Some call east Macon a ‘ghost town.’ But these folks won’t give up on their community

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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Carlos “LockDogg” Reynolds is tired of going to funerals. Reynolds has buried so many friends and relatives over the years he’s lost count. But he knows the number is more than 60.

Death is ubiquitous in Fort Hill, the east Macon neighborhood where Reynolds grew up.

In the past five years alone, at least 26 people have been shot within a one-mile radius of the house where Reynolds’ grandparents raised him, on the corner of Cowan and Ritchie streets. Eight of those shootings were fatal, according to an analysis by gun violence newsroom The Trace.

Childhood in Fort Hill was “rough,” Reynolds said, sitting on a brown leather couch at his aunt’s house on Woolfolk Street. Reynolds, 44, wore a white T-shirt adorned with the words “Fort Hill,” the big block letters filled with the faces of deceased loved ones. Reynolds’ thin, shoulder-length dreadlocks brushed against his cheeks as he leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees.

As soon as you walked outside, Reynolds said, you saw drug dealers flashing their earnings to kids walking by.

“We were young, but that’s what we were raised up to do. That’s all we seen,” he said. “Fighting, you know, gangbanging, all of that right there, it was a part of growing up.”

Reynolds tried to break the cycle. He kept up his grades, graduated from high school and almost enlisted in the Navy. But the streets pulled him back, he said.

In 1999, Reynolds decided to make a change. He started rapping, writing songs about the neighbors he’d lost. Then he opened two tattoo parlors, got married and moved to north Macon, where he raised four children. The two oldest are in college and the third will start next year on a basketball scholarship.

Reynolds chose to move his family out of Fort Hill.

“I had to raise my kids in something different,” he said. “I had to give them a better chance, a better start.”

But Reynolds never gave up on his neighborhood.

He goes to Fort Hill almost every day, to visit friends and coach the local youth basketball league. Reynolds hopes he can motivate the kids in Fort Hill not to make the same mistakes he did when he was young. He thinks hard work — both in school and on the basketball court — could be the key to raising the generation that will save his struggling community.

“I’m trying to take these athletes to a place where they can change their family’s lives,” he said. “And that comes from character.”

Reynolds is one of many east Macon natives who has moved away from his childhood neighborhood, leaving behind a community filled with empty homes and economic despair. He’s also one of a handful of current and former residents who are determined to revitalize the place they still call home.

Reynolds knows the battle won’t be easy. But he hopes one day Fort Hill will prosper.

“I hope that we as a community that grew up here can buy it and fix it up,” he said. “That will always be a dream.”

A ‘close-knit’ community

Reynolds said Fort Hill felt more like “a valley raising the whole” when he was a kid. He and his younger brother were raised by their grandparents, known by all the neighbors as Big Mama and Big Daddy. Their house was “the place to be,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds and his friends spent their afternoons playing games and riding bikes in the street, and then they’d crowd into the Reynolds’ cozy home, where Big Mama always had a hearty, homemade meal cooking on the stove.

The block in east Macon where Beverly Pitts grew up was also “really close-knit,” she said. Pitts, 64, grew up in Highland Circle, Fort Hill’s northern neighbor, and remembers walking to the now-shuttered Hunt School with her neighbors each day.

“We just had a family-like relationship in the neighborhood,” said Pitts, who has owned the Hairlines Beauty Salon in east Macon since 1991. Pitts and her siblings would play hopscotch and cards with their neighbors every day after school. On weekends, they’d bring out a stereo and dance on the lawn.

Pitts said she didn’t have much growing up. Her family of eight lived in a humble two-bedroom house, so the kids spent most of their free time outside, she said, where there was plenty of space to roam.

“We had a house and a yard and a fence and we grew a garden in the back. We had chickens and dogs and things like that,” Pitts said. “It was a good life. If we were poor, we didn’t know it.”

Dominique Johnson said he can’t complain about his childhood in east Macon. Some of his childhood friends have been incarcerated, he said, and others have been killed. But he loves the “tight-knit” neighborhood where he was raised.

“We’re not from Macon. We’re from east Macon,” said Pastor Dominique Johson in his office at Kingdom Life church on Shurling Drive on May 3, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

Johnson, pastor of Kingdom Life church on Shurling Drive, no longer lives on the east side of town. But he chose to open his congregation there when he became a minister and still feels a deep pride in his roots.

“We have a swagger about us,” Johnson said. “You know, we’re not from Macon. We’re from east Macon.” The pastor leaned back in his chair and laughed. “Everybody else can be from Macon, but we’re from east Macon.”

A ‘ghost town’ on the east side

East Macon is not without its problems, Johnson said. Many of the issues facing the community, he said, are deep-rooted and systemic.

Blight was one of the most common concerns among current and former residents interviewed by The Telegraph. Nearly 160 vacant properties line the streets of Fort Hill, which is bounded by Emery Highway, Gray Highway and Shurling Drive. On some blocks, several empty houses sit back to back, windows boarded up, yards overgrown.

“Blight is becoming more and more of an issue for us,” Johnson said.

Some of the empty houses belong to heirs or elderly homeowners who don’t live in the house and don’t have the resources to maintain the property.

A Telegraph analysis revealed that 130 of the unoccupied structures — 82% — are owned by landlords who don’t live in the neighborhood. Some own multiple houses in Fort Hill and live as far away as Indianapolis, Indiana and Glendale, California, rarely — if ever — checking in on the conditions of their investment properties .

Residents have filed complaints with the county, but a shortage of code enforcement officers has stalled the inspection process.

A surge of residents streamed out of east Macon after the 2006 closure of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco plant on Weaver Road, which once employed 2,100 people, said Fort Hill resident Sherman Kind.

“The east side turned into a ghost town,” he said. “It’s been downhill ever since.”

In census tracts 111 and 138, the two tracts that encompass Fort Hill, more than two-thirds of children under 18 live below the federal poverty line, according to Census Reporter. The median household income in census tract 138 is $17,569 and in neighboring tract 111 is just $11,875. The Georgia average is $52,977.

Single women account for the majority of householders in both tracts, as do renters. Most residents have to travel about 20 minutes to work each way, if they have a job. Only 5.5% of residents in tract 111 and 4.2% in tract 138 have a bachelor’s degree.

Many small businesses in east Macon have shuttered or moved away over the years. A storefront on the corner of Hall and Maynard streets in Fort Hill sat vacant on May 9, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

“It’s just really kinda hard to get people to invest in this area,” she said.

Poverty breeds its own host of issues.

Reynolds said he and so many of his friends dealt drugs at a young age because they saw it as an easy way to make money. But the wads of cash he earned came at a cost.

Shanna Johnson knows the price of east Macon violence all too well. As a supervisor at the Rosa Jackson Recreation Center on Maynard Street, Shanna Johnson has fostered close relationships with hundreds kids and teens in the neighborhood over the years.

“The most difficult part is hearing the trauma and the stories of some of our youth that have not made it from year to year,” Shanna Johnson said.

Some of the children who used to play games and do homework at the center’s afterschool program each day have since been incarcerated or killed.

“In a sense, you feel like you have failed them,” she said, “because these are kids that, you know, you would see on a daily basis.”

Nearly 160 vacant properties line the streets of Fort Hill in east Macon. The greenery in front of one house in the neighborhood grows so tall a visitor couldn’t even walk through the front door. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

Shanna Johnson wants the recreation center to serve as a “safe haven” for local youth who carry heavy burdens. Many of the children who frequent the center are essentially raising themselves, she said, while their parents work long hours. Some are responsible for siblings and cousins, as well.

Because they’ve had to take on adult duties at such a young age, many of the kids and teens insist, “I’m grown,” Shanna Johnson said. She wants them to hold onto their youth for as long as they can.

“We’re here to allow a child to be a child,” Shanna Johnson said. “You don’t have any responsibilities, any worries once you get here. You can just be yourself.”

Reynolds chose to mentor young people in his neighborhood, because he felt so many other adults had given up on them. They say the kids are disrespectful, he said.

“But they’re so disrespectful ‘cause you ain’t took no time out with ‘em.”

Kind, 31, who moved back to Fort Hill in 2008, wishes outsiders wouldn’t judge his community based on the crimes committed there. Kind doesn’t excuse illegal activity, he said, but he wants people to see it within a wider historic and socioeconomic context.

“When you’re from something, you don’t look at it like that. You look at it like some misunderstood people,” he said. “They were born in some bad situations. They’re just acting out.”

Kind said he doesn’t “point the finger” or “run from the truth.” But he hopes people who have never been to Fort Hill will visit and see what it’s really like.

“Come through and meet some of the good people,” he said, “because everybody over there is not bad.”

‘You can either make things happen or complain about it’

Many current and former east Macon residents are working against all odds to overcome the obstacles facing neighborhoods like Fort Hill. Dominique Johnson, the Kingdom Life pastor who also runs a leadership academy for aspiring Macon entrepreneurs called The Urban CEO, described east Maconite’s “unquenching courage and desire to still make it.”

“We are not only survivors; we’re overcomers,” he said. “So, even with the downturn of everything, we’ve always fought back. We’ve always been able to make something out of nothing.”

Johnson said he feels an obligation to do more than preach the gospel on Sundays. He said he’s been called to pastor his community, to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak truth to power.

Johnson works with residents and community organizers throughout Bibb County. But his primary focus is east Macon.

“It’s definitely a divine call. But more so, it’s where I’m from,” he said. “Here’s the thing: you can either make things happen or complain about it or leave.”

Beverly Pitts is doing her part as a small business owner. Her beauty salon has not only been a stable business in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years, but it’s also been a community hub. Regulars come back week after week, building friendships with other women getting haircuts and blowouts. The salon also sponsors neighborhood events and offers free services for kids at the start of the school year.

“I think the success comes from just the way you treat people and being the type of business that can be uplifting and encouraging,” Pitts said. “Even while you’re trying to make a living, you know, you can bond the two.”

After almost a decade away from east Macon, Shanna Johnson decided to dedicate her career to her community, too.

“I just got this gut feeling that, ‘Hey, it’s time. It’s time to come back home,’” Johnson said. Eight years later, she’s never regretted the choice. “I love being home,” she said. “I love being involved in my family. I love being involved with my community. I love working with the kids in my community and seeing the changes that I make in their lives.”

Johnson sees herself as a mother figure for the children in the neighborhood — and a disciplinarian. She wants her words of advice to ring in their ears: “Be great. Be wonderful. Go out and take over the world.”

Since she first started working for the Parks and Recreation Department while a student at Valdosta State University, Johnson has watched children grow up and bring their own sons and daughters to the Rosa Jackson Recreation Center. Watching generation after generation pass through the center gives Johnson hope for east Macon’s future.

“I feel that, you know, if we all pull together and we create a village for these kids,” she said, “that anything is possible.”

Some of the older residents admit it will be an uphill climb. President of the Fort Hill Neighborhood Association, Deborah Evans, worries east Macon won’t exist in another five to 10 years. Now 61 years old, she feels like many of the longtime residents are fighting for their community alone.

‘It’s got to get past the talking stage and get to where we can actually get something done,” said east Macon resident Deborah Evans at a Neighborhood Watch meeting on May 8, 2019. Samantha Max smax@macon.com

It’s hard to convince people to help, Evans said, or “to be concerned citizens like we are.”

“It gets depressing sometimes,” she said.

Those who live or own property in east Macon — especially the young people — need to take care of their community, Evans added.

Sherman Kind hopes successful east Macon natives will start moving back to the neighborhoods where they grew up, or at least investing in real estate there.

“In a perfect world, everybody would go somewhere, move away, go to college, and come back and help build onto the legacy of their community,” he said. “But that’s tough to ask for when you come back and there ain’t nothing.”

Kind worries if those with a vested interested in Fort Hill and its 200-year history don’t buy back the abandoned properties, outsiders will swoop in and gentrify the neighborhood, which borders the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park.

Kind thinks the newly minted national park poses a potential economic opportunity for east Macon residents, who, he said “have been given no resources or a chance to rebuild.” He imagines a “black Wall Street,” with plenty of jobs and beautiful homes.

In the short-term, though, Kind’s goal “is just to get people educated on how important it is to take care of your community.” He’s also hoping to recruit a team of volunteers who can help him see his plan to fruition.

Kind doesn’t want to fail his people or take on a project he can’t handle. But he knows he needs to take action, to save the community that made him who he is.

“It’s on people like me,” he said, “to step up.”

This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community.

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.