus Taylor. Because of previous carpentry training, he is a foreman while working with Goldstone General Contractors. Recently, he and a group of nine other Pleasant Hill residents prepared a foundation for a house being moved to a new lot.
“This trait will take me a long way,” Taylor said. “I’m hoping to get a job with Goldstone after this. I’m proud that something good is happening here. I’m glad to see my neighborhood come up. When I was younger, you could go outside and have something to do. ... Now they’re bringing the community back to life.”
The Enhancement Authority is designed to reduce the foothold of poverty that plagues many Macon neighborhoods such as Pleasant Hill, said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, who established the authority.
By pooling federal, state and local resources, the authority has the ability to help in areas such as job training, he said.
“It’s all under the auspices of how do we get people to work, in the workforce, making a living wage or better so that we can shrink these category 4 poverty areas in Bibb County,” Beverly said.
As work continues on rehabbing the neighborhood, construction on the interchange improvements is also projected to start. The first phase involves widening I-16 from I-75 to Coliseum Drive as well as bridge upgrades. The next two phases stretch from I-75 around Hardeman Avenue to the I-16 interchange, and the reconstruction of the interchange.
Through the authority, 10 people living in Pleasant Hill will help with the relocation of seven houses and construction of 17 homes in the neighborhood. The employees earn $12.50 an hour, but more importantly they develop a skill set that could lead to future employment, Beverly said.
“You have some guys that over the next 15 months will know foundation, brick work and roofing.”
Years in the making
Formed in 2004, the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group tasked itself with revitalizing the historic neighborhood. And ever since then, its members and others living in the neighborhood have focused on ensuring that the interstate interchange expansion would benefit the community.
The neighborhood group wanted to prevent some of the pitfalls that came from interstate project more than 50 years ago.
“At that time they just bowled people over, told them here’s a few dollars and you have to get out,” said Peter Givens, president of the Pleasant Hill group.
This time, DOT is performing about $10 million worth of improvements around Pleasant Hill, including the remodeling of homes. The agency also plans to refurbish some blocks with new asphalt, sidewalks, lighting and landscaping. A new park will be added on Pursley Street, and a linear park will be put in where Middle Street is now located.
The state department is also renovating and moving the childhood home of legendary singer “Little Richard” Penniman, now boarded up and in disarray, to roughly a half-mile away. The home could become a neighborhood resource center maintained by Macon-Bibb.
“This time we said ‘Let’s be proactive,’” Givens said. “We’re going to work with Georgia DOT, and we’ll try to come to some agreements to enhance the neighborhood and that’s what we did. We came up with a mitigation plan, and that plan was put together by members of Pleasant Hill.”
He added, “We were in favor of the work that was to be done on 75 and 16 because it was a hazard.”
One remaining disagreement is over the type of wall that will buffer noise from the busy interchange. The DOT is proposing a noise reflective wall, but residents want a noise absorbing wall, which would reduce more of the sound, Givens said.
Other needs in Pleasant Hill
While the DOT funds some major improvements, others say there’s a lot more that needs doing.
As a bulldozer garbled up rubble into a large bin on Second Street, resident Cherol Burke pointed out two blighted houses and an empty, overgrown lot near her home.
They’ve attracted critters of all types — from racoons and possums to snakes, as well as other dangers associated with blight. Her friend and fellow Pleasant Hill resident, Janice Wood, said while some areas of the neighborhood are undergoing positive changes, other sections should not be neglected.
“It’s just ridiculous around here,” Wood said. “The abandoned houses — the ones they are not doing anything with — they should tear them down. It’s taking away from the value of the neighborhood.”
Beverly said the plan is for the DOT project is to be the “tip of the spear” for what should be more rehabilitation to the entire neighborhood. Some of that will be left up to local officials to ensure that more resources are poured into Pleasant Hill. Beverly credits the tenacity shown by the Pleasant Hill neighborhood group and its residents with what’s being accomplished now.
“When a community says what they want and remains steadfast and diligent, they can change the world,” he said.
The county is spending about $2 million for a mutipurpose athletic field located off Wise Avenue, located near the Pleasant Hill community. Macon-Bibb is also using some blight funds for improvements behind Williams Elementary School in Pleasant Hill to create a more walkable environment for students. The county also plans to upgrade Mattie Hubbard Jones Park.