There’s a plan to fill in the gaps left by vacant houses in east Macon’s Mill Hill neighborhood.
The first step in that plan isn’t tearing houses down, and it isn’t building new ones.
The first step is listening.
On a bright, hot recent morning, eight people, mostly kids, were split into two groups to knock on doors in Mill Hill.
They had been trying to talk to everyone in a chunk of this neighborhood for most of the summer. On Hydrolia Avenue, they caught a woman on her way out the front door.
Then Nakia Guy made her pitch.
“Changes are coming, and we just want to make sure that they’re in line with what you want to see,” she said.
The woman protested that her list of complaints was so long that Nakia and the others should move on. After some reassurance that whatever she had to say was worth hearing, she shared her concerns about the vacant house next door.
Nakia is one of the Macon Roving Listeners. In past years this outreach project of Macon’s Centenary Church has been about collecting oral histories in order to bring neighbors together.
That’s still true, but this year there’s a twist. This summer they’ve been offering people the chance to weigh in on the ambitious plan to pump some life into their long depressed neighborhood, which takes its name from the long dead Bibb Mill No. 1.
The plan is to lure new artists to live in the neighborhood and encourage them to collaborate with existing residents. After all, both sides need affordable housing in stable neighborhoods. The collaborative part of this is called Social Practice Art and it isn’t uncommon, but using it as the chief engine of neighborhood renewal has never been done in Georgia before.
The first blush of money to make this happen comes from the National Endowment for the Arts in the sum of $134,370. That will pay for the first two artists in residence.
People will be moving in, but Jonathan Harwell-Dye, of the Macon Arts Alliance, is quick to say they don’t want to just foist the artists -- or any other part of the Mill Hill dream -- on existing residents.
“If we have an influx of people into this neighborhood, we want those people to come in because they want to be part of an existing neighborhood and an existing culture,” Harwell-Dye said.
Macon Arts Alliance wants to compile a database of the arts and skills that existing residents already practice as sort of an invitation to artistic collaboration. They’re calling that their Cultural Map. The first compass points on that cultural map are the 60 plus interviews that the Roving Listeners have conducted. The NEA money is paying for the map too.
POINTS ON THE MAP
Back on the street, with an umbrella to beat back the sun, Beverly Banks was anxious to fill in the gaps in the map.
“Come on you guys,” she said. “Two more houses. Let’s go. Two! Who’s got the iPad?”
Up the street she met Hilbert Wimberly. His mother was an Eastern Star for more than 50 years. That’s like being a female Mason or Shriner, though Wimberly said he always heard the Eastern Stars were more powerful.
When the Styrofoam star on his mother’s headstone started to look ratty, Wimberly decided to make a new one. It was white and about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
“It done tore up. So I drew a star on a piece of plywood and cut it out” with a circular saw, he said. “Going to put that behind it now. She died in 2012 at the age of 87.”
So now Wimberly and his ability to use that saw are a point on the cultural map.
The Roving Listeners have also met a woman who makes plaster sculptures. They met another woman who sells huckabucks, a sweet frozen treat with roots in New Orleans, but who also has a four-year degree in information systems she’s looking to put to use. Two more points on the map.
Zikeal Howard and Leah Davis were in Beverly Banks’ group and are veterans of the Roving Listeners program. Zikeal said the reality that change is coming was scary for some people to hear.
“They look frightened because they think they are going to be forced out of their houses,” he said.
Leah said once that misconception was cleared up, the Roving Listeners had been hearing good things.
“It’s mostly about the vacant houses. But they have ideas that should be heard. It’s not anything stupid,” she said.
Those vacant houses will be the first problem tackled in the neighborhood. The NEA grant has prompted the Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority to begin spending the $2 million they already set aside for the Mill Hill project. Renovation of the first vacant home begins in August.
The other group of listeners has an appointment with Lezelda Harrell. Early in the interview she said she worries that neighborhood kids don’t have enough. That’s been a common concern.
“Stuff like having gyms and stuff for kids to exercise, they really need it,” she said.
Harrell said she spent her working life as a registered nurse, working mostly with seniors.
She says she is passionate about elder care. One more point on the cultural map.
Anthony Guy is Nakia’s dad and is the Roving Listener project manager. In fact, both of his daughters did field work. Guy said the value of the work for the young people here goes beyond informing urban renewal.
“They’re getting an opportunity to see, to peek into a window of life that they haven’t lived. To see how other people live,” he said. “Other people that they go to school with, but they don’t know how they live.”
There’s already an exchange of knowledge. For Mill Hill to thrive again, organizers say that exchange will have to persist. The first artist in residence is expected in January 2016.