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Macon to Fight Urban Blight with Art

This dilapidated structure will be the home of the Mill Hill Community Arts Center in Macon, GA.
This dilapidated structure will be renovated to become the home of the Mill Hill Community Arts Center in Macon, GA.

Macon, Georgia, is shifting its strategy for combatting blight; instead of tearing down dilapidated properties, it will attempt to build up and revitalize communities through the arts.

Starting this summer, the beginning stages of the Mill Hill: East Macon Arts Village will be underway in the two blocks bound by Hydrolia Street, Schell Avenue, Taylor Avenue, Olive Street, and Clinton Street in East Macon, near the soon-to-be renovated entrance of the Ocmulgee National Monument.

This particular neighborhood was chosen as the site for Mill Hill because of funds allocated to the Urban Development Authority specifically for renovations in this neighborhood, and the feedback for taking a more creative approach to solving blight in the area was overwhelmingly positive.

Macon Arts Alliance, in collaboration with the Urban Development Authority, is working on acquiring and renovating approximately 14 blighted homes in the area, and is applying for grants for an artist-in-residence program. This program will feature two social practice artists who will work with consultants with the goal of engaging the entire neighborhood in creating a cultural master plan for improvement and development in the neighborhood.

“We think that if you’re going to do something like this and you’re going to try to revitalize a neighborhood, you want it to be neighbor-led,” said Jonathan Harwell-Dye, director of communications at the Macon Arts Alliance. “First we need to listen to what people have to say in the neighborhood; then we can make decisions.”

As part of this listening process, the first phase of Mill Hill will be to work with a group called the Macon Roving Listeners, with assistance from GPB-Macon, to collect stories and feedback from people who live in the neighborhood. The listeners will then produce a creative assets map of the area based on their findings, which will identify which skills and talents already exist in the neighborhood and can be built on, as well as what future programming and improvements are needed.

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“We ask questions of the neighbors to figure out what their stories are but more importantly what motivates them to action. What do they care about enough to act on in their community right now? What are they absolutely passionate about? We want to hear from them about both the joys and strengths of their community but also about the pressing issues they wish others would help solve,” said Reverend Stacey Harwell-Dye, Minister of Community Building at Centenary Community Ministries (and Jonathan Harwell-Dye’s wife).

The Listeners will consist of kids and adults with and without disabilities, most of whom have a connection, whether through work, play, or residency, to the community in which they are listening. The residents who are interviewed will be invited to community dinners where they will have the opportunity to voice their hopes and concerns for the neighborhood in discussions led by the Listeners.

Another facet of Mill Hill will be the restoration of a community center, built by the Bibb Mill Company, into a community arts center. The new center, which previously served as an auditorium and a church, will be central to the arts village and is being established with the intention of adding an asset, not just to the arts village but to the entire neighborhood.

“The arts component definitely sets this project apart from other efforts to combat blight. Like the Five by Five program of the mayor, it focuses intense efforts on a small section. The biggest difference here is the sheer amount of structural change — from the renovated houses and community center to the creation of new dedicated green spaces, the area will look dramatically different,” said Reverend Harwell-Dye.

What is also particularly striking about this village is the amount of collaboration between all who are involved, which includes Mayor Robert Reichert, the Urban Development Authority, the Macon Arts Alliance, the Coliseum and Regency Hospitals, Reverend James Baker, the Macon Housing Authority, New Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, Phillips Performing Arts Studio and the Macon Roving Listeners. All are bringing together their respective resources and playing an active role to ensure that this village moves forward.

Although the project has been somewhat off the radar thus far, the organizers are hoping to raise awareness by doing a cleanup around the community arts center on May 30. On June 6, there will be a block party to update the members of the neighborhood and everyone interested in the project on the new developments.

Good art, in any form, has the power to generate conversation and change, and uplift those who are exposed to it. By using art as social practice to combat blight, the Mill Hill: East Macon Arts Village is attempting to do just that.

Anna Mae Kersey is a journalist and academic writer who loves all things arts and culture. She recently graduated from Mercer University with an Honors B.A. in philosophy, and plans to pursue a Master’s of Liberal Arts at St. John’s College in Santa Fe in the fall. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, traveling, modeling, music and yoga.

This article was made possible with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of an arts journalism partnership between BURNAWAY and Macon Arts Alliance.

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