When trimming his greens in the garden, William James Gray removes the dry, yellowed leaves.
“You break the dead ones off and they’ll come back,” Gray said as he bent over to prune some of the plants. Last season’s crop was fading as new growth was about to spring from newly planted seeds.
The 83-year-old farms the vacant lots around his home in east Bibb County’s Kings Park neighborhood, keeping down the weeds, watering the plants and getting rid of pests.
Neglect can be ugly, as evidenced by other abandoned lots around him.
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The yard of the boarded-up house across the street nearly hides its forgotten facade.
Removing dilapidated, vandalized and burned-out buildings might breathe new life into the subdivision that sparkled with new houses in the early 1970s.
But demolition of even the worst eyesores mires into months of legal wrangling.
In the year since The Telegraph launched “The House Next Door” project to highlight the blight epidemic across Macon-Bibb County, the list of problem properties has grown.
Although government officials have yet to uproot the worst of the worst, its leaders are plowing the ground to try to turn the neighborhood around.
MIXED REVIEWS FOR 5X5 PROGRAM
Lurlean Rhodes has been trying to get something done about her street for months.
She brought it up at a neighborhood association meeting and spoke up at a meeting Mayor Robert Reichert held at the East Macon gym.
Last month, the morning after an evening shower, Rhodes was chatting in lawn chairs with neighbors Richard and Sharon Finney.
Water was puddled along the curb once again, but she did not appear to be upset about it. Crews had been out to cut away asphalt to improve drainage during the county’s 5X5 project, a neighborhood improvement initiative that targets five-block areas for five weeks of concentrated work.
“It made me feel much better because they did try to help me out to keep that from puddling,” Rhodes said. “They tried to fix it where it would drain. They really did, but it still puddles some.”
Beginning in mid-July, Macon-Bibb workers spent five weeks there, making repairs, sprucing up public property and enhancing the neighborhood’s community center and park.
Richard Finney, who remembers when ball fields were built at the park, doesn’t think enough is being done.
“These politicians need to stop being politicians and do something,” he said.
In the community’s glory days, that new park kept him from walking all the way from the neighborhood near Masseyville Road to Drake’s Field near Davis Homes, or to a practice lot in Baconsfield where the Kroger supermarket is now.
“Been a lot of changes,” he said.
Things were different when he was growing up, living down the street from his grandmother. He lives in her house now after coming back home from the military.
“Oh man, a lot of discipline,” Finney said of his early days. “I refuse to allow kids just to be disrespectful.”
Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas understands the generational divide that happens in many modern neighborhoods.
Older, more stable homeowners tend to shoulder the responsibilities of neighborhood associations.
Lucas worked closely with Kings Park’s association President Theresa Hugley while identifying projects to address during the 5X5. But the new roofing on picnic shelters and the mulch on the playground did little to impress Shirley Person and Christine Shinholster.
The sisters grew up on Majestic Court and remember a time when the whole neighborhood came together.
“I watched them build Kings Park,” the 51-year-old Shinholster said.
“Newcomers tear things up,” Person, 53, added.
The women and their grown children were unfazed by efforts made to enhance the park. The family sees more areas for improvement.
“They need to put trash bins down there,” Person said. “They just don’t do anything out here they say they’re going to do.”
The sisters would like to see the community center come alive again with summer lunch programs and other seasonal activities for the younger crowd.
Unlike some neighbors, they don’t think there are good and bad sides of Kings Park.
Shinholster’s son, who is in his early 30s, was wounded in a shooting on their street in June that killed 19-year-old Andrew Sims.
They said the troublemakers are not from the neighborhood.
“It’s coming from outside here,” Shinholster said.
In early July, Bibb County Sheriff David Davis led a safety walk focused on community outreach.
Lucas sees the county making great strides in tending to the people’s concerns that seemingly were ignored for decades.
She got her first good look at the blight during her campaign for county commissioner a couple of years ago. Kings Park was not in her district while she served on Macon City Council.
“There was so much that needed to be cleaned up,” Lucas said.
Neighbors joined in the summer’s 5X5 focus, and county department heads are submitting a report on all the manpower and money spent over the five weeks that ended last month.
During that time, three more homes were added to a demolition list.
Of the 52 properties the county deems in violation of maintenance codes, 27 include unsafe or condemned buildings. The county had 43 properties on the list a year ago.
Although 31 new cases were added since then, the 5X5 project resolved 11 of those issues.
BLIGHT BATTLE ONGOING
Alex Howard’s family home is still in limbo with its remnant of a roof continuing to cave in.
Howard said he’s found a drier place to stay, but he still looks out for the house.
“See if anybody’s set it on fire because there has been a lot of arson lately,” said Howard, who blocked the end of the driveway with stacks of old tires he found dumped near the “no dumping” sign at a dead end on Kings Park Circle.
The county declared his house unsafe last year, but Howard does not really know when or if it will be torn down.
He thinks a burned-out house facing his house should have been razed months ago.
“We’ve got some houses on this street that got very little history of somebody staying in it,” he said.
When The Telegraph visited last year, a young family was living across from Howard.
They are gone now, and the house is vacant. The front door stands open, and the grass is high.
Still, Howard has hope from the recent attention.
“The community’s trying to get together,” he said. “They’ve got walk-throughs and stuff like that. It helps. It gets them a little focused and sets a tone to the neighborhood.”
Lucas does not want to lose that momentum.
Dumpsters full of trash were removed, overgrown trees were cut back and new relationships forged. Laminated cards with contact information for county services were distributed to residents.
“So now they know who to call and when to call when they have a problem,” Lucas said. “We want to sustain the positive attitudes. There’s a lot that’s been going on, but the plan is now to sustain.”
A Shalom Zone that would bring leadership training and other benefits is in the works, along with a Citizens On Patrol organization to train neighbors to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Meanwhile, Friends of Tattnall Square Park has agreed to share ideas for landscaping and other improvements.
Lucas wants the Kings Park neighborhood, young and old, to work together to make things better.
“They all have a responsibility for keeping it clean, not just the older folks,” she said.
Gray has decided to stop mowing the lawn of the house next door that’s been vacant four or five years.
“I’m just going to leave it be,” he said. “I hate to let it grow up, but I’ve got to let it go.”
On the mend from cancer, Gray still gets out in his garden most every morning when it’s not raining.
Now that Kings Park’s problems are getting some attention, he sees a sunnier outlook for his community.
“It’s going pretty good, now,” he said. “I can see a lot of improvement they’re doing, I can see them starting out on it. I appreciate that.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303, and follow her on Twitter@liz_lines.