Macon-Bibb County will borrow $10 million to dismantle blighted homes and buildings across the region.
But what happens when those houses come down? That takes a movement, one that inspires those who live in the neighborhoods to invest in their improvement.
One attempt at creating such a movement is happening in one of Macon-Bibb’s most distressed communities, Village Green. The subdivision was built in the 1960s near Interstate 475, north of where it meets Interstate 75. The community’s champion for the past three years has been the Austin Center for Community Development, led by Frank Austin.
Austin knows that a neighborhood revival needs to have visible signs of improvement. One of the most obvious is on Bloomfield Road across from Burghard Elementary School. It’s the Village Green Community Garden.
“It took us eight months to develop this garden,” he said. “We had to form countless partnerships for resources.”
The landmark doesn’t just look pretty. The food grown there, which Burghard students tend to, promotes healthy eating.
On a recent Saturday morning, the garden became a rallying point for volunteers aimed at continuing the long process of turning around the neighborhood. The 50 or so people gathered were largely young, mostly college students and nearly all from outside Village Green.
The volunteers broke up into three groups, with one tending to the garden.
“Second group,” Austin barked to those gathered around him. “Cherry blossom trees.”
Those volunteers will plant Macon’s signature trees all along Bloomfield Road. Austin sees them as a future landmark of Village Green progress. The final group picked up trash on the neighborhood streets.
“Anybody else need more gloves?” Austin asked the cleanup crew at one point. “ I got more gloves.”
In fall 2013, the Austin Center stopped planning and set to work. The center’s board members chose both Village Green drive and lane to concentrate restoration efforts.
“They needed a win,” Austin said. “They spent eight months with us, training. They needed a win they could feel good about and move forward.”
During six weekends, volunteers cleared away heavy debris from vacated houses, then cut overgrown trees and grass. The streets looked better, although were far from being fully restored.
NEED TO SEE CHANGE
Blight fighters across the country say that creating a resident movement requires those visible signs of progress.
John George, who has led community revitalization in Detroit, Michigan, neighborhoods for 27 years through his Blight Busters program, said a community garden such as Village Green’s or a mural on an abandoned building can generate the attention needed to attract nonprofit and government financing, as well as volunteer muscle.
But the primary audience is the residents who need the pitch.
“People need to have landmarks,’ George said. “People need to see and smell and taste and feel that there is change and that it’s not the same old BS.”
George said the landmarks also have helped his organization get media attention to help build a movement. Austin has also gained some of that media focus in recent months.
But that has run up against continued neighborhood apathy.
Longtime Village Green resident Al Watkins said some of the more active neighbors left years ago when things became worse in the neighborhood. Others have withdrawn, feeling let down by government inaction and the coming and going of community building efforts.
“We got a few other good neighbors here, but they just won’t get involved,” Watkins said. “They won’t come forward because of the past non-support.”
That attitude is hardly new in a distressed community, said Kate O’Brien, who works for Groundwork USA, an organization that counsels grass-roots, blight-fighting efforts across the nation. She explained the mindset of a troubled neighborhood as a “collective sense that our community is so poor or so challenged that we really don’t deserve good things.”
Macon-Bibb County’s point person on community development, Assistant County Manager Charles Coney, understands the jaded feelings of some Village Green residents.
“They were very accustomed to volunteers coming in but they were also very accustomed to volunteers leaving,” he said.
But Coney cautions people in Village Green, or any distressed neighborhood, not to count on government finances to drive revitalization. Consolidation, Coney said, requires the new government to cut spending.
“We are doing more with less. How do we do that? We do it collaboratively,” Coney said.
Yes, Macon-Bibb County will borrow $10 million for taking down blighted homes. But, he added, “this plan of addressing blight is on the foundation of community.”
If you are a resident of a distressed community, he said, go ahead and mow that empty lot next door.
“Don’t wait on the city to do it,” he said. “Because if we wait for the city, it will be a while for it to come back.”
PATIENCE AND PERSISTENCE
The Austin Center understands that concept, so the effort has looked to partnerships for assistance. The Saturday community volunteer effort showed this.
The young men and women tending the garden and cleaning the roads came from Mercer University. Many of them were men from eight interfraternity chapters.
Stanley Gibson, a former Village Green resident, is another example of a partnership. This Austin Center board member works for a company called Pride Green Development. The company will gut dilapidated homes, and Gibson said he wants to help with deconstruction in his former neighborhood.
Turnout for the cleanup was lower than expected, but he attributed that to rain from the night before and Cherry Blossom Festival activities that weekend.
“We are going to work with what we got,” he said. “And it’s going to be just as effective as if we had 200 people out here.”
But what of the resident participation that is the lifeblood of a neighborhood revival?
Austin said that 105 workers ended up volunteering that Saturday, and that included 30 people from the neighborhood. But those residents weren’t walking the streets picking up trash, like the volunteers. Instead, they were tidying up their own property.
Nicky Waller, who lives on Village Green Lane, says she’s noticed the effort.
“I’m happy that something is being done about it,” said Waller, with three young girls nearby. “I was actually trying to figure out how to get my kids involved.”
And that’s fine by Austin. He wants different levels of participation from residents, and he knows it will take patience and persistence. But he might be upping the ante soon.
The Austin Center finally landed its first grant from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia. He’ll use the $17,000 for equipment to tend empty lots where the city has taken down blighted homes -- or will do so soon.
He’ll seek neighbors to adopt those vacant lots, a lot more than tending to their own property and or even joining a once-a-month cleanup.