Credit: Grant Blankenship / Georgia Public Broadcasting
GDOT promised better in Macon after cutting it in half with I-75. Has the state kept its word?
Peter Givens was a teenager in the ‘60s when he watched one of Macon’s oldest Black cemeteries torn apart as the construction of Interstate 75 came through the heart of Pleasant Hill.
Home from a military high school out of state, Givens watched from Walnut Street as dirt was turned and tombs were pried from the earth in Linwood Cemetery, the final resting place for some of Macon’s most notable Black residents.
“I wish that I were older and had more experience at this so that I could help my parents fight this thing,” Givens recalled thinking then.
Givens stayed in the Northeast, working on massive public and private construction jobs, until his father’s death in 2003 brought him back to Macon. He heard about the coming highway expansion and began looking closely at the state’s plans, which would once again impact Pleasant Hill.
Givens and his life partner, the late Naomi Johnson, rallied Pleasant Hill neighbors together and collectively sought to ensure the state highway department did no further damage to the place it split in half decades earlier.
The coalition of neighbors evolved into a nonprofit called The Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group. It elected Givens as its president and started meeting with state and federal highway departments to negotiate plans for how to reduce negative impacts to the neighborhood from both the original highway construction and the ongoing expansion project.
What resulted from those meetings was the Pleasant Hill Mitigation Plan, a multi-faceted blueprint for the neighborhood that promised two new parks, streetscapes, improved infrastructure, homes, historic preservation efforts, a community resource center, and noise and visual barriers.
The mitigation plan marked the first time the Georgia Department of Transportation made a formal agreement to repair damage it did decades earlier when it acquired private property for the highway construction through a process called eminent domain.
“Eminent domain is something that they’ve always used, but because of what we did, it would not initially be used,” Givens said. “From now on, whenever there is a federal highway project going through a community, they must sit down and discuss with the leaders of the community as to, you know, ‘How can we do this without totally wrecking your community?’”
State authority takes the reins
Work in the neighborhood was just getting underway when the Pleasant Hill Mitigation Plan was already being touted as a success in a 2013 Federal Highway Administration case study.
The plan was highlighted as an example of how transportation projects nationwide should work to address environmental justice issues through community engagement.
Even so, the case study features some accomplishments that either didn’t happen as planned or remain incomplete a decade later.
The trajectory of those plans changed with the 2014 creation of a new consolidated city-county government and a later contract between the state highway department and the Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority, CEA.
The Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority, CEA, was created with legislation introduced by Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, during his first term in office in 2012. The authority’s mission is to eliminate poverty in Macon’s poorest neighborhoods.
The CEA’s involvement in the Pleasant Hill mitigation plan started in October 2016, when the state highway department contracted it for $5.1 million to move or build 24 homes in the area impacted by highway expansion.
The original mitigation plan created with input from the neighborhood improvement group called for a number of outside bids to handle different aspects of the housing, but the CEA wound up with most of those responsibilities.
As the CEA responsibilities increased, the neighborhood improvement group grew dormant as Givens’ focus became caring for Johnson, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis . Her health was rapidly declining by 2019.
“There was nothing that we could do anymore, you know, with the community. It was just about her,” Givens said.
The CEA created a new neighborhood group, the Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Organization, in 2020.
“We had accomplished what we set out to accomplish before she passed away,” Givens said. “She got a chance to see a good bit of it, so I’m glad for that.”
As part of the mitigation plan, the state highway department promised to build two new parks and deed them to the City of Macon. The city agreed to maintain the parks.
The parks became property of Macon-Bibb County in 2014 when the consolidated city-county government was created.
In September 2019, Macon-Bibb Commissioners unanimously approved an agreement with the CEA to pay it $47,300 yearly, plus a one-time maintenance fee of $8,500, to maintain landscaping and manage rentals for both parks.
Macon-Bibb County had maintained the park as it would any other passive green space until CEA expressed interest in holding community events in the park, county spokesperson Chris Floore said.
The county saw an opportunity to “create a community structure,” Floore said. “It seemed like they were going to do a better job of proactively holding events and things there, whereas what we were doing was cutting grass and letting people rent the park.”
The county does not receive reports from the authority about park rentals or landscaping contracts.
Jefferson Long Park, on the neighborhood’s west side between Pursley and Craft streets, is named after the first Black person to ever speak in front of the U.S. House of Representatives. Long, born into slavery in Crawford County and self-educated, was the second Black person elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Black person to represent Georgia.
In a corner of the park named in his honor, an empty concrete circle marks the spot where a water fountain was desired by the neighborhood but never installed. A drinking fountain in the center of the park slowly leaks. The still bright pavement of First Avenue has started to crack around the park’s borders. Box gardens, once regularly tended to by Givens and Johnson, are overgrown with weeds.
Across the David Lucas Pedestrian Bridge spanning over I-75, Linear Park features a walking path that winds between street lamps, kiosks and benches to Walnut Street.
A greenspace with young trees buffers the path, which snakes alongside the towering concrete barrier walls meant to keep out the sights and sounds of interstate traffic. An open drainage ditch that was once an eye sore is now a grass-covered culvert.
Though the parks have been completed for years, neither has signage indicating it is a named, public park.
GDOT Spokesperson Gina Snider said GDOT is responsible for signage, but vandalism of some kiosks in the parks have prompted discussions with the county about whether to repair them or change the design to minimize vandalism.
“Once the Kiosks are repaired/replaced, signage will be installed,” Snider said in an email to The Macon Newsroom. “Discussions are currently being held (with) no deadline set.”
The Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group helped design noise and visual barrier walls featuring concrete reliefs in homage to the neighborhood’s most notable residents and in celebration of the community’s accomplishments highlighted in themes including literature, music, medicine, education and government.
One of the barrier walls is facing Linear Park, not far from the pedestrian bridge.
But many of the concrete murals were installed facing the interstate instead of the neighborhood in an apparent GDOT contractor gaffe.
Snider said it is working with the contractor to get the murals turned around to face the neighborhood.
Neighborhood resource center
The small yellow cottage on Craft Street is one of the boyhood homes of rock-n-roll star “Little Richard” Wayne Penniman, who grew up in Pleasant Hill.
The Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group picked The Little Richard House as the site for the neighborhood resource center promised in the mitigation plan.
The community resource center was envisioned as a place for residents to use a computer, apply for jobs, get a document notarized or send a fax, Givens said. It also was supposed to serve as the historical repository for the neighborhood’s archives, according to the mitigation plan. The plan was for the house to then be deeded to the City of Macon, which would allow the Neighborhood Improvement Group to operate it.
Those plans changed after the city-county government consolidated in 2014. The house is still owned by the Macon-Bibb County government, but it pays the CEA $96,000 per year to operate it for at least 30 hours per week. The county does not receive or request any reports on how CEA spends the money, Floore said.
The yellow cottage is sometimes closed during normal business hours. Rarely are any cars parked outside in the few spaces dedicated to it on Craft Street.
In the CEA’s 2019-2022 impact report, it touted “daily museum tours” of the musical legend’s home amassed “1,000+ tour visitors.” No mention was made of how its operations benefit residents.
Paintings, photos, records and assorted relics of Little Richard are displayed throughout the house, but missing is a trove of oral histories and exhibits GDOT said would be housed there.
In a 2017 case study about the Pleasant Hill Mitigation Plan, the state highway department touted its success protecting the neighborhood’s cultural resources.
The study highlights mitigation efforts that remain incomplete and alludes to GDOT’s work with both the neighborhood improvement group and the CEA, which is characterized as “a local community entity” instead of a state authority.
Promises for historic preservation in the mitigation plan included: a virtual map tour of the neighborhood, an oral history project, an update to the National Register of Historic Places Nomination for Pleasant Hill and a traveling exhibit featuring the neighborhood’s history.
Pleasant Hill was established in 1872. Before it was cut in half by the original I-75 construction, it was Macon’s premier Black neighborhood and home to “a broad spectrum of Macon’s black citizens from educators, doctors, and lawyers to unskilled laborers,” according to a 1974 nomination form for it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The listing for Pleasant Hill was last updated in 1995. The state highway department is responsible for updating the national register, but Snider said that cannot be completed until renovations to infill housing.
The promised traveling exhibit includes a few 7-foot roll-up murals with display stands. It hasn’t traveled much. It is stored in boxes at Givens’ house, along with a cache of records related to the neighborhood and the interstate expansion.
Photographs and oral histories from dozens of Pleasant Hill residents also are stored in boxes at Givens’ house. The histories were collected by Givens, Johnson and Mercer University students then compiled onto disks by a contractor.
The state and federal highway departments promised the collection of histories would be sent to schools, libraries and museums and the neighborhood resource center.
But the histories were never sent to Bibb Schools, The Macon Newsroom confirmed with the school district. Parts of it have been posted online by the state highway department. The Washington Memorial Library stows away the history in its restricted archives.
There are no exhibits, oral histories, videos or photos from residents on display at the neighborhood resource house.
Givens said he has no plan to hoard the histories or the exhibit.
“The teachers, the bus drivers and all of those people who were never considered important people – to us, they were very important,” Givens said. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this stuff. There will be another structure for it to be housed as soon as I’m able.”
To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email Corley_le@mercer.edu.