Resident works to sell vision for neighborhood

Directly west of downtown Augusta is the campus of Augusta State University, the upscale Surrey Center shopping plaza, the mansions of Summerville and the manicured greens of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Augusta Country Club.


Then there's the Sand Hills neighborhood.

The rundown collection of boarded-up houses stands in direct contrast to the wealth and culture that surrounds it. Small businesses are shuttered and grimy; corner lots are overrun with knee-high weeds; abandoned houses with peeling paint squat on every block.

When Jovan Armstrong walks his childhood neighborhood, though, he sees promise, not decay.

"When you go to Summerville, there's a warm fuzzy feeling," said Armstrong, the vice president of the Sand Hills Neighborhood Watch. "You don't get that here ... but it's still available."

Armstrong has spent months selling his vision to residents and has their support. Now he's out to promote the new Sand Hills to the rest of Augusta.

Among his priorities are to attract the ASU students a mile away to the neighborhood. There's ample student housing if the empty houses could be renovated; there are two small apartment complexes within the neighborhood, but one is currently boarded up.

A laundromat and corner grocery also once existed, but are closed. Armstrong figures adding a coffee shop into the mix would complete the lure for students.

There are several barriers holding back the rebirth of Sand Hills; chief among them is money.

Business could be better at T's Barber Shop, said owner Steve Terrell, who would welcome a loan to improve his business. The dim little shop with two chairs and a century-old mirror sees only a handful of customers a day.

Another man next door who refused to give his name said he would love to open a bakery or donut shop in Sand Hills, but has run into similar problems raising the capital for such an operation.

Besides the business infrastructure that's already in place, there's an empty school and park waiting for a little tender loving care. In a walk around the neighborhood (which took place almost entirely in the street for a lack of sidewalks), Armstrong took visitors to the basketball court he played on as a child.

The rusty backboard looked on the verge of collapse; tall weeds grew in cracks along the baselines. On the other side of a tall stand of trees is a junior-sized baseball diamond, complete with stadium lights on wooden poles.

It's the ghost of Sand Hills, one Yvonne Alford remembers from when she moved here in 1972.

Back then it was a quiet neighborhood; everyone knew each other and Alford felt comfortable letting her children wander the streets with their friends. The tone of the neighborhood changed in the late 1980s, when drugs and its accompanying crime moved into Sand Hills.

"Everything started going down," said Alford.

Hugh Evans, a former drug addict who lives near Sand Hills, remembers prostitutes and drug dealers on every corner. It was common to find people having sex in the parks in the early morning, Evans said.

"I saw it get bad," he said.

Evans credits a combination of drug education and increased police presence for ridding Sand Hills of its worst criminal element. The drug dealers from Sand Hills' worst days are either dead or in prison now, said Evans.

To prevent another generation from taking those dealers' place, Alford keeps tabs on the young men walking along her front porch.

Asked whether she ever fears for her safety, Alford said she would rather take the risk of getting shot than watch a generation waste their lives.

"At least I can say I died trying," Alford said.

Armstrong acknowledges he has a long road ahead if he wants to fully realize his vision. But he's heartened by the revitalization of communities such as Vine City in Atlanta, which have experienced a surge of investment after years of decay.

He's criticized sometimes for speaking in the abstract, but it's the big picture that motivates Armstrong. He turns to an old proverb for encouragement when the naysayers get under his skin:

"Those who say 'it can't be done' shouldn't stand in the way of those doing it."