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Before the sun gets too high, William James Gray is in the garden.
The 82-year-old farms an undeveloped lot next to his home of nearly 25 years on Kings Park Circle.
As sweat beads up on his brow, the retired truck driver takes his breaks in a chair perched on the concrete slab of his neighbor’s house that burned several years ago.
Only the foundation and front steps remain as fossils from a time of prosperity and hope.
“Everything was new. Everything looked good,” Gray remembered of the circa 1970 neighborhood where he raised a family. “They called us the rich folks’ place back then.”
It was a development fit for a Queens Drive, Majestic Lane and East Royal Court.
Now, though, a developer’s regal dream has deteriorated into decay.
The main drag of the east Macon subdivision off Masseyville Road is shaped like a baby grand piano — abruptly ending on opposite sides of the neighborhood where vandalized and dilapidated houses, overgrown yards and trash reign.
More than 45 years after the first houses started going up in Kings Park, many of them have come down — and dozens more probably should.
“There are a few of us that keeps ourselves clean around here,” said Gray, a cancer survivor who also keeps up family property in Houston County.
His neighbors across the street died off, and the children let the house go.
“I hate to see it, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Gray said.
In a neighborhood of about 270 homes, it appears 19 have been torn down over the years and another 48 are vacant and boarded up. Three of those have burned, and vandals have wrecked others.
In mid-July, the Macon-Bibb Department of Business and Development Services was investigating code violations on 43 Kings Park properties. Five of those are approved for demolition.
A kneeling ceramic angel sits on the window ledge outside the front door of the last house on Gray’s stretch of Kings Park Circle.
A Mazda Millenia is parked in the carport. There’s so much green mold on the paint that it’s hard to tell the car’s true color. Its license plate expired in 2000.
The faded red and white Chevy pickup behind it in the driveway has two flat back tires and an “I need assistance. Please call police” sun shield.
Alex Howard has lived most of his 36 years in that one-story brick ranch he once shared with his parents.
“3369 Kings Park Circle never had a chance,” Howard said after stepping up from rotted flooring to greet rare human visitors at the door. “We get company. We get possums and stuff like that.”
Rain has been pouring in after a large swath of the roof caved, exposing bones of rafters draped with small shreds of decaying, blue tarp.
“The kitchen was the first to go,” Howard said before he walked to the rear of the house, where daylight filtered through holes in the ceiling to light up the room where his mother used to cook.
She died in 2003.
Howard’s father has been staying with his fiancee, explained Howard, a 1997 Northeast High School graduate who heats his food in a microwave or toaster oven in the den.
“I’m not trying to live in it, just trying to make by in it,” he said.
There’s enough of a roof left on some of the house to partially shield him from the rain.
That’s where Howard listens to the radio and keeps up with news on National Public Radio when he’s not downtown selling his plasma or shopping at the Family Dollar.
One night in June, more light than usual filtered through the gaping holes in his house.
Across the street, flames were shooting out of the golden brick ranch with the big, multipaned picture window.
The vacant building had become quite the party spot in early summer, judging by the trash that revelers left behind.
Near Kings Park Circle’s other dead end, Elouise Ellis knows the dilapidation cycle well.
More than three decades ago, Elouise and John Ellis picked out their 1.6-acre patch of the country on Hitchcock Road, just outside of Kings Park.
They bought land near her sister to build a retirement house once they finished their careers at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
They befriended the young couple starting a family as Kings Park was emerging in the late ‘70s.
The neighbors’ marriage did not last, nor did the house.
The front door is bashed in, an entertainment hutch lies on the living room floor along with discarded liquor bottles and playing cards.
In the kitchen, a wooden plank covered in orange and brown wallpaper has been pulled off the wall — likely the work of the thieves who stole the copper wiring.
The Ellises have been keeping their eyes open ever since they moved into their new home in 2004.
“It should be a very nice community for low incomes,” Elouise Ellis said. “But with all these foreclosures and things, they just moved out and then drug addicts come in and take it over and use it, trash it and take another.”
As a retired campus police officer, John Ellis has dialed 911 a few times over the past 10 years.
“I’ve called them when they were ripping off these houses, but they show up pretty late,” he said. “I called when they were selling dope next door.”
His wife shook her head.
“It just seems like it’s getting worse and worse and worse,” she said.
Once that family moved away, a single mother with a lot of children came next.
“The kids tore it up, and no one else would go in there until the drug addicts and the pushers,” she said. “It’s just like a dump over there. It’s just an eyesore for me to go out in my backyard to the garage and see all that garbage over there.”
THE BLIGHT FIGHT
The Kings Park Neighborhood Association gathers the first Monday of each month in the Sam Hart Community Center, a converted home in the cul-de-sac on Kingston Court.
In July, nine people talked about the state of the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of houses out here need fixing up, and a lot of them need tearing down,” said Allen Moss, who moved to the neighborhood in 1969.
Nettie Thomas also was one of the first residents of the brand-new subdivision.
She helped lead the fight for fire hydrants, streetlights and a playground, which the association says need major improvements.
Now a 7-foot padlocked fence surrounds her harvest gold house where roses bloom along the driveway.
Thomas documented the dilapidated buildings and took photos to the county commission, yet four dozen homes remain vacant.
“We’ve been working on this for years and years,” Thomas said. “It’s just recently we’ve had the wrong crowd here.”
Clifford Johnson, the association’s vice president, said he went down to county offices several times to ask about ownership of a house at the corner of Kings Park Circle and Kingston Court.
One of the owners turned it over to his sister-in-law, who walked away from it, and a tax lien was placed on the property, he was told.
During the months Johnson tried to get answers, someone got into the house and destroyed it, he said.
“No matter how much we talk and who we get in touch with, nothing ever happens,” Johnson said. “I’ve thought about throwing my hands up and just taking care of where I live.”
Broken windows, busted doors and trashed yards are not merely a matter of aesthetics.
“It’s a danger to kids, the elderly and everybody in general because it’s a place where crime can take place,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a big drug problem here, but drugs are everywhere.”
Thomas helps organize a biannual cleanup and has repeatedly pleaded with some of her neighbors to trim their bushes and trees.
“We want the neighborhood kept clean. We are afraid of rats, roaches, snakes and everything,” Thomas said. “We’re tired of talking. We just want action.”
They suspect some owners take out loans for repairs but spend the money elsewhere and eventually face foreclosure.
Other houses are owned by out-of-state landlords who cannot find tenants.
Johnson said he realizes Kings Park is not the only Bibb County neighborhood struggling with abandoned, boarded-up homes.
“We want our elected officials to stop taking our tax dollars and spending it where they want instead of where it’s needed,” Johnson said. “They go everywhere but the east side. We have been forgotten, but we still pay taxes.”
‘WORST OF THE WORST’
Johnnie Mae Dawkins blames the influx of Section 8 housing with destroying her neighborhood.
“That really brought it down. We fought it in our community organization,” Dawkins said. “I know you can’t tell people where to stay, but you have to keep it clean.”
The streets sparkled with model homes when her family moved in on Nov. 5, 1971.
After her husband died suddenly the next year, the young mother worked hard to keep up the house and painted it twice by herself. After someone broke in and stole her television, she still was determined to stay.
“I really would like to see the community flourish out here,” said Dawkins, now 71, who ran for a seat on the Bibb County Commission in 2007. “Out here it was looked on as the worst of the worst because people don’t care and don’t take care of their property.”
She sees the younger folks in the neighborhood letting homes fall into disrepair.
“We want to put them to work. Clean up your area,” Dawkins said. “They seem to think that’s old-fashioned. We have these young girls having babies, and they’re not grown themselves. How can they tell the child what to do?”
Despite the condition of most of the homes surrounding her, she doesn’t want to leave.
“I’ve been out here so long, it feels comfortable to me,” she said.
She married Frank Dawkins in 1996, and he started clamoring for street lights.
“It was dark as hell out here,” he said. “Everybody left their front lights on.”
Recently, the couple had a motion detector spotlight installed over their garage.
Frank Dawkins wants everyone to get fired up about fixing things up.
“If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen,” he said.
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