Ed Grisamore

Gris: Climbing the mountain

When Frank Austin bought a home on Bethesda Avenue, it was as if his new neighborhood came with its own caution light.

“People would tell me: ‘Whatever you do, don’t go down the hill,’” Frank said.

The “hill” was around the corner and across the street, an offshoot of Bloomfield Road as it bends toward Rocky Creek Road.

It was more of a slope than a hill, but it was the gateway to Village Green, a basket-shaped collection of 15 streets and the last residential outpost at the southwest corner of Interstates 475 and 75.

The name “Village Green” evokes an idyllic, pastoral setting, maybe even a wee bit Irish with street names like Shamrock and Mint Green.

But those who follow the news and read the weekly crime blotter know its reputation as among the most crime-ridden and drug-infested pockets of the city.

The name strikes fear. Gang Green. Folks don’t dare go there. There are broken-down nests and boarded-up houses, a Thousand Points of Blight.

Frank rolled “down the hill” to see for himself. He did not fall into the abyss. He did not wear a bullet-proof vest or step on any land mines.

Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

Where others saw dead ends, he saw challenges. Neighborhoods, like people, must be helped from the outside and changed from the inside.

Sure, there were bad seeds. He watched them aimlessly walking the streets and hanging out on the corners. Still, behind many of those doors were good-hearted people, weary of promises. They wanted change, and they wanted to know how to bring it about.

Leadership, he told them.

He founded the Austin Center for Community Development (www.ascenter.org), a nonprofit now making a difference in the Village Green Shalom Zone. With a core of dedicated volunteers and a willingness from outside groups and agencies to get involved, Frank dedicated himself to bringing both flowers and weed-killer.

“We are going in when everyone else is running away,” he said.

There have been no great miracles, but plenty of sunshine. Village Green didn’t get this way overnight. Change wasn’t going to come in an afternoon.

The subdivision was built in the late 1960s under the Section 235 federal housing program. Many of the 400 houses were hastily planned and shoddily constructed. There were numerous building code violations. Village Green was in a marshy area, and a number of the structures were built below the flood plain, leading to recurring storm drainage issues.

And because of the high crime rate, the community’s perception of Village Green has been at a low ebb in recent years.

So it has taken more than just a Band-Aid. The noble pursuit to improve any neighborhood requires an investment. For Frank, a lot of the cost has been out-of-pocket. The center has applied for several grants and is working on continuing several partnerships.

It takes a village to raise a Village Green.

Frank spent eight months planning and developing a playbook. He hired a consultant and formed a board of directors. Five areas were identified: education, crime, health, economic development and housing.

Last year, city leaders took a bus tour of the neighborhood. The Austin Center planted a community garden. It held a health fair. It enlisted volunteers to read and tutor at nearby Burghard Elementary School. Next door at the Boys & Girls Club, the center recently had its first graduating class of youngsters who learned sign language. It worked with Central Georgia Technical College to implement a program for Village Green residents to work toward getting their GEDs.

Work days were scheduled several times a month. The next is planned for Dec. 6 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Volunteers remove debris, clean gutters, rake, cut, hammer and drill.

Blight is an ongoing problem.

“We can’t take down a structure, but we can clean it up,” Frank said. Volunteers spruced up a neighborhood playground and held a cookout. The center is now working with a landlord to make repairs so a homeless family can move into a house.

Frank is 40 years old and a former football player, so he knows about a ground game. He grew up in Americus and played for Sumter County High School. He earned a football scholarship to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he broadened his horizons. He returned to south Georgia and purchased used-car dealerships in Americus and East Point. He settled in Macon because it was halfway between the two cities.

The center’s efforts have not gone unnoticed and unrecognized. Village Green was presented with the Litter Prevention Award by the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission and will receive the statewide award from Keep Georgia Beautiful in Atlanta on Dec. 12.

And Frank has been nominated for the Iron Eyes Cody Award, given since 1988 by Keep America Beautiful. It recognizes an “outstanding male volunteer for exceptional leadership in raising public awareness about litter prevention, roadside and community beautification.” The national winner will be announced in December.

Frank has engaged many of the Village Green residents in the center’s activities. He can’t just get the word out to them through Twitter or Facebook, since many don’t have access to computers.

“It’s real grassroots,” he said. “We do it the old-fashioned way. We knock on doors.”

Pride is up. Crime is down. The elders in Village Green are appreciative. Others show their gratitude in different ways.

He gets asked all the time why he does what he does. He recites Scripture from the 25th chapter of Matthew. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

One day he hopes to open an office in the neighborhood. Can Village Green ever return to former glory, whatever that former glory was or could have been?

“The answer is yes,” Frank said.

He not only went down the hill. He climbed a mountain.