Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Residents say Five by Five cleanups have brief, uncertain impact

The House Next Door Part 5
Wood Marshall/The Telegraph
The Five by Five neighborhood program targeted areas like this one along Ridge Avenue in 2014.

Shirley Jackson remembers when Macon city crews came down Maynard Street in late 2011, the first round of Mayor Robert Reichert’s Five by Five neighborhood cleanup program.

She recalls workers freshening up the yellow paint on street lines and curbs, but not much else about that five-week effort to spiff up five city blocks in the Fort Hill neighborhood.

Numerous city departments put in work on public property, mowing rights of way, making sure street lights worked and signs were visible, while nonprofit volunteer groups dealt with some private properties that government workers couldn’t touch.

“It still looks pretty good over here,” Jackson said, two and a half years after the cleanup’s inaugural effort.

But as Jackson, a 30-year resident, looks out from her neatly kept house, she can still see several abandoned houses and overgrown lots. And there are other houses that need work.

And grass is again poking up through sidewalk cracks, beginning to obscure the relatively fresh paint on the curbs.

In the city’s former wards — now split into parts of the Macon-Bibb County consolidated government’s nine commission districts — several residents are lukewarm about the Five by Five program’s impact. Some couldn’t tell much difference. Others said signs of the labor were still evident but haven’t had any noticeable impact on owners of run-down private property.

When Reichert announced his plans in November 2011, he voiced the hope that the city’s cleanup of its own property would spur private owners to improve theirs, too. But residents in Five by Five cleanup areas say no amount of burnishing a neighborhood’s infrastructure will really improve the area until abandoned houses are torn down and overgrown lots are regularly mowed.

Thomas Mosley, a resident of Fort Hill Street for more than 30 years, said he was ill during the actual cleanup, but like Jackson did notice that the curbs had been painted. But that’s about all.

“I don’t see a change,” he said. Mosley, who owns the property next to his house, sat on his porch watching a man mow the grass there.

But that level of concern with appearance is far from universal in Fort Hill, and neither the first Five by Five cleanup nor subsequent rounds on adjacent blocks seem to have spurred anyone else to keep their own any better, he said.

Part of that, Mosley said, is because the owners weren’t there to see it. “The property owners around here are few, and I hardly ever see them,” he said.

“Most of the people who lived in these houses have passed away or moved.”

Work tallied so far

After the first cleanup in Fort Hill, work crews moved on to a five-block area in the city’s former Ward 2 for another five weeks, then on to Ward 3. Three full rounds of the city’s five wards were completed before city-county consolidation in January 2014, Macon-Bibb County spokesman Chris Floore said. Now the program is expanding to five-block areas in each Macon-Bibb County commission district.

The lack of lasting notice isn’t limited to troubled areas such as Fort Hill. In a more affluent area that was part of the former Ward 5, the cleanup came through a neighborhood that was, for the most part, already well-kept.

That goes for private property as well as public infrastructure. Where Dorothy McEachin has lived on Captain Kell Drive for a half-century, most of the houses are occupied and yards are regularly mowed. A few empty houses have for-sale signs in the yard, but in general they’re kept up, too. There was little private improvement for the public work to inspire, and McEachin said she didn’t notice the cleanup underway at all.

But then government services were already keeping her neighborhood nice, even without the special effort.

“It’s done pretty well, except the trash pickup could run better,” McEachin said.

The city didn’t keep details on the third round of cleanups but did have figures for the work done during the first two, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said.

  • Public Works put in 18,352 hours and spent $189,199.41 on mowing, street and sidewalk repair, street cleaning, clearing drainage and demolition.
  • Macon police put in 2,442 hours and spent $10,873.66 to make contact with each household.
  • Central Services worked 1,367 hours and spent $26,590 on street signs, painting curbs and lines, and fixing street lights.
  • The mayor’s office put in 100 hours and spent $4,000 on events, getting churches involved and introducing community service agencies.
  • The Macon-Bibb Fire Department worked 95 hours and spent $1,301.90 to check hydrants and house numbers, make sure utility lines were clear and do home inspections.
  • The Emergency Management Agency put in 60 working hours and spent $4,400 to make sure every household had information on how to make an emergency preparedness plan.
  • Economic & Community Development put in 50 hours and spent $500 on community meetings and training as well as code inspections.
  • That’s a total of 22,466 working hours and — counting labor costs — $587,897 to clean up the rights of way of more than 75 blocks.

“Though it would appear that large dollar figures are tied with implementing this as a program, these numbers don’t represent additional work,” Floore said. “This is work already being done by departments and is reflected in their operating budgets; this is a way to focus what they would be doing in a specific area.”

In future cleanups, Assistant County Manager Steve Layson will collect data so the government can show people what’s been done in their neighborhoods, Floore said.

Volunteer inspiration

If absentee property owners aren’t taking notice of Five by Five cleanups, the effort does seem to be stirring community volunteers in some areas, something city-county officials deliberately sought to foster.

In the first Ward 1 cleanup, more than 350 volunteers came out to help, said Laura Jackson, coordinator for Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful, which coordinated the effort.

They came from numerous established agencies. In a recent cleanup in south Macon’s Lynmore Estates, Habitat for Humanity worked on the community garden and orchard lots, and Rebuilding Macon fixed handicap ramps and porches. Sheriff David Davis has had inmates mowing lawns during some cleanups, Layson said. In late August, Macon-Bibb officials worked out a partnership with Habitat and several local churches to train the homeless in taking apart abandoned houses. One condemned house, yet to be picked, is to serve as a pilot project.

And the government, in partnership with Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful, will help neighborhood groups do their own trash pickups once Five by Five workers are gone. Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful offers supplies, such as gloves and trash bags, and the local government’s Solid Waste Division will pick up what’s collected.

In the Village Green area of southwest Macon, a regular volunteer cleanup has started through the neighborhood’s existing Shalom Zone, said Travis Blackwell, executive director of Community Partnership, a nonprofit group that connects service organizations to help families.

Six neighborhoods have Shalom Zones, a revitalization program Reichert started in 2009. Now Frank Austin, who heads the Village Green zone through his Austin Center for Community Development, is not only overseeing regular cleanups but also tracking how many people cooperate by cleaning up their own properties.

“It’s inspiring pride in the neighborhood and really engaging residents,” Blackwell said. “They’re just taking it the extra mile and going with it.”

Austin said the Village Green cleanups started in partnership with the city during a Five by Five cleanup in September 2013.

“We have done a total of 25 cleanups from September of last year up to today’s date,” he said in mid-July.

Now neighborhood volunteers partner with the North Central Health District, Dismas Charities, the Macon Kappa League and many other groups. About 45 people came out to help every Saturday during the five-week official cleanup, and it’s only grown, drawing 390 volunteers since then, Austin said.

During a June cleanup, Solid Waste workers hauled off 5,360 pounds of trash collected by Village Green volunteers, Floore said.

The Five by Five was a catalyst, but it’s up to neighborhood volunteers to keep up the momentum, Austin said.

“The Five by Five is a wonderful program, but we find that when they leave the area, you’ve got to have sustainability,” he said.

Houses overshadow street work

Charles Wallace said he’d heard of the Five by Five program but never saw workers in action when they came through his area in the former Ward 3.

Where he lives on Lincoln Avenue, on the north side of the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, many residents already cooperate to keep up each others’ properties, he said. Neighbors help one 60-year resident who’s nearly 100 years old. Watching out for each other like that is the key to maintaining neighborhoods, Wallace said. But even on his street, there are gaps. And at the Corner Grocery Store where he works part time, he saw no change from Reichert’s cleanup.

“I’ve got to clean the street off in the morning when I arrive,” Wallace said.

Outside, he points to a piece of rebar sticking up from the curb at the corner of Walnut Street and Forest Avenue. That should have disappeared in a thorough cleanup, Wallace said.

But he praises the crews of jail inmates who periodically cut grass and clean streets in the neighborhood. They work hard, and that kind of cleanup helps, Wallace said. Each five-block area needs something different, and Macon-Bibb planners are consulting with all districts’ commissioners to find out who to talk to about that, Layson said.

“We’re trying to collect more data from each area, and we want to involve more outside agencies and community groups with the focused services,” he said. “The work done in each area is based on the needs identified, so sometimes you might have more right of way mowing, sometimes you might have more street sign repair.”

Again, Layson said, government officials hope area residents will take Five by Five cleanups as an example to spur their own efforts.

“We hope that by giving the area five weeks of intense service, we are making an impact and inspiring communities to see that this is a starting point,” he said. “We want to inspire people to join us in keeping our community and neighborhoods looking (their) best.”

But no matter how much streets and even the yards of occupied houses are cleaned up, neighborhood improvements won’t last until abandoned houses are dealt with, said Gloria Jean Brown.

She’s lived in the Ward Street area all her life. Now many of the houses there are sitting open and empty, havens for snakes, rats and drug use, Brown said.

She doesn’t really blame the owners of empty houses for what happens to them. Often owners will do a good job of boarding up a place, Brown said. The moment a boarded place is unwatched, someone will break back in and make a mess, Brown said.

Her solution: “Tear the houses down.”

Code inspectors are working in Five by Five neighborhoods during cleanups, Layson said. But the drawn-out process of citing violators, getting a condemnation order, testing a house for asbestos and actually tearing it down means that demolition crews are unlikely to hit many houses in a Five by Five area while surrounding work is ongoing.

“We will be working this next year to schedule Five by Five areas a year out, allowing us to identify the homes in those areas that could potentially be demolished,” Layson said. “The upkeep once we’ve moved on is a concern, as are the lots left behind after a demolition. However, a lot with some overgrown grass is much safer than leaving the falling-down houses in place.”

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