This Place Matters Too
The following is Part One of a two-part series that focuses on some of the underserved and blighted communities in Macon and how leaders and residents of those communities are challenging each other to improve and uplift the places they call home.
I am approaching the open door of George’s Hole in the Wall Sports Bar on Columbus Road at high noon on a beautiful spring day, wondering what or who will greet me when I cross the threshold. Located just before the inevitably clogged intersection where Columbus toggles into Mercer University Drive, I have been fascinated by this place for months now.
No matter how early the hour, short-cutting from my home in Intown to the shopping areas on Eisenhower, the windowless sports bar located at 3091 Columbus Road appears to always be open. I’ve never noticed people there, however, until late afternoon. At that point in the day, the haphazardly fenced-in patio located on the far left-hand side usually has a few folks milling about, while either a row of beaten-up plastic toddlers’ trikes or a collection of what looks like little-league trophies form some sort of barrier (or invitation) between the patio, the people, and the heavily trafficked road just feet away.
Every time I have driven past it, I’ve been plagued by questions (mostly about those trikes and trophies) and longed to stop – and today’s my day.
As I step into the parking lot, my eye wanders from the colorful mural splashed across the front of the curious squat little building to the oversized black 8-ball painted above its entrance. Immediately, I mentally flash on Nancy Botwin’s infamous “brick dance” atop a pool table in Season 3 of Weeds, and frankly, I’m having second thoughts. Too late, now though. If the hard, quizzical looks I’m getting from at least two sets of eyes coming from my left flank are any indication, it would seem my presence has been noted.
Just as I am about to step into the cavernous darkness of the interior, a young man wearing an oversized jersey and jeans steps through the open entrance, eyes widening when he sees me. Clearly, I am not who he expected to see. When I ask if he works there, he quietly indicates he does not – but very politely agrees to fetch someone who does. Something tells me to wait outside rather than follow him in, and 30 seconds later, another man appears, steps outside, coolly sizes me up for a long minute, and stares at me until I tell him why I’m here.
Jay, is his name, he says. The side-eye he gives me when I ask for his last name is so hard I can practically feel it, so I let that one go. When I tell him I am writing a story about whether “this place matters,” he perks up and readily agrees to hold the hand-drawn sign I am holding and pose for a pic. “Let me show you something,” Jay says, once I’ve gotten the picture. He leads me to an empty, littered lot adjacent to George’s Hole in the Wall Sports Bar and mostly mumbles a long sentence – the takeaway seeming to be that George’s does indeed “matter.” Because it’s “for the people,” he says, a place “in the community,” where the people “can be together.”
Intolerable Use Is the Consequence of Social Depreciation
You won’t find George’s Hole in the Wall splashed across the pages of the arts & entertainment section of any local newspaper. There is no website or even a Facebook page to be found either. Even a thorough Google search yields nothing unless you accidentally stumble across it on the street view of maps – a static image which also shows a boarded up, ramshackle white house standing – clearly not so long ago – where the empty lot Jay pointed out now sits.
On the other side of George’s, heading towards Pio Nono, a funky-looking chicken and wings restaurant – which may or may not be permanently closed – is, for the moment at least, clearly deserted. And so it goes for blocks at a time on this road. The place looks like little more than a ghost-town, save for the occasional sign of life at a garage or convenience store.
Once the work-day is done and most any time of day on a weekend, however, that will change. Food mart and retail store parking lots will fill up, kids will be riding bikes, and the sidewalks filled with pedestrians, young and old alike. Moms and dads will be seen carefully clutching little ones’ hands as they traverse this busy cutaway.
On either side of the main thoroughfare, side streets with cheerful names like Pansy, Blossom and Poppy Avenue branch off into residential areas, lined with modest, middle-class family homes. According to February housing data from Zillow, the median home value in Macon is $64,700. But a spot check of homes in the Montpelier Heights neighborhood, as it is identified in tax records, shows homes here are likely to be far below that amount. By as much as 50 percent in some cases.
The wear and tear of time and poverty has taken its toll everywhere you look in Montpelier Heights – in the form of buildings with run-down or outright crumbling facades, debris that seems to multiply by the day, and businesses pocked by potholes and peeling paint, and blight in general.
Though it’s become a hot buzz phrase in the past few years, “urban blight” is not a new concept. In 1967, in the quarterly journal Land Economics, G.E. Berger defined urban blight as “a critical stage in the functional or social depreciation of real property beyond which its existing condition or use is unacceptable to the community.” The scholarly text goes on to point out that “property uses that have come to be blighted due to social depreciation, but are otherwise unchanged, have suffered relative rather than absolute depreciation.”
This Place Is My Home, Sugar
Look closely in Montpelier Heights, or stop and talk to people, and it becomes obvious the depreciation here is not at all absolute. Nothing here overly suggests the kind of fear and furtiveness that tends to settle over areas so far gone from decay and neglect they have become little more than No Man’s Land for predators. And that’s not just an instinct – the facts appear, on the surface at least, to support it.
With the lone exception of a recent fatal shooting – allegedly the result of an escalated argument between two men – incident reports regularly released from the Macon-Bibb Sheriff’s Dept. don’t indicate this area is a hotbed of violence, organized criminal activity, or even a high number of property crimes.
People in this neighborhood look you in the eye and wave or smile back when greeted in a similar vein. Signs of hope and faith and community are easy to spot here. There just doesn’t seem to be a high volume of cozy porch swings, inviting lawn sets with plump cushions, or well-appointed courtyards to gather in.
Nor are there throngs of visitors, out-of-towners, or history buffs rubber-necking at the homes and businesses that dot the current and immediate landscape. None seem to be old enough to qualify as “historic,” or be “endangered” in the sort of way that fosters protective governance and enthusiastic fund-raisers and such well-mounted public awareness-raising efforts as the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2016 “This Place Matters” campaign.
But this place clearly matters a great deal to those who call it home.
In a few of those abandoned-looking parking lots, folks have arranged motley assortments of chairs in semi-circles, clearly intending to sit a spell and catch up at some point in the day or week. At lunchtime, in a strip mall on the corner of Montpelier and Pio Nono, I spot three people sitting socially together beside a trash dumpster – possibly indulging in an undercover adult beverage or two politely covered in paper bags. They are cutting up and clearly enjoying each other’s company.
Despite their laughter, seeing them with no better place to congregate than beside a trash dumpster breaks my heart more than a little, and it catches the eye of Commissioner Al Tillman too. I ask one of the women standing there if she’s willing to have her picture taken and she readily agrees, posing with the Commissioner. Renata Nelson, who beams in the picture and who hugs Al Tillman like a long-lost relative, tells me she is proud of the place she calls home.
“I love my neighborhood – been here all my life,” she says. “This is my home, sugar. This is my home.”
Though this area sits in a neighboring district from his, Commissioner Tillman says, “It’s the area I grew up in and have a vote to support other commissioners.”
He’s agreed to be interviewed for this story because he cares about the community and people in it, he says, and clearly, he is both popular and well-known in these parts, unable to walk through a restaurant or to his truck outside without getting stopped for conversation and a handshake every few steps. As we chat, he points out Habersham CD’s Records & Tapes, located just across the street, proudly noting the 46-year-old business is one of the oldest African American-owned independent record stores in the nation.
Called a “black music landmark” in a write-up by Billboard Magazine in 1996, Habersham is currently owned by Phyllis Habersham Malone. She managed the store for many years and eventually bought it from her brother and store founder Alex, she says. The iconic store has moved once or twice over the years, but it has always remained in this neighborhood.
“I love this community – love the people,” Phyllis says. “Macon is a wonderful city, with so many great people – of all races. Yes, this place certainly matters!”