‘Paradise’ lost? Kings Park residents ‘worked too hard’ to give up on their community

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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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Some days, Theresa Hugley wonders why she works so hard to maintain a home surrounded by blight. Hugley, 70, has lived in the same three-bedroom ranch house on Kings Park Circle for nearly 35 years.

Since inheriting the property from her mother in 1985, the retired teacher has watched the once-idyllic neighborhood decay before her eyes. As homeowners have died or moved away, out-of-town landlords have bought up dozens of properties and rented them, making little or no effort to maintain them. There’s also more crime than there used to be, Hugley said. She’s afraid to leave her great-grandchildren alone in the neatly groomed front yard where her own children used to play.

The branches of a dead pine tree in front of a boarded-up house on Kings Park Circle threaten to break at a moment’s notice.

Across the street, a tan brick house with shattered windows has sat empty for years. Two doors to her right, the branches of a hulking, dead pine tree sag low to the ground, threatening to fall at any moment. Renters moved into a formerly vacant house kitty-corner from Hugley’s in November and still haven’t taken the boards off the windows.

For decades, Hugley has kept her house in tip-top shape. She weeds her garden and maintains the yard. The cream and crimson paint on the house’s exterior always looks fresh, and each lawn chair on her front porch is neatly angled, as if to say: “Come on over and sit a spell, won’t you?”

Theresa Hugley’s home is her sanctuary. As soon as she walks inside, she feels at peace.

Siblings, children and friends smile down at her from framed photographs that line the white, wood-paneled walls of her foyer. An L-shaped couch welcomes visitors as soon as they walk in the door.

Visitors have fallen asleep on that sofa. One guest woke from a nap, feeling dazed. He couldn’t believe he’d nodded off in front of Hugley. He’d just felt so relaxed in her home.

“It’s something my grandmama and my mom taught us. You know, you greet people with love,” she said. “And once you greet ‘em with love, you hold onto ‘em, you know. And that’s what my house is. It’s a comfortable place to be.”

Hugley doesn’t plan to leave Kings Park. Her mortgage is paid and she’s close with the neighbors she’s lived alongside for nearly half her life. Hugley doesn’t want to give up on this struggling community. She wants to save it.

As president of the Kings Park Neighborhood Association, Hugley has spent countless hours handing out flyers, meeting with county commissioners and filing complaints with code enforcement. She helped the neighborhood secure funding for a new community center in 2017 through the Macon-Bibb County Blight Remediation Program.

Hugley isn’t fighting this battle alone. Half a dozen longtime residents sit on the board of the association, and they’re determined to restore the community to its prior glory. They’ll need all the help they can get, Hugley said.

“We need everybody that’s a part of Kings Park to come in and join hands,” she said, “so we can close in closer and closer and closer and build the community up to make it a better place for the future.”

The most beautiful place in Macon

When Allen Moss bought his house on Kings Park Circle in 1970, he thought he’d moved into paradise. No streetlights had been installed, and the telephone company wouldn’t travel to the brand-new subdivision on the outskirts of town to install a landline.

But Moss didn’t care. He thought he was living in the most beautiful place in Macon.

When it was built, Kings Park was one of just a few sought-after communities for Bibb County’s black residents, Hugley said.

“In the beginning, Kings Park was like some people describe Heaven is going to be. You know, going through the pearly gate, walking down the streets of gold,” Hugley said. “It was a community that everybody wanted to be a part of.”

She said it was the type of place where you could walk next door if you needed an egg, where your neighbor might offer you an extra cup of sugar before you even had to ask.

Tony Mathis used to play outside Hugley’s window in his grandmother’s yard across the way. After decades away from Kings Park, Mathis, now 58, moved back into the brick house with baby blue shutters in 2017 to tend to the ailing grandmother who raised him and his three brothers.

One Friday afternoon in March, Mathis grasped the slender, chocolate hands of Fannie Mae Smith, the woman he calls his “mother slash grandmother,” as she lay in bed, tucked beneath a floral quilt.

Tony Mathis recently moved back into the house where he was raised on Kings Park Circle to care for his ailing 102-year-old grandmother, Fannie Mae Smith. He has fond memories of his childhood in Kings Park, but worries about his grandmother’s safety in the increasingly dangerous neighborhood. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

Kids could just be kids back then, he said. They didn’t have video games or fancy toys, so they played hopscotch and football in the street. Mathis remembered building campfires in the woods and unspooling wire clothes hangers to roast hot dogs over the fire. In the summertime, they’d slurp on cups of frozen Kool-Aid, a treat the kids used to call “huckabuck.”

“And that was basically to keep the children together, you know. Keep ’em out of trouble. Keep the hands and their little minds busy,” Hugley said. “‘I bet you I can eat my huckabuck faster than you can eat yours.’ Just simple things to keep ’em together.”

Back then, she said, all her neighbors felt like family. As soon as Hugley walked out her front door, she knew someone would ask her how she was doing.

Hugley still thinks of Kings Park as an extended family. But she feels the tight-knit community has unraveled a bit over the years.

“Like in any family, everybody’s not gonna do what you tell ’em to do. Somebody’s gonna be hard-headed,” Hugley said. “And there are times when some of the family members have to be disciplined.”

A downward spiral in paradise

Moss first noticed a shift in the neighborhood about 20 years ago, when renters began to move in. Most landlords lived out of town and didn’t bother to maintain the properties from afar, he said.

“The community started deteriorating. Boarded up houses, overgrown lots, all that started,” Moss said.

Now, about 40 houses in the neighborhood sit vacant, and several others have recently been demolished. Some residents wish the county would tear down more.

“It just make(s) the neighborhood look sure enough bad,” Moss said.

As conditions in the neighborhood have declined, crime has increased, Mathis said. A retired police officer, Mathis has grown frustrated with the rise of drug dealing and gang activity. He doesn’t understand why more hasn’t been done to address the issue.

Some older residents have taken it upon themselves to combat crime by calling the police, Hugley said. She hopes to send a message to those causing trouble that she won’t stand for bad behavior in her neighborhood.

Kings Park residents placed more than 1,100 calls to the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office between March 2016 and March 2019, according to data provided to The Telegraph. In Wesleyan Woods, an upscale north Macon enclave, 1,043 emergency calls were placed in the same time span.

But the complaints varied drastically between the two neighborhoods.

Residential alarms prompted about a third of 911 calls in Wesleyan Woods. On the other side of town in Kings Park, domestic disturbances accounted for the most calls to the sheriff’s department, followed by fights, residential alarms, disorderly juveniles and loud music.

Some nights, Mathis lies awake in bed, listening to gunshots firing outside the house and wondering if someone has been hurt, or killed. Mathis worries one day a stray bullet will pierce a window and hit his grandmother. He wonders if the shooters realize the danger those stray bullets pose, if they even care.

Mathis won’t be intimidated, though.

“If something happens, if they try to harm her, harm my grandmother,” he said, “they gotta harm me first.”

Mathis wishes he didn’t have to live in constant fear. He wants to see more law enforcement officers patrolling the streets, keeping an eye on things before anyone’s life is in danger. But like many other residents of Kings Park, he’s still waiting on more investment from the county.

‘Those resources have not come’

Some parts of Bibb County don’t receive as much attention as others, said County Commissioner Elaine Lucas, who represents Kings Park. Local officials and real estate developers have funneled resources into more affluent neighborhoods while leaving many lower-income and predominantly black neighborhoods behind, she said.

“We certainly don’t do a very good job of building up our fragile areas in this community,” Lucas said. “And over the years there have been outcries from people.”

Residents have asked for support, she said, with little luck.

“They’ve asked over and over for some help,” Lucas said, adding, “Those resources have not come.”

Lucas worries that well-connected landlords who don’t take care of their rental properties aren’t held to the same standard as low-income homeowners who can’t afford to make repairs.

Dead tree limbs and overgrown weeds litter the yard of an empty property across the street from Theresa Hugley’s house on Kings Park Circle. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

There are laws. They’re on the books. It’s whether you enforce it or not,” she said. “You know, you enforce the law on the little old lady, but what about the folks who are well-connected, who have a lot of money and have a lot of influential friends who can let their property deteriorate without repercussions?”

If the county doesn’t do a better job of inspecting blighted properties and holding negligent property owners accountable, Lucas said, the issue will spread. She thinks Bibb County is losing the race against blight.

“We’re losing it,” Lucas said. “And we cannot lose it, because we’ll have a shiny, brand-new downtown and a shiny, brand-new section here and there, but the majority of the people live in the neighborhoods, and so they deserve to have a decent place to live, as well.”

Restoring run-down communities will require partnerships both within and outside of county government, she said.

“We can’t do it alone. Government can’t do it alone,” Lucas said. “It takes neighborhoods. It takes lots of people working together to keep this progress going.”

When county commissioners each received $1 million in 2015 to address blight in their districts, Lucas decided to devote about $560,000 to build a new community center in Kings Park and renovate the playground in its backyard. For years, the neighborhood association had met in two cramped, dilapidated houses at the end of Kingston Court.

The Kings Park Neighborhood Association lobbied the county to build a new community center in 2017 with funds from Macon-Bibb County’s Blight Remediation Program. They hope the center will give residents of all ages a place to come together in the heart of the neighborhood. From left to right: Theresa Hugley, Mozelle Stephens, Clifford Johnson, Allen Moss and Ambres Reese. Samantha Max smax@macon.com
Highland Hills Baptist Church

Such partnerships provide a much-needed source of support to the small neighborhood association, which is made up mostly of elderly residents.

“We’ve tried to make them seen and known and to let those people know that they are known and loved,” said Erin Hall, a member of the church’s missions committee. “It matters for people to be heard in their community. And so, we just try to amplify what it is that they need and what they’re saying.”

‘We worked too hard’

One Monday evening in early April, as children from the after-school tutoring program packed up their backpacks and streamed out of the community center, a handful of older homeowners trickled in. They gathered around a long, black folding table for their monthly neighborhood association meeting.

Longtime resident Shirley Kitchens was worried about the traffic outside her house. She’d noticed cars and electric scooters zooming down the street, and wondered if the county could install speed bumps. Hugley had spotted suspicious vehicles passing through while kids waited for the school bus in the mornings. She suspected they might be transporting drugs.

Hundreds of photos, notes and family mementos fill Theresa Hugley’s “Wall of Fame” in her house on Kings Park Circle. She feels a deep connection to the home, where she’s lived since 1985. Samantha Max smax@macon.

Hugley then squeezed her eyes shut in frustration and said she didn’t want to see the neighborhood “go down.”

“We worked too hard,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “We worked too hard for what we got.”

Vice President of the Neighborhood Association Clifford Johnson isn’t giving up. Johnson said he would give his life for this place. He’d do anything to get Kings Park back to how it was when he first moved in.

“I would like to see it come back,” he said. “I would like to see the neighborhood refurbished, come back alive.”

Johnson wishes he could wave his hand and eliminate all of Kings Park’s problems. He dreams of residents working side by side in their yards, cutting the grass and planting fresh flowers. He imagines neighbors chatting in the middle of the street and elderly residents soaking in the sun’s warm rays from their porches.

When people don’t have to worry about teenagers speeding down the road, blaring music and yelling profanities, Johnson said, they might feel more comfortable spending time outside. Restoring blighted properties will help too, he said. Johnson and his fellow members of the neighborhood association are making slow and steady progress. But some days, he thinks about giving up.

“I thought about calling the president and quitting this morning, just saying, ‘What’s the use? What’s the use?’ Because it’s like, the harder we try, the more we do, the further they get. The further back they step,” he said. “So why keep trying? You see they don’t want no better.”

But Johnson is no quitter. With prayer and hard work, Johnson thinks his community will rise again.

“Kings Park will come back,” Johnson said. “It will be alive again. Take my word for that.”

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.