Community's slow adjustment to change hurts cultural development

Recently, I attended an arts community gathering at the Augusta-Richmond County Library's main branch. It was spearheaded by the CSRA African-American Arts Alliance for the purpose of gaining insight into the arts communities, and using this information to help the CSRA live up to its full potential as a premier destination for the arts.


Anthony Page, who heads up this organization, is a man on a mission to make this dream a reality. And from the participation he got from the arts communities, through panel and audience discussions, that dream got off to a good start.

But don't expect its success to happen overnight, if at all -- I hate to say this, but I've lived in Augusta a long time. Augusta is very conservative, and not big on change -- not just in politics, but in every aspect of life. And people seem to like it that way. Well, maybe not like it, but they accept it.

That's why some say Anthony is daydreaming. You would think that he would've given up bringing new ideas to the table by now -- especially ideas and dreams that seem too big for this area -- but he hasn't. We have to thank God for that. This man has so many talents that he's tried to share in this community, yet time and time again we have rejected them.

I DON'T THINK Anthony Page is daydreaming. But without a doubt, he is dreaming -- and dreaming big!

There have been other big dreamers who came through this area feeling that this was the ideal location for putting their great ideas to work -- only to find out too late what many of us already knew: Augusta is slow to change. When people are satisfied with the way things are, seemingly nothing you can do can change their mind-set. Either you put up with it or move on -- that is, until they are ready and willing to change.

I remember several bold moves in this town to change the landscape, and all of them were rejected right away. State Sen. Eugene Holley built a penthouse on top of the old Southern Finance Building, now the Lamar Building, on Broad Street. In the mid-1970s, he hired the world's greatest architect at the time, I.M. Pei, to redesign part of it.

There is an interesting story how the concept was born and where. Some were shocked that he would dare put a modern structure with a helicopter pad on top of Augusta's tallest classical building. He also topped it with a big shining cross that could be seen from afar. This was an architectural nightmare to a lot of Augustans.

The only thing wrong with Holley's penthouse that I saw was it was built in the wrong city. Even today, Augusta is still not ready for that penthouse.

In the 1960s, a group of blacks got together and built Augusta's first black-owned bowling lane on the low end of Laney-Walker Boulevard. Shortly afterward, just up the street a piece, black business tycoon Charlie Reid built another one. Both businesses have been long gone. Their dreams, too, were bigger than Augusta.

Don't mention the sculpture at the corner of 11th and Reynolds streets, or the abandoned Golf and Gardens right across the street. We were not ready for them, either.

Maybe Ricardo Azziz's dreams are too big for Augusta, too. Augusta, in no uncertain terms, has told him so.

He is the new president of the newly named Georgia Health Sciences University. Just about everything that he has suggested to make the university better has been rejected by one part of the community or another. Even his observation of Augusta not being "cool" was rejected. How dare this man come to town and reveal our stagnation, we said.

NOT ONLY HAS Dr. Azziz gotten negative feedback from trying to change the status quo at the university, Paine College President George Bradley has come under fire for making changes, and even suggesting making changes at the college. He's been criticized for making the beautiful changes already seen on campus. As I say, change is hard to come by in Augusta.

While I sat and listened to the various speakers in the audience and on the arts panel, I could feel their pain and frustration. They talked about the race division, cultural division, political division, social division and economic division -- and how these divisions, real or unreal, affect the arts community as a whole and keep it stagnant.

Perception is reality to many. Rarely do we come out of our comfort zones to discover what others are doing in the field. That limits our experiences.

I am fortunate to have had some experiences in my early life that gave me a broader perspective on cultural aspects of life, to navigate successfully and comfortably in the larger society. These experiences during my formative years gave me an appreciation for the finer things in life today.

Changing the conservative climate in Augusta, when it comes to the arts, is going to be a long and tedious process. A good starting place is with children, whose minds are impressionable. Expose them to the arts, even if you have not cultivated a taste for the various arts yourself. Some of them may never become performers, but all of them can learn to appreciate the performances of others.

The media do a great job of informing us what's available on any given day. Why not join Anthony Page and his group's push to make Augusta a destination for the arts with your involvement?

(The writer is a former Augusta City Council member and a retired labor relations manager from Bechtel Savannah River Inc.)