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.
JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF MACON: PART 4
Pio Nono Avenue taps the brakes in its last mile.
It slides across Napier Avenue at the old Methodist church, an august red-brick beauty that predates the Great Depression, and squeezes into Pio Nono’s most venerable business district.
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Its four lanes get cozy there at Cherokee Heights, a stretch that includes an antiquated shopping plaza, a liquor store beside a police precinct, a wing joint and a post office.
Bees flitted in an abelia hedge across from Dr. Henry T. Clay’s office and a vacant SunTrust branch when I ambled through last month.
A block or so up the way at Jerry’s TV Service, Jerry Oden long ago learned to tame the gremlins of tube sets. He has since taken to fixing flat-screens, but says most folks nowadays seem to just buy new ones when theirs go on the blink.
I met him outside his cluttered shop. Inside, televisions and parts were piled everywhere, some probably from back when he opened the place during Ronald Reagan’s second term. But, said Oden, “There ain’t no junk in there. It’s all stuff.”
Eighty percent of his customers are black, he said. “But I don’t have any problem with them.”
Oden, 61, said, “I’ve got the best location you could probably ask for. ... This is old-school Macon right here. Ain’t nothing wrong with this part of town. We have our share of nut cases, but they do have them on the other side of town, too.”
He was telling me how friendly folks were when a man in his 50s waved and said hello as he shuffled past with a cane.
After the man was gone, Oden told me the fellow sometimes stands under the post office flagpole next door and speaks to the heavens. He’ll holler at God and implore him to “come on down here!” Oden said. “But he never fails to say, ‘Hey, Jerry,’ when he walks by.”
‘Honey, I live here’
On the right beyond Hillcrest Avenue and Tom’s Food Mart, which sells more lottery tickets than anyplace in the midstate, past the Beauty World wig outlet and the Family Dollar, Eddie Hudspeth’s animal clinic has been doctoring pets and whatever else limps in since 1967.
Until the Kroger came in 1997, his clinic was the last business on the upper end of Pio Nono. It abuts Roff Avenue across from fire station No. 6 at the railroad gully.
His may be the only pet-care place you’ll ever see with two stuffed deer and a turkey mounted on its waiting-room walls.
Besides his veterinary practice, Hudspeth, 82, is known for the rose garden between his parking lot and the car wash next door.
He first planted flowers when he moved in. Folks across the tracks weren’t exactly thrilled about a smelly, noisy, dog-and-cat clinic moving in. Hudspeth told one of the disgruntled, “I’m gonna keep my yard better than you do.”
His garden has become a favorite of passers-by -- and thieves. One day a policeman caught a guy dragging a rose bush in full bloom down Pio Nono. The guy told the cop it was for his mama. The officer called Hudspeth and asked what he wanted done. “Lock his (fanny) up,’” the doctor said.
Hudspeth, who early on made a habit of being in his office by 7 a.m. and staying as late as necessary, told me, “I grow roses to where I have something the Lord made that would make me want to come to work.”
He finds driving down Pio Nono depressing.
“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Nobody gives a damn about where they live anymore.”
He brought up a story about a woman in a convertible. He was in his garden when the woman tooled into his parking lot. She didn’t see Hudspeth and flicked out a cigarette. Then she dumped her ashtray in the lot and sat there. Hudspeth collected the butts, waltzed over and deposited them in the woman’s back seat.
“You’re being ugly!” she said.
“You got that right,” Hudspeth said.
“But I live in this car!”
“Honey,” the vet said, “I live here.”
He once treated a lion.
Another time he helped mend a hooker’s cheetah. He can’t remember the particulars, but it was in the late ’60s.
The cheetah, Hudspeth recalls, belonged to a prostitute of some description who was part of a traveling troupe either staying or performing or both at a house of ill repute in downtown. The animal had a broken leg.
Somehow the police got involved. The cops, who over the years delivered strays with grievous injuries to Hudspeth because he donated his care, took custody of the big cat and hauled it to the vet. Apparently with the lady of the evening’s blessings.
“Those things are built for speed,” Hudspeth said of the cheetah.
‘I lock my door’
For those unaware what a class and racial intersection Pio Nono Avenue’s upper limits are, the controversial shooting death of a black man at the hands of a white Macon police officer there last December left little doubt.
The dead man, 365-pound Sammie “Junebug” Davis Jr., 49, lunged at the cop and grabbed his head, cutting the officer’s neck with his fingernails. The policeman shot Davis three times, killing him.
The officer was there to see about Davis because, minutes earlier, an 84-year-old white woman had called police to report, as she later put it, that “a black guy” had startled her. First when she was headed into the store, and later in the parking lot as she stowed her groceries. He’d asked her for money. Frightened, she gave him a dollar and change, got in her car, dialed 911 and drove away. Months later, she told me she “felt guilty for a while.”
“I felt bad about the whole thing,” she said.
The 80,000-square-foot supermarket sits at the bottom of a sloping tract east of Pio Nono, on property just across the tracks from Hudspeth’s Animal Hospital.
In the mid-1990s, some residents in and around the mostly white Stanislaus neighborhood across Pio Nono went to court to halt the store’s construction. The Kroger, since dubbed “the ghetto Kroger” by some, came anyway -- and with it people from the south side of the tracks and every other walk of local life.
At its grand opening before Thanksgiving in 1997, two schoolchildren read a poem. Some high school ROTC’ers raised the flag and trumpeted the national anthem.
A Telegraph article on the festivities reported that some elected officials were there. But not then-Mayor Jim Marshall, whom the paper declared “noticeably absent.”
The paper also noted that Marshall had “represented the Vineville Neighborhood Association in its efforts to keep the new store out.”
I hung out at the store one Friday morning in July.
The picnic tables where Junebug Davis spent many a day lounging and asking shoppers for money were gone. The area, beneath an overhang near the front doors, had been transformed into a storage cove for shopping carts.
I spoke to a man named Bruce as he waited for a $6 cab ride home. Bruce, 59, used to work construction. He lives nearby on Suwanee Avenue, a block or two from Davis, whom he didn’t know.
Bruce told me how he had recently been robbed by two masked men. They’d barged into his house through an unlocked door. One of the bandits pistol-whipped him.
“I don’t have anything,” Bruce told the robbers. “Why do you think I’m living here?”
The bandits swiped a computer.
Bruce never called the cops.
“But I make sure I lock my door,” he said.
A week later, I talked to a woman pruning bushes and pulling weeds at the house she rents for $1,000 a month a few doors up from Kroger.
Karon Wilckens was between tenants.
The house had just been burglarized.
The day before, she had traveled down from Peachtree City where she lives. Wilckens and her daughter Shandry had come to spruce up and stay the night.
They ran some errands and when they returned, the house had been broken into. Their laptop computer was gone.
Wilckens, in her early 50s, said she’d heard that the nearby Kroger “tends to attract a lot of not-such-great people. ... People that are just hanging out.”
Hers and 15 other residential properties fronting Pio Nono north of the rail line up to Vineville Avenue cost, on average, $90,000 more than homes in the five miles of Pio Nono to the south.
Wilckens, who has never lived in Macon, told me she doesn’t much venture south on Pio Nono.
“That end? Not if I can help it,” she said. “There’s not really any draw that direction.”
When she called police about the break-in, the officer who showed up took a look around.
He liked the place.
He asked about the rent and later dropped by with his fiancee.
“She loved it,” Wilckens said. “They’re hopefully gonna get in this week and make it a safer place.”
Lately I’ve seen a squad car parked in the driveway.
‘Leave it to Beaver’
One day in August, a man was pushing a beat-up Craftsman mower down the sidewalk at Pio Nono’s top end. His gas can, an old antifreeze jug, was tucked down by the mower’s engine.
I tagged along for a couple of blocks before doubling back toward Vineville. The man, James Thomas, 41, said if he’s lucky he earns $40 a day cutting grass.
“But it’s a blessing to put something in my pocket,” he said.
Back up at Pio Nono’s five-way crossroads at Vineville, I made my way down the less-traveled fifth street, Stanislaus Plaza.
It slips into the neighborhood known as Stanislaus, a 50-home ring of stateliness where a couple of houses approach $1 million. Plenty of others, many in the $300,000 range, help comprise an architectural Shangri-La in the heart of midtown.
If the old South had a Beverly Hills, it’d look like Stanislaus. Lawns there are so loved that the azaleas, Yoshinos, dogwoods and hydrangeas probably pay to take root.
The neighborhood takes it name from the former Pio Nono College, which was renamed St. Stanislaus in 1889.
When the school burned to the ground in November 1921, a deadline dispatch in the Telegraph began:
“A mass of cooling, jagged walls, rising in only one place to their former full height of five stories stands this morning in a twenty-acre field at Vineville and Pio Nono avenues, surrounded by little monuments to patron saints and burnt brick hurled from the structure’s walls to mark the spot where stood St. Stanislaus, a Catholic college which has prepared youths from all over the world for the Jesuit priesthood since 1874.”
A Spanish Bible from 1490 survived the flames. Thousands of other rare books in the school’s 6,000-volume library did not. The ones that did were temporarily stored in the college’s poultry house. “Guards,” the Telegraph reported, “were stationed over them.”
Five years later, the first lots went on sale and a neighborhood was birthed.
The place is so picturesque, you’d almost think it was gated. And it almost is but for Stanislaus Plaza, a lane in and out from Pio Nono. Another entrance, one directly across from the Kroger entrance along Pio Nono, was sealed off by a 6-foot brick wall and a locked fence about five years ago.
On a Friday evening late last month, resident Hal McSwain was out walking his loping Scottish deerhound, Mason. McSwain, over the zizz of cicadas, was chatting with one of his neighbors, a Mercer University professor.
I asked about Stanislaus.
“It’s like a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ neighborhood,” he said.
McSwain, a Merrill Lynch wealth-management man in his mid-50s, said it was “quite unlike a lot of the rest of Macon. There’s about 50 houses in here. We know everybody.”
Another resident, a sales manager in his 30s who declined to give his name, told me, “I think we’re a utopia.”
Then he corrected himself.
“Utopia’s the wrong word,” he said. “If you ask people who live in this neighborhood, they don’t have the same experience as someone who lives on Pio Nono. I mean, look at the houses in here compared to the houses out there. ... Look at the sociological differences and the income differences.”
He brought up the brick wall that seals Stanislaus’ southeastern corner.
“If that wall wasn’t there,” he said, “I wouldn’t live here.”
Another resident, an attorney who didn’t want her name printed, enjoys it there. Her neighbors are great. They invite you in, show you their houses.
“It is very unique,” she said.
Though her husband sometimes shops at the Kroger across the way, she doesn’t. Not after the shooting. She whispered that she has on occasion referred to the store as “the ghetto Kroger.”
‘They’re gonna come in’
Samaria Bailey and her husband are the only black people in Stanislaus.
Their house sits directly across from Kroger at a traffic light, maybe 20 feet from Pio Nono. Her backyard borders the railroad tracks along Roff. Her driveway, equipped with an automatic gate, leads onto Pio Nono.
The brick wall, paid for by the neighborhood, lines her property.
When Bailey answered her door, I explained how I had been traveling Pio Nono, observing what life there is like.
“Was like,” she said. “It was very, very unsafe until we got this wall.”
I asked what she sees when she looks at Pio Nono.
“Just cars and accidents. ... People still walk up and down this street, you know, the have-nots,” Bailey, 66, said. “They look like they’re looking for something.”
The wall went up around the time Kroger built a gas-pump plaza at the upper end of its parking lot, not far from Pio Nono.
Bailey, a medical technologist, has lived there 20 years.
The wall serves a number of purposes, she said. “To keep out transients, to keep out noise, to keep out fumes, to keep people from stealing flowers on my porch.”
Thanks to a driveway that empties onto Pio Nono, hers is the only house in Stanislaus with an escape hatch. She doesn’t have to ride up Stanislaus Plaza to exit the enclave.
When her remote-controlled driveway gate -- which came with the wall -- was installed, Bailey said her Stanislaus neighbors “used to badger us to death. You know, ‘Keep that gate closed ... they’re gonna come in,’ ... the bad guys.”
“My husband and I would religiously make sure we locked the gate when we came in,” she said.
But one day when Al, her husband, was leaving for work, the gate wouldn’t budge. He was locked in his own driveway. Some neighbors helped shove the thing open.
“And you know what he told them? ‘That gate’s gonna stay open. It is not gonna be closed again,’” Bailey said.
Bailey, one of the first black women to attend Mercer University and the first enrolled at A.L. Miller High School, said she and her husband “really don’t know our neighbors very well.”
“They are very cordial and they welcome us to any functions,” she said.
That said, she doesn’t think she fits in. Her mother was once a washwoman in the neighborhood.
Bailey won’t go for walks on Stanislaus Circle like other residents do.
“I don’t feel honestly that they want me here.”
When she goes for a stroll, she leaves her driveway, crosses the bridge over the tracks and heads south down Pio Nono.
She carries a stick.