I have read with great interest the countless articles published in this newspaper about blight in the city of Macon. As I reflect on the 15th anniversary of my administration’s commissioning of a $250,000 comprehensive development plan for our city, carried out by Atlanta-based EDAW (an urban planning group), I recall it had broad-based community involvement and input. The final adopted plan by mayor and council were crucial in the city being awarded a $21 million federal Hope VI grant to demolish and redevelop Oglethorpe Homes into a mixed income community, as well as the redevelopment of the surrounding area, commonly referred to as Bealls Hill, without gentrifying the neighborhood.
After successfully redeveloping this crucial part of the inner city, we then set our sights on the Tindall Heights area around Telfair, Prince and Nussbaum streets, with a vision of securing another Hope VI grant for Tindall Heights Housing Project. I wish to commend the Macon Housing Authority for keeping that vision alive by recently being awarded a federal approval to demolish Tindall Heights, one of the oldest public housing projects in the country, which had long ago outlived its usefulness.
The point I wish to make is blight cannot be eliminated without a plan with citizens’ input. Some of our communities, such as the Antioch Road Corridor in south Macon, I’m afraid, are too far gone, and have been depopulated to such extent that they would be more beneficial to be converted into urban farming or greenspace. In other words, blight cannot be eliminated one house at a time, but rather one neighborhood or street at a time.
There are other areas in Bellevue, east Macon, and other parts of south Macon that should also be set aside for urban farming or greenspace. One in particular is a large part of the Unionville community. I spent part of my teenage years in Unionville, a blighted community from its very inception.
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My family resided on Blossom Avenue, a then red clay street with mostly substandard houses, by any stretch of the imagination, even in those days. The part of Blossom Avenue where my parents lived was redeveloped during the urban renewal programs in the 1970s, but the vast majority of the Unionville community consisted of severe blight and little or no planning of streets, drainage and other vital infrastructure.
Unionville was created after the Civil War for former slaves, surrounded by the city, but not a part of the city until it was annexed into the city limits in the late 1960s. Therefore, very little, if any, county funds were ever allocated in this area. After all, the county’s garbage dump was located where Henderson Stadium and the Georgia Department of Labor are currently located.
Just a short distance away sits an elementary school and a housing project. Unionville can be used as a poster child for poor or no planning. Most of Unionville should be set aside for farming or massive greenspace. Any redevelopment plan should have a goal of never again concentrating poverty as we did in the past, and to some extent we are continuing to this day.
Blight can also be traced to white flight, after the passage of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Law, outlawing discrimination in home sales and rentals to black people. With most decent housing being in the white community, blacks began to move to those communities as whites began to move out, thus leaving blight in their wake. Given the history of housing patterns and the lack of planning in some communities, as I mentioned earlier, the task before us is, and has been for quite some time a challenging one, but that has very little chance of success without a very well-defined plan with maximum citizen input.
As citizens, we should not accept anything less. After all, we are footing the bill for this disaster waiting to happen. We should also not expect our elected leaders to accept anything less than a comprehensive urban redevelopment and blight removal plan for every parcel in our city, especially the old Macon city limits, parts of which have been abandoned by so many of our citizens.
We should also vow to never again allow such haphazard planning to take place in the future anywhere in our city/county. We owe it to ourselves and generations yet unborn.
C. Jack Ellis is a former Macon mayor.