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Faces of Blight: He ‘meets people where they are’ to help revitalize Macon neighborhoods

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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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Frank Austin peers at a rotting animal carcass on the side of road and steps out of the way, soaking in the scene before him. On a quiet side street in South Macon, a boarded-up white house is tagged with blood-red graffiti. Two for sale signs are plastered to the outer wall.

Below, a sloping front yard sprouts with weeds, some several feet high. Plastic grocery bags, soda bottles and a torn, patterned rug litter the overgrown lawn. The stench of trash and roadkill is overwhelming.

But Austin doesn’t look fazed. The director of Macon-Bibb Shalom Zones has spent the past 10 years working with residents in some of the county’s most blighted neighborhoods. Wading through debris, illegal dumping and dilapidated structures in his suit and dress shoes is just part of the job.

“This is not what a healthy and vibrant community looks like,” Austin said as he toured through the South Macon Shalom Zone on an overcast Monday in March. “We believe that every community should have an opportunity to be vibrant and to be safe.”

The international Communities of Shalom initiative launched in 1992, when riots erupted in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four police officers accused of police brutality. The United Methodist Church created the program, which has since trained thousands of people around the world to strengthen their communities.

In 2009, Macon became the first municipality to adopt the approach on a city-wide level, when Mayor Robert Reichert formed Shalom Zones in six neighborhoods: Lynmore Estates, Village Green, Pleasant Hill, Bellevue, Beall’s Hill and East Macon. The program has since spread throughout Bibb County.

Austin said the organization has conducted more than 300 community cleanups, with help from about 10,000 volunteers. Participants have boarded up houses, mowed lawns, cleared trash and brokered relationships with residents who haven’t always had their community’s best interests at heart.

“The goal is to work together for a purpose,” Austin said. “So now a lot of friendships have been forged. A lot of barriers, a lot of issues, kind of, have been worked though because of the process.”

Every few years, Austin trains residents of the county’s Shalom Zones in the basics of community organizing. Participants identify the issues facing their neighborhoods and the resources at their disposal to make improvements.

Shalom Zones partners with neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, crime and blight. Austin estimates at least 80 percent of the county’s vacant structures fill the streets where he works.

It’s important to work with “what’s in your hand,” he said. Residents pitch in with whatever skills they have to offer and community partners help to fill the gaps.

“We got some serious issues,” Austin said. “We got crime problems. Yeah, we got blight issues. But the capacity to work through them is there.”

Trusting relationships are key

To make a difference in a community, you first have to build trust with residents, Austin said. Austin and his volunteers visit day after day, hoping to send a message to those who live there that they want to help, and they’re in it for the long haul.

“That’s the key,” he said, “is being consistent and just taking people for face value. You know, meeting people where they are.”

Forming relationships with residents is one of the most rewarding parts of the program, Austin said as he thought back on an unexpected friendship he’d forged a few years back.

For months, a resident of one of the Shalom Zones had rejected Austin’s appeals to get involved. The young man was selling drugs and vandalizing property in the neighborhood. Austin suspected he had ties to a local gang.

After a year of saying no, the young man finally decided to help out with a community cleanup. Austin then helped him earn his GED and enroll in a workforce development program. Now, he’s one of Shalom Zones’ most loyal volunteers, and he’s shared his story with countless kids and teens throughout the county.

“Every time I think about that it gives me chills,” Austin said, “because I’ll never forget the first day he looked in my eyes and said, ‘You know what? I want my GED. I’m a better man than this. I just don’t know what to do. I just don’t know where the resources are. Can you help me?’”

Making a difference in even one person’s life makes all the hard work worth it, Austin said.

“It’s because of the bridge that we built,” he said. “We went out into the community, met a person where they were and didn’t judge the person and just gave them a way out and a role to move forward.”

Austin knows eliminating blight won’t be easy. Multiple barriers stand in the way: lack of funding, an understaffed code enforcement department, unpaid taxes and murky titles on properties that have sat vacant for years.

But Austin’s going to keep empowering community members to revitalize the places they call home. He hopes the county will soon invest more resources in the neighborhoods outside of downtown where many residents feel forgotten. “Once we eliminate blight, the sense of community, the sense of pride in the community would be instilled,” Austin said. “It would come back.”

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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