Originally created 02/24/02

Native of black community seeks revival



Tim Wilson cruises through Sand Hills, exploring without a map. He grew up in the neighborhood, and needs only his memory to navigate the maze of avenues and side streets.

The decaying, working-class community lies tucked away like a secret among the splendor of Summerville, the Augusta Country Club and the mansions of Walton Way. It's a world of its own - made up of modest homes, tin-roofed bungalows, shotgun shacks and abandoned buildings.

From his minivan, Mr. Wilson is taking inventory of what's left, one house and one lot at a time.

"This one has character to me," he says of a two-story home with hints of Victorian architecture, but peeling paint.

"This one needs to go," he says, pointing to a cinderblock shack not far away, its windows and doors sealed with plywood boards.

Mr. Wilson became the president of the Sand Hills Neighborhood Association in August. The historic black neighborhood in west Augusta once housed the domestic servants, craftsmen and laborers for adjoining Summerville. To see its place on a modern city map, wedged among Augusta State University, Forest Hills and Surrey Center, it would seem like prime real estate, but it's anything but that.

Sand Hills encompasses about 267 acres and 750 households. Roughly 21 percent of the houses are dilapidated or abandoned. Drug dealers do business in the open, police say. Gang graffiti is sprayed on vacant, boarded-up buildings.

Much of the property is rented. The men and women who built Sand Hills are dying off, and their heirs show little interest in keeping up the houses, or unloading them to someone who would.

Mr. Wilson wants to be the man who saves Sand Hills. The 40-year-old hopes to re-energize the efforts of a mostly elderly crowd in the neighborhood association who have done little to attract new homeowners to the area.

If that's going to happen, decent houses need to be saved and eyesores need to come down, Mr. Wilson says. He has been trying to purchase neglected properties or persuade their owners to take an interest in them.

He has a long battle ahead.

THE BEST-CASE scenario for Mr. Wilson would be for Sand Hills to become Augusta's version of Cabbagetown - an Atlanta neighborhood, once a slum, where houses now sell for up to $200,000.

Considering its location, a revival in Sand Hills isn't far-fetched, said E.W. "Sonny" Reece, the chief appraiser for the Richmond County Board of Assessors. Gentrification - the restoration of deteriorated property by middle-class or affluent people - has taken place to some extent in Harrisburg, he said.

The worth of Sand Hills will depend on what's developed there and how much of the land can be controlled, Mr. Reece said. A developer could build $150,000 upscale homes, or $80,000 start-up homes.

"You've got to have a trendsetter. You've got to get someone to go in there first," Mr. Reece said. "Generally, it's the first guy in there that makes the biggest pot."

Mr. Wilson knows firsthand what it takes to turn a neighborhood around.

In the 1990s, he worked as a project manager for a builder in Atlanta's Kirkwood community, which, like Cabbagetown, has been revitalized. Young, middle-class people moved in, and property values shot up. The same thing has happened in east Atlanta and Reynoldstown.

In the Atlanta neighborhoods where revitalization has worked, residents are now grappling with the downside of gentrification.

The process typically brings a decrease in crime and a rise in property values, but it often drives out longtime residents. Homeowners on fixed incomes can no longer afford their property taxes, and tenants get driven out by rising rent.

Atlanta politicians have discussed freezing property taxes for permanent residents. The Georgia Legislature has given local governments power to do that, but the law is being challenged in court.

Mr. Wilson said he doesn't see the tax problem being as much of an issue in Augusta. If the neighborhood becomes a hot market, Sand Hills houses will probably sell for $70,000 to $80,000, he said.

"The thing I would not want to happen is the taxes going up," Mr. Wilson said. "Then no one can afford the taxes, and the residents move out. No, I don't want that to happen.

"Our thing is to create affordable housing, a safe neighborhood and to promote home ownership to create a stable community."

Since Mr. Wilson took over the neighborhood association, the city has approved a $200,000 grant for it.

The city is also proceeding with plans to build Sand Hills Park using $1.1 million in special purpose local option sales tax funds. It will cover 2.6 acres across the street from the commercial district at the intersection of Fleming Avenue and Wheeler Road.

Sand Hills Park will replace the now-defunct Blount Park on Allen Street and is slated to include a community center, a walking track and a playground.

A row of shotgun houses and a duplex will have to come down to make way for it. The city is in the process of acquiring the properties, and will help two homeowners and two renters find new homes nearby, Richmond County Public Works land acquisition supervisor James Williamson said.

THE PROBLEM in Sand Hills is reflected in property records. The acreage is divided into minimal-sized parcels, sometimes with houses less than 10 feet apart. Check out who owns it, and addresses pop up in Connecticut, Washington, New Jersey and Florida.

Sixty-five-year-old Wilhelmina Brodie, who lives on Royal Street, bluntly explains the reason for Sand Hills' demise: "My generation moved out."

Even before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a lot of people moved north to avoid the strict segregation of the South. When segregation ended, even more departed as a world of opportunity opened up beyond the confines of Augusta, said Mrs. Brodie, who left town for Howard University in Washington, then Atlanta University.

"Generally, when we finished college we didn't come back," Mrs. Brodie said. "Now a lot of those people who left are coming back to Augusta to retire. But they don't come back to Sand Hills."

Ellis Johnson, a retired educator, grew up on Weed Street during the 1950s and '60s. He remembers when it was the only paved road in the neighborhood, and children would come there after Christmas to try out new roller skates.

AT ONE TIME, Mr. Johnson said, Sand Hills mirrored the upper-class trappings of Summerville.

"It was held in a different esteem than other black communities," Mr. Johnson said. "If you lived on the Hill, you were bourgeoisie. You were expected to achieve. You knew social graces."

Mr. Johnson doesn't live in Sand Hills anymore. The neighborhood has become the kind of place people move to if it's all they can afford, he said.

"The houses are old, and the owners have died," Mr. Johnson said. "The people who inherit them don't take care of them the same way. Most of them have moved away themselves."

The decline has brought other woes. Sand Hills has a drug problem, just like a slew of neighborhoods within the old Augusta city limits, said Allan Rollins, an investigator with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office narcotics unit. In Sand Hills, the drugs are mostly marijuana and crack cocaine.

There are two basic types of drug problems, the investigator said. One is a subtle kind, in which drug dealers sit in their houses, and customers come and go. The other is a more visible kind, in which drug dealers hang out on the streets, waving down cars, making deals.

"Sand Hills has, what you could say, an obvious problem," Investigator Rollins said.

Crime statistics, however, show that some neighborhoods in Augusta had far more drug arrests last year than Sand Hills. In 2001, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office made 15 arrests in Sand Hills. By comparison, it made 40 arrests in Turpin Hill, 42 in Olde Town, 89 in Harrisburg and 296 in Bethlehem.

Aaron Taylor, 41, rents a house on Fitten Street for $190 per month - the best he can do with a job that pays $8,000 per year, he said. He tells his five children to steer clear of the vacant house a few doors down. It's owned by Hollco Inc., a company that owns several rental houses and vacant lots in the area. Along with trash, such as lumber and a TV with paint on the screen, the lot is littered with beer bottles and used condoms.

Mr. Taylor calls it the "dope zone." He says junkies hang out there.

"Having the house boarded up doesn't stop them from coming up in the yard," he said. "They're out there almost every day."

Isaac Johnson was president of the Sand Hills neighborhood association for 13 years. He helped get the funding for Sand Hills Park, and was president in 1997 when Sand Hills was named to the National Register of Historic Places, which allowed owners who restore homes an opportunity to apply for property tax credits and property tax freezes.

Mr. Johnson would rather see the neighborhood redeveloped by residents than by outsiders. For his part, he purchased and restored a stucco cottage on Wheeler Road that stands out among the boarded-up houses and littered properties nearby.

He said this part of the Hill ought to stay black, but he doubts that will happen.

"In 20 years, it will be another integrated neighborhood," Mr. Johnson said. "There'll be more whites than blacks.

"That's what you call destroying a neighborhood. Everyone will say, 'I didn't know that's what we were doing,' but they know that's what they're doing."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

COMING MONDAY: Another obstacle to the revitalization of Sand Hills is Augusta Country Club's ownership of sections along the neighborhood's northern boundary. The club wants the land as a buffer zone. Residents complain the club doesn't take care of the land and is bringing down their property values.