James R. "Butch" Palmer says he wants to make Harrisburg a better place.
But unifying its population isn't on his agenda.
He calls people riffraff, gutter trash, parasites, crack whores and welfare queens.
He calls Harrisburg's religious leaders enablers, fanatics, shady, opportunists and traitors to the neighborhood.
Confronted with some of the language on his Web site -- "the poor people who have many children and who keep squeezing out more of them do not have cause to bemoan their suffering ... avoid them like the plague ... roaches are very fertile and reproduce readily" -- he doesn't waver.
"I think it's telling it like it is," said Mr. Palmer, the founder of Harrisburg Organization Networking for Gentrification to Keep Our Neighborhood from becoming a Ghetto, or HONGKONG, a splinter group from Harrisburg's neighborhood association. "When they had their first baby, they knew what caused it. I've got cousins who are the same way, pure trash."
Mr. Palmer, a 49-year-old former hairdresser and onetime Augusta City Council candidate, started his group in the summer of 2007. Its stated goal is to gentrify the historic mill village by running out trouble-making renters and attracting upwardly mobile homeowners. He's currently working to boot drug-dealing Section 8 tenants by reporting them to the Augusta Housing Authority.
Earlier this year, Mr. Palmer called for the closing of Mercy Ministries, claiming the day shelter and boardinghouse at Crawford Avenue and Fenwick Street has increased crime and litter. He scoffs at churches and nonprofits, saying they attract undesirables and prop up their destructive lifestyles.
His philosophy and unbridled rhetoric have made him a thorn in the side to some, but also a leader to a number of homeowners frustrated by the neighborhood's decline. Whether he's helping or hurting depends on who you ask.
"Have you read his Web site? Calling people cockroaches?" Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association President Iain Crawford said. "If you do things in a hateful fashion, it doesn't work. We don't really have a race problem in Harrisburg, and we don't need one."
MR. PALMER insists his cause has nothing to do with race, and some black residents count themselves as supporters.
Sebrena Muirhead, a Harrisburg property owner who runs a fruit stand on Walton Way, attends HONGKONG meetings but hasn't formally joined. She said Mr. Palmer's language might offend her if she didn't understand the context. She's just as frustrated with drug addicts and drug dealers and thinks it's time for an aggressive neighborhood watch program, she said.
"Once everybody realizes we've got binoculars on them, then they're going to say, 'Man, I need to roll on,' " she said.
Mr. Palmer, who stands about 6 feet 3 inches tall, can often be seen driving Harrisburg's narrow streets in his Cadillac sedan, with magnetic signs on the side advertising www.hongkong augustaga.org.
As he cruised last week, teenagers milling about street corners eyed him suspiciously. He stopped at one house and spoke to a black resident through a car window.
Mr. Palmer asked him whether he's seen any drug activity. The man was silent, but he moved his eyes to a tenement across the street where a man sat on a stairwell.
ELEVEN PEOPLE, not counting Mr. Palmer, attended the most recent HONGKONG meeting Oct. 14. They gathered in Mr. Palmer's den, by the light of a chandelier and two antique lamps.
The group complained of deadbeat landlords, prostitutes and drugs, the homeless at Mercy Ministries and the breakfasts for the homeless at Bible Deliverance Temple.
Mr. Palmer laid out a plan to pore over a Section 8 regulation manual and look for ways tenants could be breaking rules. He said he wants to work with the housing authority to kick out the bad ones. His idea could work, the authority's director of administration, Sirena Rogers, said last week.
The Section 8 program uses federal funds to subsidize low-income families' rent, and tenants agree not to become neighborhood nuisances.
The problem, Ms. Rogers said, is that none of the dozen or so addresses Mr. Palmer has given her are Section 8 properties.
Mr. Palmer has done other things since starting HONGKONG.
When he took aim at Mercy Ministries, the issue so divided the community that on Oct. 2 the Rev. Kelly McKnight tried to broker a peace though a meeting at Bible Deliverance, asking the groups to come together for the good of the neighborhood.
Mr. Palmer attended, but he isn't biting.
"Because of their attitudes," he said. "There's two agendas, totally different ends of the spectrum. Their mission, the preachers, I believe they absolutely want to institutionalize poverty."
A THIRD -GENERATION Harrisburg resident, Mr. Palmer owns 14 houses and three vacant lots in the neighborhood, most of them inherited from his mother, and makes his living as a landlord. He lives on Tuttle Street in the house his grandparents and parents once occupied, with goats and chickens still inhabiting the backyard.
He said his annoyance with the neighborhood started about five years ago, while he was taking care of his dying mother and rebuilding her house after a 2003 fire.
Watching people come and go, he realized Harrisburg was becoming a ghetto, he said.
Mr. Palmer was part of Mr. Crawford's fold until the two clashed bitterly over the use of treasury funds and a mass mailing to property owners, which Mr. Crawford said Mr. Palmer undertook without authorization.
MR. CRAWFORD gets noticeably frustrated talking about Mr. Palmer.
Unlike the neighborhood association, HONGKONG isn't a nonprofit registered with the Georgia secretary of state's office. Mr. Palmer said he has 59 members who paid $25 apiece to join.
Harrisburg should have one voice, Mr. Crawford said, and the association has the credibility to work with the Downtown Development Authority and Habitat for Humanity.
Harrisburg homeowners James and Runetta Rigdon, members of the neighborhood association and Bible Deliverance, have been attending HONGKONG meetings but haven't decided whether they'll join. The association's meetings are "dead" compared with HONGKONG's, and people seem to be gravitating to the latter, Mrs. Rigdon said.
"Sometimes he says some harsh things, but when you think about it, it's the truth," she said. "That's Butch."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A sampling, with errors and typos included:
"Attention preachers: If you think that you are beyond reproach, you are wronge. Also you are more so part of the neighborhood problems than you are a part of the solution ... While you try are trying to save the world you are bringing down the neighborhood. Your attempts to bring heaven to some is keeping the majority of us in Hell."
"Next time you spray for roaches..think miracle ... Human fertility and reproduction is not a miracle. The miracle happens when children are raised in auspicious environments. Create a glorious environment in Harrisburg for quality children."
"Religious fanaticism coupled with George Bushes 'faith based initiative' have worked together to keep trashy dope attics, crack whores and the like dewilling in Harrisburg ... Our Koran too has much to say about the poor ... I sincerely wish that something catastrophic would occur in your neighborhoods that would keep you fanatics home."
(Credited to "Abdul-Haqq")