Miracles in the Making

THE SHORT DRIVE  down Battle Row is a vivid trip through history and economics. At the top of the hill on Milledge Road lived the captains of industry, the mill owners, the bankers and lawyers in the mansions that still peer down on the city at their feet. As you drive down Battle Row—named for the battle fought here in the Revolutionary War—houses and yards decrease in size so that by the time the road flattens out at canal level it is lined by rows of little shotgun mill houses. Here the spindle and loom operators (derisively called “lint heads”) for the King, Sibley and Enterprise mills, having moved off their impoverished farms for a better life in Augusta in the late 19th and early 20th century, raised their families.

This is Harrisburg, the old mill village lying west to east between the foot of the Hill and 15th Street, and south to north between Walton Way and the Augusta Canal. Never a wealthy place, Harrisburg has seen its share of hard times. As the textile industry started moving overseas in the mid-1950s the mills cut their hours and then closed—Enterprise in 1983, King in 2001 and Sibley in 2006. Neighborhoods were demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Calhoun Expressway, which cut Harrisburg in half to make life more convenient for suburban commuters. Old Harrisburgers died, their houses abandoned or turned into rental units. Absentee landlords let properties decay. Prostitutes and drug dealers took advantage of the vacuum and Harrisburg developed a reputation for crime. This past winter and spring, arson scarred some streets with the blackened remains of what used to be homes. υ

MANY BLOCKS are virtually unchanged since the late 1880s, giving the district the look of a movie set where a historical drama will soon be filmed. The soul of the neighborhood remains, a core of passionately involved residents. There’s a neighborhood association, neighborhood churches, a medical clinic, a sheriff’s department substation and lately an army of volunteers and nonprofits, such as G.R.O.W. Harrisburg, working to turn Harrisburg back into the neighborhood it once was. And directly across Broad Street from the Ezekiel Harris house, where the neighborhood began in the 1790s, there’s the $33.9 million Kroc Center.

But the rebirth of Harrisburg is visible on a smaller scale in five renovated mill houses on Broad Street and three brand new houses—one completed, two under construction—at the corner of Metcalf Street and Battle Row. These eight houses are the beachheads in a campaign to reclaim Harrisburg, street by street. It’s called Turn Back the Block.

Miracles 2“We can’t do all of Harrisburg, just our little bit,” says Clay Boardman, the Augusta businessman who helped start the organization five years ago. “Home ownership is the key. Home ownership creates pride in the neighborhood, neighbors looking out for one another. Right now Harrisburg is covered up with rental properties and transient residents. And houses die.”

In fact, fewer than a quarter of the houses in Harrisburg today are owner-occupied; another 14 percent are vacant or abandoned; the rest are rental properties. Abandoned houses die quickly and rental properties, when neglected by absentee landlords, just take a little longer to die.

So Turn Back the Block buys houses, rehabs them when possible and sells them with interest-free mortgages to qualified individuals who have invested their sweat equity into the construction. “Home ownership is our angle,” says Boardman. “This is not charity. There are no giveaways, but there is no interest on the mortgage. We don’t want to burden the owner with interest.”

Nor do they want to drop individual owners into the middle of streets where they would be alone. Turn Back the Block therefore acquires contiguous properties, placing the owners in houses, side by side. The owners, having all invested in the property, share a similar commitment to the future of Harrisburg. Together they create a little neighborhood of mutual support—a seed of hope for the neighborhood around them.

Most of the labor is donated by volunteers…joined byprospectivehomeowners who are required to put in at least 350 hours of sweat equity.

THE FIRST FIVE HOUSES are neatly lined up behind white picket fences along the 1500 block of Broad Street. They are old mill housing, unadorned and modest but solidly built, with heart pine floors more than a century old. “Our first choice is to restore the housing stock that’s already there,” Boardman says. But that’s not always possible. Three houses donated to the group on Metcalf Street were too far gone to be saved and had to be torn down. That’s where Turn Back the Block is building three new houses—new, but designed in an architectural style appropriate to the neighborhood.

“It’s a great area,” says Boardman. “It gives us a lot of visibility. That has created excitement. An anonymous donor from Columbia County saw what we were doing. He said, ‘I’ll take on this house.’ So we provided the plans. He liked them. He built the house and we sold it just before Masters.”

Turn Back the Block was created in the aftermath of the failed dream of turning the Sibley and King mills into the “Mills Campus” for the newly consolidated Georgia Regents University back in 2013. The beautiful old mills on the canal would have become residence halls and academic facilities. Boardman had the Sibley Mill under contract and bought five mill houses on Broad Street as part of the project. But when the cleanup of contamination at the site made the project un-doable, he had to withdraw from the project. “But I still owned those houses. What to do
with them?”

Boardman, Anne Catherine Murray and others threw ideas around, and the idea of renovating those houses to help renovate Harrisburg began to take shape. They formed Turn Back the Block, affiliating the group with the Fuller Center for Housing. The Fuller Center, founded by Millard Fuller (whose “theology of the hammer” had created Habitat for Humanity years before), helped the Augusta initiative develop its  structure and bylaws, but Turn Back the Block soon decided to become independent. “We had a narrow focus that wasn’t where they were,” Boardman explains. “We were rehabilitating housing stock. They are building new houses. They work around the world. We are not building in Haiti; we are working in our own backyard.”

Turn Back the Block receives all its funding from local foundations, civic groups, churches and individuals. Most of the labor is donated by volunteers from churches, schools and businesses. Much of the construction work is done by the FROGS—the Fellowship of Retired Old Guys Serving (the young folks who sometimes help them are called Tadpoles). They put in about two days a week. Other volunteers, often 20 to 30 strong, gather one Saturday a month for “block parties” —workdays to clear lots, pick up trash, install landscaping and so forth. They are joined, of course, by the prospective homeowners themselves, who are required to put in at least 350 hours of sweat equity to purchase their homes.

Turn Back the Block is faith-based, but it is not affiliated with any denomination, nor is it exclusively Christian.  “We exist to glorify God in what we do,” explains Christel Jiles, the group’s executive director. “The motivation of the individual board members and committee members, the ultimate reason why we do this is to glorify God. For me, personally, God has redeemed and restored my heart and part of exemplifying that for the world is redeeming and restoring people and places.” 

Miracles 3

“They must have some sort of need, but this is not a program for the homeless.We are looking for people who can succeed as homeowners.”

JILES’S ATTACHMENT to Harrisburg is rooted in family history. “My grandparents worked in these mills and lived in Harrisburg. It was a hardworking community. My grandparents were lower income and never owned anything and moved from place to place inside of Harrisburg.  But I do get the sense that it was neighbors watching out for neighbors and you were able to walk down the streets safely. I’d like people to feel that again. I love the idea that we’re creating affordable housing opportunities where vacant lots and abandoned houses are now.” 

Jiles is a housing counselor for the Economic Opportunity Authority and, before taking on her new role as executive director of Turn Back the Block, she volunteered as pre-purchase counselor for families seeking to become homeowners. She continues to head the group’s family selection committee, screening applicants to make sure they have the financial and emotional stability to succeed. 

“Applicants can fill out a one-page pre-application at our website. They must have some sort of need, but this is not a program for the homeless or jobless. We are looking for people who can succeed as homeowners. They will have a mortgage—interest free, but it’s still a mortgage, and we’re still taking on lots of risk. So we look at credit reports, employment status, bank statements. We’ll help them work through some financial issues that would prevent them from getting a mortgage at a bank. 

“They may have had some issues in their past—drug and alcohol issues that have kept them from getting as far as they want to be at this point—but they’ve awakened to the fact that this is not how they want to live their lives. So now they are stable emotionally and financially.  They are committed to helping turn Harrisburg back into what we know it can be.”

A great idea, but will it work?

MEET MICHAEL WEINTRAUB, 57, who recently moved into one of the mill houses on Broad Street. Weintraub embodies Harrisburg—the drug-infested slum it was, the community of neighbors it is becoming. Once one of the foremost  taekwondo masters in the world, Weintraub was executive director of the U. S. Olympic Center for the sport in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and TV commentator for the Olympic competition. Then various emotional and physical disasters plunged him into painkillers, alcohol, coke, crack and addiction. Eventually he left New York City and ended up in Harrisburg, running a crack and whore house on Heckle Street. 

“I popped hydrocodones like M&Ms,” he says. “I was a human garbage can. I figured I’d die an addict.” The drugs had destroyed his heart. Doctors told him it was the heart of a 97-year-old.

Seven years later he greets me at the door of his house, smiling and ruddy-cheeked, with a booming voice and a firm handshake. He looks a lot like a trim Billy Joel. He’s obviously fit and muscular, wearing a knit shirt embroidered with “ART: Action Recovery Team,” the logo of his construction business. Its slogan is “Restoring people, restoring property.”

He leads me into his sunny kitchen where I am surprised by a cheese omelet sitting on a glass table waiting for me. “Sit down, enjoy,” he says as he brews coffee on the kitchen counter. “There’s juice on the table. And bacon. You want toast or a bagel? I recommend an onion bagel. I put mayonnaise on it and make a bacon sandwich. It’s really good.” I try it. He’s right.

Miracles 4

“I love Harrisburg. I love Harrisburg,“ he says.

It’s breathtaking really, a story of miracles. “Everything I lost has been given back by God and more. There’s a dark side to Harrisburg, but there’s a way out. There are so many good things happening here now, it soon won’t be profitable for the prostitutes and crack dealers to stay here. There are lots of good people here who have been here for generations. They’re not going anywhere. And with the Kroc Center, GRU medical campus and downtown surrounding it, Harrisburg is sort of the center of a fertile triangle.”

Boardman agrees. “Harrisburg is surrounded by prosperity, the prosperity of the medical community, the prosperity of the Hill and the downtown nearby. There’s no reason for a doughnut hole of bad in the midst of all this good. 

“We like all the things in Harrisburg that are doing that build community, stability, pride. They’re necessary for a vibrant neighborhood. We wish we could all go quicker. But it took 75 years to get in the condition it is. Turn Back the Block is just baby steps. But we’re in it for the long haul.” 

“Harrisburg has got a great vibe,” says Jiles, “of being on the cusp of something good happening.” 

This article appears in the June/July 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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