There are lots of tools for reviving a dying neighborhood. There are tax incentives, chasing deadbeat property owners and non-profits to rebuild houses to name a few.
In Macon-Bibb, another tool, this time public art, is at the heart of an effort to renew the city's Mill Hill neighborhood. A few weeks ago, that effort hit a snag: the first two artists in residence here were fired. As to why, that is still not clear, but events leading up to their dismissal might raise questions about how well the art-based scheme fits this neighborhood.
About a hundred people met in the Family Counseling Center on the back side of Mill Hill a week after the artists were let go. They were trying to figure out what happened. Reverend James Baker, associate pastor of the New Fellowship Missionary Baptist church in the neighborhood, was first at the podium.
“Good afternoon!” he intoned as he called the room to order.
“Good afternoon!” the room dutifully responded.
Baker described the head winds Mill Hill has fought for decades, the unkept promises.
“We was on life support in this neighborhood,” he said, "Anyone could see it for themselves."
“All you have to do is ride it.”
Since 2013, Macon-Bibb’s Urban Development Authority has had money to spend on Mill Hill which is actually an old mill village that was connected to the long gone Bibb Mill No. 1 textile plant. What the UDA needed to spend money in Mill Hill was a plan and a partnership. Enter the Macon Arts Alliance and the Arts Village concept. The plan was for the UDA to redevelop Mill Hill homes and put them in a land trust. The land trust would cut off at the knees the kind of property speculation that is at the root of much of what we think of as gentrification. The Macon Arts Alliance would use visiting artists working with locals to create public art and a sense of place. The whole thing was modeled on a down-and-out neighborhood turned arts district in Bradenton, Florida.
Macon Arts picked two out-of-towners as the first artists in residence. First, Ed Woodham,
“I'm from Brooklyn New York and I'm a global visionary,” Woodham said as an introduction. He’s most known for his public visual and performance art project “Art In Odd Places.”
And there was Samantha Hill, an oral historian and photographer from Chicago.
“I have a project called The Kinship Project which is 150 years of African American family photography,” Hill said.
Hill said she thought she knew what she and Woodham were getting into in Mill Hill.
“I thought there was a community. Like there were grassroots community groups,” she said. In past artistic projects, Hill said she had served as a facilitator for grassroots groups who maybe had more ideas than skills to execute them.
“But that's not what I saw when I got here,” Hill said.
What she saw was a neighborhood in which 75 percent of homes were unoccupied. The tenants who were there were largely newcomers. In short, they didn’t find many people.
But keeping their work strictly inside Mill Hill was in the contract for their National Endowment for the Arts funded positions. So with collaborators thin on the ground, who to talk to? As a guide, The Macon Arts Alliance gave them Reverend James Baker. Unfortunately, there was a disconnect between Baker and the artists right from their first meeting.
“[Baker] asked us are we in this for the long haul?” Hill said. “And I said ‘What does that mean?’"
Baker wanted to know if they would be in Mill Hill for years. That their contract had the pair in Macon-Bibb for four months was news to him. Baker said that wasn’t enough.
“In 90 days no artist can make an impact,” he said.
Emails were exchanged, but for whatever reason, the artists never got their Mill Hill introductions from Baker.
Jonathan Harwell-Dye, Director of Creative Placemaking for the Macon Arts Alliance, pointed to the years of interviews with people in the neighborhood by a group called the Roving Listeners as another starting place for the artists. Hill said her only exposure to that material was an interview with a woman who moved to Mill Hill from New Jersey and had only lived there for months. Not the cultural continuity she thought the project demanded.
So the pair began work on their own. They met other artists from outside Mill Hill. Samantha Hill recorded two oral histories with plans for more. Then ten days into their project, the Macon Arts Alliance executive director Jan Beeland told them they were fired. They were flabbergasted. Why?
Jonathan Harwell-Dye said it came down to a simple requirement of the project the artists weren’t living up to.
“There is just a disconnect between the community that we're serving and and the artists in the program,” Harwell-Dye said. “And that couldn't stay.”
So what is the Mill Hill community? The public meeting of 100 some odd people was asked for show of hands. Who lived in Mill Hill? Ten hands went up. Only one woman from that group spoke in the meeting and she wanted to know who her new landlord was.
Still, James Baker said the artists’ contract was plain.
“One of the things I believe in more than anything... when you are hired, and you've been paid, you follow the vision of your employer,” he said. “And they didn't want to follow the vision.”
Samantha Hill wonders now why outside artists were needed for the vision after meeting talented Macon artists. She said there are plenty of people in Macon who can do what she does.
“Why are we here?” she asked. After some thought, she and Woodham came up with a hypothesis.
“The thing is though we have this very beautiful resume',” she said.
Hill wonders if the resumes and the social capital they brought with them were more important than whatever art might flow from the Mill Hill project, that they might have just been the symbols needed to trigger spending by the Urban Development Authority.
“They were presenting us like we were show ponies for social practice [art],” Ed Woodham said.
Alex Morrison of the Urban Development Authority said UDA money would still be unspent if the Macon Arts plan, or something like it, hadn’t come along.
James Baker says the whole thing is just a small set back for Mill Hill.
“We got life again,” he said. “And we're breathing in East Macon community. And we will continue to breathe.”
What happened to Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham? They are sort of homeless for a few months. They sublet their apartments back home for the duration of their part of the project.
And the Macon Arts Alliance? They haven’t said where they will go from here in the Mill Hill Arts Village.
Support for Health, Education, and Poverty reporting on GPB Macon comes from the Peyton Anderson Foundation.