Opinion Columns & Blogs

The problems affecting the poor will affect us eventually. Let’s do something about it

The Westgate Shopping Center, pictured in this 2014 file photo, sits mostly abandoned.
The Westgate Shopping Center, pictured in this 2014 file photo, sits mostly abandoned. Center for Collaborative Journalism

I came to Macon for the first time in the summer of 1986. I was 8 years old, here with my parents and sister to house-hunt. I still remember a few things about that visit, especially the heat.

My hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia, used to give out free lemonade if the temperatures ever reached above 90 degrees, and as far as I know that only happened once. As we rode around looking at houses in the zillion-degree heat, our real estate agent pulled through the drive-thru of a restaurant to order sweet tea ... only for herself. I remember that, too.

For the intervening 30 years — punctuated by a few absences — Macon has been home. I’ve had a front row seat to some remarkable civic improvements: downtown’s renaissance, Tattnall Square Park’s transformation and the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. It’s actually hard to remember the city before those changes — or when there wasn’t a chicken wings joint around the corner from my house.

But life in Macon hasn’t gotten better for everyone. The Westgate Shopping Center and countless other commercial plazas now sit as empty shells, their surrounding neighborhoods likewise deteriorating. Many hundreds of people who grew up here now live in the custody of the Department of Corrections, including a number of my old school friends.

Most of us have now read the USA Today story listing Macon as the Georgia city most devastated by concentrated poverty. There appears to be a serious proposal to close our public libraries.

I’m not exactly sure whether we come out ahead or behind in the math and moral problem of our progression/regression. I understand — and support — the economic development strategy to revitalize the urban core as a way to attract new businesses, residents and visitors (and accompanying tax revenues). Stores have been built; stores have closed. Very fine neighborhoods exist now that have been built or restored since the 1980’s.

But on the other hand, neighborhoods that used to be both lovely and safe are now neither. Whether we measure through visuals or statistics or human stories, those of us who love Macon know that many in our community have been left behind by much of the progress we’ve enjoyed.

Congratulating ourselves on splashy projects while ignoring poverty is a little like ordering sweet tea without offering any to the rest of the passengers in the car. It might feel cool in the moment, but where does that leave your fellow travelers? How can we plant the flag of progress if ours is a community in which libraries are shuttered and children go to bed hungry?

The vanloads of local teenagers taking mission trips to foreign countries could find plenty of work right here. We could all find plenty of work right here. We may not see our immediate self-interest in serving others’ needs, but that doesn’t mean service isn’t essential — or that problems impacting the poor won’t affect us eventually. So let’s keep our dang libraries open and pay that metaphorical (and literal) sweet tea forward.

I don’t have magical solutions, and certainly hold myself guilty of doing too little. I believe, though, that poverty is the essential question for our community, and I plan to use this column to explore this and other issues facing Macon-Bibb (and to profile people and projects digging in to the hard issues). Please send feedback and suggestions for column topics; I can be reached by email at sarahgerwig@gmail.com.

Sarah Gerwig is a law professor and word enthusiast raising her two sons in Macon.