Augusta is in a sad spiral, and only its concerned citizens can rescue it

I grew up in Augusta, and was recently in the city to visit my father, who was undergoing a procedure at the Veterans Administration Medical Center. While on my way to the center, I became lost and ended up driving through the residential areas of downtown.

I WAS APPALLED, alarmed and embarrassed by the physical conditions of the city, residents and buildings I saw. The blight was so stark and jarring, I couldn't believe I was in my native city. Porches falling off houses, vandalized buildings, people aimlessly wandering or pushing shopping carts.

Of all the feelings I felt, sadness and concern were the strongest. Those feelings were quickly followed by anger.

Since leaving Augusta for college a little more than 10 years ago, I've had the opportunity to visit and live in a number of cities in the United States and abroad -- from Washington, D.C., to San Jose, Costa Rica. I've seen only one other city that matches the dilapidation I've witnessed in Augusta, and that city is New Orleans.

Something is going terribly wrong in all parts of Augusta. South Augusta looks bleak, and criminal activity is beginning to escalate there. Each time I come home to visit, I read about an abandoned building that has been vandalized or set ablaze. Many of the grocery stores in the city, including the one in my parents' neighborhood, are slowly becoming markers for food deserts -- areas that lack healthy food options and access to a variety of fruits and vegetables. For example, almost half of the refrigerators in the produce department of one supermarket have been turned off and are now filled with bags of popcorn, pork rinds and other unhealthy junk food.

DURING MY VISIT, I ate at a restaurant near the VA hospital, and had the pleasure of striking up a conversation with a gentleman in his 70s who lived in the Harrisburg area. I was shocked at how he casually mentioned the escalating crime and lack of safety in his neighborhood. He explained how he now carries a baseball bat during his daily walks.

I was even more shocked when I happened to drive through that neighborhood on my way to the animal shelter near Lake Olmstead. Again, I saw crumbling building after crumbling building.

As a young girl, I personally witnessed the destruction of our city's neighborhoods when I would visit my grandmother's house on 13th Street. The introduction of crack cocaine -- and the city's passivity toward it -- completely destroyed that community. My grandmother was forced to flee her home -- the home her mother purchased as a single woman in 1943 -- and move to National Hills.

Now a new chapter is beginning in Augusta as signs of the meth epidemic begin to dot the city's landscape. It's clear that the decision to ignore a problem that started nearly 30 years ago is finally catching up with the rest of the city.

THE CITY'S RESIDENTS and leaders must act now and work together to address Augusta's current state. The city is showing physical symptoms of a sinister, underlying condition that will continue to worsen and fester without treatment. Solutions include encouraging enterprise in the city; empowering residents to become vigilant against crime; and holding property owners accountable for their contributions to the blight.

Without serious attention soon, the city's blight will become more than just an eyesore we gloss over until the next Masters Tournament.

It will lead to a cycle of low-performing schools, high crime, decreased public health, less revenue for the city and increased drug use that will affect all Augustans of all backgrounds, incomes and areas of the city and its surroundings.

Augusta and its residents don't deserve that future.

(The writer, an Augusta native, is a writer and editor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.)

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