The story of falling-apart houses is, in truth, about the people who let them get that way. For whatever reason. Maybe the people couldn’t afford the upkeep. Maybe they went broke. Maybe they didn’t care.
But exactly who “they” are isn’t always easily known.
The Telegraph recently set out to ask the owner of a long-dilapidated house what went wrong, but after a few days of looking, a reporter couldn’t find him.
Property records list owners’ names and mailing addresses. Even so, locating the owners is not necessarily as simple as visiting an address. People move, and sometimes their messes -- in the form of gutted, rotting houses -- are the only trails they leave.
The Telegraph has chronicled the fate of one boarded-up house in south Macon in recent years. The house sits on Hartley Street, just west of Houston Avenue, a few blocks north of Guy Paine Road.
The area was once a main thoroughfare into and out of town. Motels, restaurants and auto-repair shops thrived in what was then the U.S. 41 corridor.
Many of the houses in the blocks around Hartley Street, below Rocky Creek Road and between Pio Nono Avenue and Broadway, were built to provide homes for people with ties to Robins Air Force Base in the middle of the last century.
A house at 1261 Hartley St. is a prime example of the origin of neighborhood blight, of what happens when homeowners just disappear. Because their houses do not.
For much of the past half decade, code enforcement officials and others have had little luck getting in touch with the owner of the house, a 27-year-old man named Sean Tucker.
In 2010, Tucker was in his early 20s when he apparently acquired the place from a bank for $4,000. It was in disrepair. The yard was weed-ridden, the doors were wide open, windows were busted. Vandals feasted.
The last time Tucker paid property tax on the 75-year-old brick home was in 2011. The bill was $63.99.
Since then, nearly $900 in unpaid taxes and penalties have piled up. The house was condemned and later, in October 2013, approved for demolition. County officials still aren’t sure when it will be torn down.
Tucker has lived at numerous addresses in Warner Robins, south Macon and west Macon. When a reporter visited four of those homes in August, Tucker was no longer there. Some of the people who were said they’d never heard of him.
The hope was to ask Tucker what he’d intended to do with the Hartley Street house, why he’d abandoned it. The idea was to find out why someone had apparently plunked down four grand for a house and then let it waste away.
At least a few of the neighbors on Hartley Street wouldn’t mind hearing answers. One man there, the one who first complained about the eyesore in 2009, had tried for years to get the house cleaned up. His house is directly across the street from it.
Other neighbors tried as well, but with little success. There is only so much officials can do. Demolitions take time and money, often costing more than the houses and the land they sit on are worth.
‘IT’S JUST GOTTEN WORSE’
In the interim, blight blooms.
The front door of the Hartley Street house is gone. Stray dogs have, on occasion, taken up quarters there. Someone appears to feed them. One evening not long ago, there was a pile of table scraps, a glob of baked beans and other food, plopped down on the floor inside.
A dirt lane along its western property line connects Hartley Street to Glendale Avenue, a block north. The lane is known as 20th Street. Five years ago, a woman walking through was attacked and killed by dogs.
Hartley, like many side streets that branch off Houston Avenue, is easy to miss. It isn’t near a commercial hub, nor is it a major trouble spot for the cops. It doesn’t much make the news. It just has more than its share of untended lots, a handful choked with weeds and vines.
Meanwhile, the red-brick shell that is 1261 Hartley St. has its still-unknown date with the wrecking ball.
John Baker, property maintenance manager for the Macon-Bibb County Department of Building and Development Services, has an idea what may have prompted the house’s decline.
Based on what property records show, he said it is possible the bank that held the mortgage on it told previous residents to get out more than six years ago. After the residents left, the place nose-dived into disrepair. Then Tucker bought it.
“If anything,” Baker said, “it’s just gotten worse.”
A man who lives a couple of doors down on the other side of the street was out in his yard one morning in early September. He saw a reporter in the overgrown yard and wandered over.
Bennie Willis, who has called Hartley Street home since the 1980s, grew up in the neighborhood.
He said the area “is not so bad, but it’s bad.”
“You have very few (people) from the ‘80s and ‘90s that still stay over here,” Willis said. “They’ve abandoned their houses and sold them to other owners, and the other owners have abandoned the houses.”
He had friends who lived in the now-abandoned dwelling at 1261. The house has been empty now for as long as he can remember.
“It’s just been sitting here,” Willis said.
“I assume that the government will come and clean it up after a while.”
He said another neighbor mows the weeds to keep the place from being swallowed whole. The lot is a haven for snakes, he said, and he doesn’t much care for snakes.
As for the house itself with its wide-open, doorless front entrance, Willis said, “I don’t go in that house, period.”
But then he did.
He led the way on an impromptu tour.
He marched up three front steps and into an open-air living room that was nothing short of shattered.
It was as if garbage cans had crash-landed and burst open.
“This is how it looks on the inside,” Willis said. “Messed up.”
He pointed to a pair of 4-foot-tall holes in a back wall.
“See where they done tore all the wiring and things,” he said. “This is messed up pretty bad.”
Strewn debris on the floor included old books, tossed papers, trash and shards of whatever domesticity had once inhabited the place.
As it turned out, there were residents living there after all.
Two teeming wasp nests hung at head level in the busted front window behind Willis.
“Oh,” he said, “I ain’t even see them.”
He stepped away and left them alone.
Not unlike the previous owners, the ones who’d been there long ago -- before the trash and the decay and the stray dogs and the flying, stinging insects.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397 or follow him on Twitter @joekovacjr.