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Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 2:38am

Macon In The Mirror: Misconceptions

Lisa Murphy, a Robins Air Force Base employee, made what some observers would consider a radical decision when she pondered where to move a year ago.

She chose downtown Macon.

The 28-year-old, the daughter of an Air Force family from Warner Robins, settled into Broadway Lofts. She likes to imagine how different areas of the old factory building were used to make overalls during its industrial heyday before its conversion to apartments.

Murphy hears the persistent tidings that Macon -- especially downtown -- is unsafe, but she has a message for all the naysayers.

“People just assume that all of Macon is riddled with violence and crime, and I really don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I think I’d like for people to know I live in downtown, I have many friends that all live there, and we’re all fine and safe and we all really enjoy it.”

Murphy was one of nearly 600 people interviewed about their views of Macon for the “Macon in the Mirror” project, which examined everything from what residents like about living in the city to what misconceptions they believe exist about Macon and their particular neighborhood.

Asked about misconceptions, residents expressed a wide range of sentiments, from the city’s reputation -- especially among those who don’t live here -- to the influence that the city’s past has on present-day impressions. Some people even said they’re troubled that many outsiders think Macon residents are like reality TV star Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson of nearby McIntyre.

Most responses, however, boiled down to a simple sentiment: The place I live isn’t as bad as other people think it is.

The overriding misconception about Macon that respondents identified was an overblown perception of crime.

Alvin “Benny” Harrell has seen his neighborhood change a lot. The 75-year-old retired military man lives in south Macon’s Lynmore Estates, where his wife was raised.

“A while back it was a pretty high crime area,” he said. Thanks to the Neighborhood Watch volunteers working together with police and the efforts of groups such as Habitat for Humanity, “We’re down to one of the lowest crime ratings in Macon for the last three years,” he said.

“But people still have the old ideas. They don’t want to come over here because of that.”

Victoria Smith, a lifelong Macon resident who lives in a public housing complex off Eisenhower Parkway, has firsthand experience of the negative impressions other people have about where she lives.

And the 23-year-old, who is unemployed, got it from an outsider.

“I was coming from Atlanta on a Greyhound bus,” she recalled. “And one boy was like, ‘You from Macon?’” She told him yes. He asked, “You ain’t scared?” Her exasperated response: “For what?”

Blake Lisenby, a 49-year-old attorney who lives in the Ingleside area, said the crime problem is overstated “in the older neighborhoods,” though he also said the city doesn’t pay enough attention to areas such as the Pleasant Hill and Cherokee Heights communities.

Musician Liam Copan-Kelly said he’s encountered misconceptions about Macon far from home. The 23-year-old is a lifelong Macon resident who lives off Vineville Avenue.

“I went to school in Columbus for a while, and Macon’s got kind of a bad reputation, just as far as crime and attitude goes of the population,” he said. Asked if that reputation is warranted, he replied “somewhat,” with a chuckle.

Joseph McMullen, who lives in south Macon off Houston Avenue, thinks other cities compare less favorably with Macon.

“I’ve traveled halfway around the world,” said the 19-year old, who said he has 10 siblings. “My brother drives trucks. ... We’ve been all over the East Coast. I want to say the worst place I’ve just really been to is down in Texas.” McMullen said he’s seen people near the U.S.-Mexico border robbed in plain sight of police.

If crime in Macon is not as bad overall as people think it is, Jami Gaudet thinks she knows one reason why.

The talk radio host turned Macon Police Department spokeswoman has engaged the discourse on crime and violence from different angles. Incidents that might have once gone unheard of by many in the community are now being amplified ever louder by the media, she said.

“When I did radio back in 2000, there were two dominant media sources -- 13 WMAZ and The Telegraph. And really, the other news stations have just come aboard in the intervening years.”

In the past you might have heard about a shooting once, she said, but now “you might be hearing it at 5 or 6 a.m., you might hear it again at noon, you might hear it on a 5 o’clock broadcast, you’ll certainly hear it at 6, and then there’s a 7 o’clock broadcast followed by one at 10, and then there’s several at 11,” she said.

Perception vs. reality

A popular theory among our respondents on why misconceptions persist about Macon and some of its neighborhoods is that perception lags behind reality.

“While every white Southerner who was raised in the 1950s and ’60s was raised in a racist society, I hope and pray that I have overcome that,” 58-year-old Rennie Atkinson wrote in an online survey.

The First Presbyterian Day School history teacher and associate athletic director lives in north Bibb County near Bass Pro Shops, “a multicultural and multiracial neighborhood that has no problems along those lines that I know of.”

“There used to be a bigger divide,” said 43-year-old pharmaceutical rep Lynn Hinson, who lives in north Macon now but grew up in west Macon. Hinson “considered (north Macon) the richer part of Macon” when she was young.

“As an adult, you know, you’ve got working class people, and then you’ve got ... your doctors and your lawyers” too.

There was plenty of discussion about who lives in what part of town, why they’re there and what we believe about each other.

“(People think) that everybody that lives outside the city limits on the northern side of Macon are more affluent,” said 37-year-old salesman Darryl Wolfe, who lives across Interstate 75 from the Shoppes at River Crossing.

“That’s not even a good answer because that’s not a misconception,” said his wife, Brianna.

Wolfe responded, “The misconception is that people in the north fled out of the city because of urban flight.” The Wolfes used to live in-town, he said, but they had an opportunity to buy a house in the north end of the county and did so.

“We weren’t trying to move because of crime, ... but I have a feeling that some people, maybe on the south side or central side, when they see people in the county, they think, ‘oh, they just want to get away from us.’ And that’s not the case whatsoever.”

One conclusion was apparent from the responses: While the places we live might not be as bad as other people think they are, those people also might not think as poorly of our neighborhoods as we believe they do.

Valencia Glover, a 24-year-old temp worker, bemoaned the condition of the historic homes in her south Macon neighborhood around Crisp Street, including the one her family owns. And she thinks the condition of the physical environment leads to misconceptions about the people who live there.

“I live in the ‘hood, and people think I’m ghetto, that I’m hood rich” she said, using slang that means someone who spends well beyond their means while doing little to improve their living conditions. “That’s a false image of me, and I don’t want people to think that. ... I’m a sweet, positive, optimistic person.”

McMullen, the 19-year-old south Macon resident, said some of the misconceptions are cyclical.

“People say we’re bad (in Macon) and they don’t want to live here,” he said. Those attitudes “confine our city in ways that we won’t be able to move on in life.”

Macon’s bad reputation, he said, helps depress the economy and makes it hard for people to acquire the skills or experience “to make money and move out of the city.” As a result, they have nothing with which to compare Macon, and its reputation suffers further.

Many interviewees implied that race is an issue in the misconceptions they described. Few people mentioned race explicitly, however.

“I would like people to know there is a large population of progressive and well-educated African-Americans,” said Bernard Young, a black, 37-year-old high school math teacher who lives just past the western city limits.

Robert Danner Jr., a white, 65-year-old insurance agent who lives in north Macon, decried “the misconception that people who do well don’t care about anyone else.” Danner said there is a false perception that he and his fellow members of Idle Hour Country Club “just take advantage of people. I mean, I think that’s what’s promulgated by these black politicians.”

And then there’s the Honey Boo Boo factor.

“Sometimes I think Southerners are stereotyped by shows like ‘(Here Comes) Honey Boo Boo,’ ” said 59-year-old teacher Deborah Stevens. “I guess that is the one thing that bothers me.”

Stevens wasn’t the only respondent to chafe at the child reality TV star who lives just 30 miles away.

Asked what someone from up north, say Michigan, associates with a place like Macon, Darryl Wolfe didn’t think long.

“Honey Boo Boo,” he said. “The misconception from people up north is that we’re dumb.”

But it’s not true, he said.

“They’re paying three times as much for houses than we’re paying. And you get to thinking who’s the stupid one?”

"Macon in the Mirror" is a series on GPB produced in partnership with The Telegraph and Mercer University's Center for Collaborative Journalism. The stories are drawn from nearly 600 interviews conducted this year. Monday we heard about what frustrates and worries people about Macon. Wednesday we look at what people like about Macon and why they stay.

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