Originally created 07/13/97

Residents: Clean up the blight!



Lights. Cameras. Action.

That's what it will take to rid Augusta of some of its slums, say residents of some of the most blighted areas.

Light up the neighborhoods. Photograph neglected houses and their owners and publish them in the newspaper along with the DUIs. And tear down the dilapidated buildings when the owners refuse to clean them up.

"Tear 'em all down," said Eighth Avenue resident Willie Law Jr. "Then the dope dealers won't have nowhere to go. They're the ones running people out of the neighborhood. That's where it all starts."

That's right. Get fed up and say you're not going to take it any more, said Doug Bachtel, professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia.

"It has to be addressed at the neighborhood level," Dr. Bachtel said. "You've got to have a good neighborhood organization and leadership from within.

"Government can't do it. It has to happen neighborhood by neighborhood."

Twiggs Street resident Mattie Mitchell said she's leading the charge on her block. She lives in a house that belonged to her grandparents and then to her parents, and she considers the crime and decay around her an insult to their memory.

"When things happened in this area, I could have gone a long time ago," she said. "But I'm not going to let prostitution and drinking and the things they do around here run me out. It's an insult to my parents. It's an insult to my mother."

That's why she shoos the prostitutes away.

"This little midget - she's about that high - she was out there prostituting," Ms. Mitchell said. "'Cause when they run them off Ninth Street, they move on down here.

"I said I wasn't afraid of her. I told her, `I don't have anything to do with what you do.' I said, `You do what you want to do, but you damn sure ain't going to do it out here in front of my house, in front of my door."'

Ms. Mitchell has a name for the owners of dilapidated houses who won't fix them up.

"SLOs - I call them slum lord owners because that's exactly what they are," she said. "I think they should do them just like they do with people with DUIs. Put their pictures in the paper. Embarrass them.

"If we don't speak up and bring some shame and attention to it, nothing will ever change," she added. "It will just get worse."

But one large inner-city property owner said he's in a worse spot than anyone.

"It's a downhill battle," said 82-year-old Scipio S. Johnson, who along with his two brothers own about three dozen properties in some of the most blighted areas of the city.

"Every year it gets worse. I've torn down a number of houses. There are only a few we're making any money off. We haven't collected enough money in the past 10 years to pay the taxes.

"I let some people stay in houses free just to keep them from being destroyed."

He's tried to hang onto the property inherited from his father, the late Dr. S.S. Johnson, "for a better day" but now doesn't think it will ever come, he said.

"We get the tenants the projects expel," he said. "I used to be able to afford the repairs, but the cost got so high I just boarded them up. As soon as you board them up, they tear the boards off.

"The drug addicts break into those houses and smoke crack and steal everything. What they don't steal, they destroy."

Mr. Johnson recounts story after story of his experiences renting to drug dealers and prostitutes.

One property on Ninth Street became "a Mecca for dope dealers," and he had to turn off the water, electricity and gas to get them out, he said. Meanwhile, they hitched a chain to the front door and pulled it off with a vehicle, he said.

Mr. Johnson is one person who doesn't seem to have an answer to the problem.

"I'm baffled because it seems nobody cares anymore," he said. "When we rented the houses for $25 or $30 a month back in the '40s, people took pride. They planted flowers and kept things fixed up. These tenants today seem to destroy everything."

Meanwhile, residents who met at Savannah Place Community Center last Tuesday plan to ask the city for more lighting in areas that attract the criminal element.

They plan to compile a list of "hot spots," and want to shine bright lights on those spots.

"You shine that bright light on them, they'll stop going to the those places because they don't want to be seen," said one citizen.

Staff Writer Tracie Powell contributed to this report.