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Faces of Blight: Community rallies to resurrect Pleasant Hill building with rich history

More from the series


Building Blocks from Blight

The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

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On a sunny Saturday morning in March, about a dozen volunteers gathered at the Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center in Pleasant Hill to clean up the historic community space that’s sat vacant for years.

Floor-to-ceiling windows and ornately painted set pieces from the center’s years as a dance studio still line the dusty, wood-panelled walls, evoking memories of the building’s past life.

The dilapidated building on the corner of Jefferson and Monroe streets was originally home to the First Congregational Church, from 1917 to 1991, according to Historic Macon. In 1997, the Booker T. Washington Foundation bought the property, to serve as an extension of its now-shuttered community center across the street.

Earlier this year, Historic Macon added the property to Macon’s Faded Five, a list of historic properties in need of preservation. Emerging City Champion Tonja Khabir received a $5,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to work with residents to find a new use for the space. In May, she’ll invite community members to offer their own suggestions for how to use the space.

Cleaning up the property was the first step.

A physical timeline and reminder

Inside the former sanctuary, a handful of Mercer University students dressed in sweats sorted through piles of clothing, crumpled paper and old photographs scattered across the floor, sweeping piles of debris into heaping black trash bags.

Senior Tianna Ross had only learned about the historic building a week before, when she registered for the cleanup event through MerServe, the university’s community service organization. But she thinks it’s important for students to give back to the places that make up their college town’s history.

Such buildings serve as a physical timeline, Ross said. They remind residents of where they’ve been and where they want to go. When historic buildings aren’t preserved, she said, people can lose hope.

“It makes people want to give up on it,” Ross said. “It makes them think that people don’t care.”

Ross hopes the center will reopen as a space where kids can come and explore their creative passions. All the building needs is a little tender loving care, she said.

A new life for the center?

The Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center is worth saving, said Rudy Mendes, a local artist who owns a house around the corner.

“It has a lot of potential,” he said.

Mendes would love to see the building become a multipurpose space again, where residents could see theater productions, take dance classes, attend art workshops or even host community meetings. The property owners started to renovate the former church years ago, he said, but rehab efforts fell to the wayside when the now-defunct Booker T. Washington Foundation ran out of money.

It upsets Mendes to see so many blighted structures in his neighborhood. But, as an artist, he sees endless possibilities in those vacant buildings.

“If you have a vision, all this can be changed,” he said. “If some people just invested in some of these houses, they could bring the community back.”

Longtime Pleasant Hill resident Daryl Jackson was excited to see the group of volunteers cleaning up the property when he drove past that morning. Buildings like the Bobby Jones center have been neglected for too long, he said.

“I know it could be better, because I remember somewhat of how it was and how it looked when I was a kid,” Jackson said. “I think it can be restored, and I think the people got a passion to want to do it.”

Jackson thinks many of his neighbors want to work together to clean up their community, but aren’t sure how to get started. Those who want to make a difference need to “get out and help,” he said.

Jackson hopes others will be inspired to get involved when they see their fellow residents picking up trash and repairing run-down buildings.

“You just want everybody to be a part of it,” he said, “because it’s a community team effort, young and old.“

This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at smax@macon.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.
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