FENNELLY: Architectural blindness strikes again

I’ve been having strange dreams lately about our city. They go something like this: The mayor and commissioners are out of town for a planning retreat, say in Clayton County. On their lunch break the dignitaries are visiting the ever-growing collection of 19th century houses adjacent to Southlake Mall when one of them declares “Aw, heck, this is nothing; we tear down houses plenty more picturesque than these.”

The dreams vary, but the punch line is always the same. These dreams usually come when I’ve been traveling and seeing what other cities are doing with assets far less impressive than our own.

We’ve got so much going for us. Our location is beyond excellent. We are surrounded by an under-used airport and three interstate highways. Our musical heritage is known worldwide, as demonstrated by the advent of Rock Candy Tours and the Big House Allman Brothers Museum. The successes of Bragg Jam, Mercer’s Townsend School of Music and the McDuffie Center for Strings remind us that our days in the sun are far from over.

We also excel amazingly in the higher education department, even though at the secondary level we are still suffering from the dual school systems created in defiance of Brown v. Board of Education decision more than six decades ago.

Still, our community’s greatest single asset is above and away our historic neighborhoods and the magnificent specimens of 19th century architecture. Along with the Ocmulgee National Monument, Fort Hawkins, the Tubman Museum and landmarks from the Civil Rights Movement, our historic neighborhoods are pure gold.

Back when Atlanta was contemplating the destruction of the Fox Theatre, Macon was planning to tear down the Grand Opera House. Having learned little from that misdirected effort, a few years later we set about to tear down the historic Douglass Theatre. It was only through the impassioned efforts of a group of citizens and the Broadway Arts Alliance that this functioning monument survives today for the enjoyment and education of all. This showplace was saved not through political leadership but through the toil of those who lived through less enlightened times.

When will we learn? An ongoing struggle took place on this soil, and younger generations are eager to understand these events and their role in history. In Atlanta, the Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights opened a year ago. In Macon, rather than telling our story, we decided to tear down a dwelling from the pre-Civil Rights era and replace it with a donut shop.

Most recently, our planning and zoning folks decided that what our Intown Historic District needs is a modern five-story mixed-use structure cheek to jowl with historic homes.

It is a tragedy -- and that’s not too strong a word -- that our local officials are seemingly oblivious to the historic and architectural treasures that they pass by every day.

Is the problem a lack of education? Do we not realize that people who live elsewhere are amazed by our city, its history, its architecture and its music? Could it be that the social and cultural struggles Macon’s history represents are still going on in the minds of some, depriving them of the emotional distance necessary to see clearly?

I recommend that our leaders get out more often. A bit of travel might aid them in seeing that what we have in our own backyard far exceeds what they pay hefty sums to see elsewhere. Maybe they should at least drive up to Southlake Mall and see people desperately trying to replicate what we have in abundance right under our collective noses.

There’s a lot of ways to divide people up, and one way in this community is between visionaries who think Macon is a cool place and getting cooler by the day and cynics who think that what is needed are more fast food, raffle tickets and liquor stores.

Our blindness often disturbs my sleep, but at other times I have yet another dream, the dream that someday Macon will awaken and come to see itself as a spectacular showcase of life in the South from the earliest inhabitants through colonization, industrialization, the Civil Rights Movement, the birth of Southern Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the arrival of the New South.

Larry Fennelly is an arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be contacted at LarryFennelly@avantguild.com.