Originally created 04/12/98

Homefront: Neighbors welcome cleanup



From the cool shade on his Taylor Street porch, Lafayette Neal keeps an eye on the neighborhood he's known for 62 years.

He waves to the men driving by with their windows rolled down and radios turned up, and greets the elegant, elderly woman running errands with a cane. Hardly a person passes his house on a sunny April afternoon whose first name he doesn't know.

But where Mr. Neal sees home and familiar faces, he also sees blight and neglect.

Across the street from his home sit two crumbling, boarded-up buildings abandoned years ago. And in the overgrown alley behind his house are dwellings so shabby the city is getting ready to send in a demolition crew. At times, the littered lane is home to crack dealers and other troublemakers, Mr. Neal says.

Like many of his neighbors, he welcomes Clean Sweep, a city initiative to get the worst buildings in Augusta's historic Laney-Walker neighborhood out of the way and the streets and properties cleaned up.

"I think it's great, especially if they put something back on those lots," said Mr. Neal, who cleans and does "a little bit of everything" at a bar downtown.

"Just like anywhere else, once a lot of people that have money and own a lot of property move out -- well, they don't seem to care about the neighborhood no more," he said of the downward cycle of middle-class flight and decay that has plagued this inner-city area for decades.

Since the $60,000 Clean Sweep program was approved last fall, the city has torn down four dilapidated or charred buildings and billed absentee property owners for the work. A dozen more structures were demolished by owners who didn't want to be billed, said Rob Sherman, director of Augusta's license and inspection department.

Seven more houses deemed to be beyond repair are expected to be razed by the city in the next few months. Bids to demolish the first four went out last week.

"We wanted people there to know that we're concerned and that we want to improve the image of the neighborhood," Mr. Sherman said.

Properties belonging to people who refuse to reimburse the city, or whose owners can't be found, will eventually be seized and referred to the city's new land bank authority. Five have been deposited in the land bank so far.

The authority has the power to sidestep the normal bid process and negotiate deals favorable to developers interested in helping revitalize the neighborhood, Mr. Sherman said.

Until then, Clean Sweep means more vacant lots in a community that has too many as it is.

The Laney-Walker neighborhood, less than a mile south of Augusta's downtown business district and home to about 4,500 residents, most of them black already has more than 200 vacant lots. Some have served as dumping ground for junked cars, tires and other trash for years, becoming part of an increasingly grim, urban landscape.

State Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, said Clean Sweep "sends the appropriate signal that this area won't be allowed to just dwindle away." He has invested in new businesses on Laney-Walker Boulevard and believes the neighborhood is on its way back.

Others are concerned demolition without an aggressive plan for rebuilding the community could make Laney-Walker look worse. They point out that when dilapidated homes used by vagrants and criminals are torn down, their inhabitants just find another house to trash.

There are dozens of abandoned homes in this neighborhood alone.

"Why aren't we addressing the whole problem instead of just tearing down houses and making it look like a war zone?" said Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta. "Cleaning up is great. Let's get the junk out of the streets. But let's also look at an overall plan to try to save these neighborhoods."

Urban policy, however, is the least of Nellie Simms' concerns.

A weathered woman who estimated her age to be 69 or 70, is scared of the men lurking in the shadows of the overgrown, abandoned house across from her Eighth Street home. She's pleased to hear it's on the city's demolition list.

"Yeah, it worries me," Ms. Simms said, glaring at the tangle of weeds and rotting wood. "You don't know if someone's going to kill somebody and drag 'em up in them bushes. I've been hoping somebody (would do) something to that building."

Her granddaughter, Nina Simms, recalled how squatters living in abandoned homes on the block would loot the house across the street for firewood, leaving a shell where once was a home.

"Everybody would be in and out of there, smoking dope," the 27-year-old woman said in disgust.

The city's ultimate goal is to get property owners, some of whom still live in the Augusta area, to finally take responsibility for dilapidated and unsafe buildings. Mr. Sherman acknowledged it will likely take years before the roughly 40 buildings deemed to be beyond repair in Laney-Walker are gone and new homes are built.

For now, though, Clean Sweep is already making an impact on certain blocks, residents say.

A troubled section of Mauge Street, for instance, has quieted down considerably since the city recently tore down a building used by prostitutes and drug dealers. The narrow street, where tidy gardens mix with unkempt lots and junked cars, feels a little safer now, said Arlene Burley, who's raising a young grandson.

"They came back and planted grass there, and people are so happy that house is gone; nobody's throwing trash there," said her neighbor, Velveta, 42, who didn't want her last name used. "It makes a difference."