The Neighborhood Windshield Tour and Community Power Structure of Columbus, GA

Introduction

I have lived in Georgia twice, once from 1994 in South Georgia in and around Savannah and again from 2010 to the present, in Atlanta, the capitol, and Columbus, a primarily industrial city of over 200,000 (United States Census Bureau, 2016). In that time, I have had an opportunity to contrast and compare the variety of communities and power structures. While Atlanta is metropolitan and Savannah is historical, Columbus primarily relies upon industry and a military base for employment.

While I have been here, I have observed that, while there are cultural institutions, a regional university, for example, it’s presence does not make Columbus a college town with the requisite cultural trappings. The university seems to serve industry, catering some programs to suit local industry, rather than the students’ career goals. Because I am extremely interested in musical cultures, or scenes as they are called, I queried a few people in Columbus and discovered that while there were music clubs and a record store or two at one time, those are no longer in existence.  But there is an underground music scene because there seems to be one in every city and town, and some have pooled their resources to open a new venue to support those local and regional bands who support the club with fans and patronage to keep the venue alive.  While there is some effort to transform the cultural scene in Columbus, the neighborhoods seem to be stuck in the past, though there are some distinct differences in Columbus from the neighborhoods in Atlanta as well as Savannah.

 

The Windshield Tour

Atlanta and Savannah provide a clear demarcation of neighborhoods and communities, that are wealthy and White through those populated by low income, political minorities, and people of color. The distinction is visibly obvious. Additionally, the streets in Atlanta at least bear a distinct remnant of the South’s legacy of Jim Crow, where the names of roads end abruptly and new ones begin without warning to separate the White section of a road from a section that was inhabited by Black Americans and may be still.  But Columbus, Georgia seems to adhere to another protocol entirely, which I am just beginning to learn.

The make-up of the neighborhoods in Columbus is mixed. Immediately where I live, and to the west, there are older run-down houses, many raised, as if on stilts, that look as though they may be called “shotgun shacks,” with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house, barely hanging together with clapboard. There is a porch out front, rarely enclosed, and steps leading up to the front door with little in front that could only generously be called a front yard and streets badly in need of repair. They are common in this area and other cities of the South outside of main city centers and are reminiscent of “railroad apartments” in New York City with the interior rooms configured similarly.  The primary population of these houses is low-income Black Americans.  Immediately on the next street and other streets to the east, the neighborhood changes and becomes affluent.  The houses are just as old but better built, many with brick structures, groomed front yards, and clean and well-paved streets.  On neither street are there any visible food gardens or community gardens though there are in other parts of the city.  The economic segregation (at the very least) is obvious, but unlike Atlanta and Savannah, the segregation is not by community, but by street and neighborhood.  The two streets above are parallel and next to each other. This is something I have never seen in all of the time I have lived in Georgia.  It is important to note here that the naming of streets in Atlanta depends upon where in Atlanta it is and its Jim Crow historical legacy was never updated after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  Columbus also adheres to this rule regarding community and neighborhood conditions but it does not seem to be dependent upon that legacy regarding the naming of streets.

There are no schools in the immediate vicinity. Instead, schools are a few miles and the children are bused there daily. The local state university is also a few miles to the east near the highway and the only local mall.  The cars parked on the streets, on the other hand, in on the block where I live range from the old and barely operational to the new and expensive cars and SUVs, but this is not the first time I have seen such an incongruous and dichotomous relationship between residence and transportation.  While few think about where they live, they frequently invest what little money they have into portable wealth.  In this neighborhood, it is in the visible wealth of automobiles. In other cities, there always seem to be zoning restrictions regard parking on the streets during days and nights of street sweeping and trash pickup, but there seem to be none here because there are always cars parked on the street during garbage collection.  At least in this area of the city, there seem to be no initiatives in place to clean the streets.

The residents range in age from babies and children to retired older residents with the majority being working-aged people. There seem to be few teens in the neighborhood and there is a “community house” across the street where older residents and their friends gather and play dominoes daily. Down another street there is a community bar and a community center for older residents where they can gather, play games, read books, watch television, and access the internet.  The closest other community centers for older residents are in more affluent areas of the city where some are public and most require residency fees.  Additionally, mass transit consists of a bus service that does not cover every area of the city and runs from 5:00 am to 10:30 pm in some areas.  There are Medicare and Senior Citizen daily, weekly, and monthly fare passes, but without a weekly or monthly pass, there are no free transfers as there are in cities like Austin, New York, or Atlanta. One ride costs $1.30, but if one has to travel from one side of town to another after one or two transfers and return, the cost can be prohibitive for some.

There seems to be little graffiti in the neighborhood, but there is occasional graf in some business areas a few blocks away, but there isn’t anything excessive and there don’t seem to be any citizen initiatives to eradicate graffiti which in most instances I view as a means of creative expression, though there can be graf that is used to mark territories with tags. There are few stores close by, though there is bar a block away where one can purchase bottles of alcohol, and there is an industrial warehouse that delivers orders of ice. Variety stores are a few blocks away. Restaurants, a drug store, and a bicycle shop are several blocks away on a main road. Throughout the neighborhood and within several areas of the city, there are boarded up houses and abandoned business buildings.  The city seems to discourage growth and innovation in favor of the status quo which may explain the empty business buildings and certainly the boarded up houses.  I learned from a few conversations that a few years ago there was major music venue for local and traveling bands, but that closed.  There has been a recent resurgence, and a local venue recently opened to accommodate several local bands and many traveling acts.  A record store was also present in the downtown area but that is also no longer in business.  For any CD or Record-related purchases, one has to rifle through the chain-businesses at the mall or the second-hand stacks at a few thrift and junk stores, but for a genuine record store, one must travel several miles to Opelika or Montgomery, Alabama or Macon or Atlanta, GA.

There are hospitals, and mental health centers along with several other community services in the city but they seem to collect along major roads near shopping centers in more affluent sections of the city, and there are none in the local community. One must travel three miles away to reach one hospital with several others further away. There are no car repair shops in the immediate vicinity, but there are some a few miles away along the main thoroughfares. I have observed that similar businesses seem to congregate along the same major roads throughout the city with several retail tire and car repair shops, and optometrists-eyeglass retailers near each other along the same road.

From observations and my residence in this city there are several conclusions that I can draw. Creativity, at least superficially, is generally discouraged, though there are one or two outlets, the aforementioned new music venue, and a coffee shop and live theatre with open mics once a week that allow for a limited creative outlet. Creativity and community can be sought from the above sanctioned activities as well as a handful of others but I discovered something. In New York, creativity seems to emanate from the sidewalk.  It is everywhere. But in Columbus, one has to seek it out in unknown and hidden places and make your own community from among like-minded people around you.

I attended an informal meeting on urban chicken farming where a group of local citizens gathered to discuss how to adjust a city ordinance so home owners with less than two acres of land can be allowed to raise chickens. The group decided to collectively organize a plan of action that included formalizing a petition drive as well as research other cities that allowed urban chicken farming to determine the challenges that were overcome to approach City Council effectively. The group gave me the impression that Columbus is generally resistant to change unless a wave of interest overwhelms them.

 

The City Power Structure

There is an old guard that controls the city as a moving company employee recently admitted to me when he stated that wages at most major employers were informally frozen at $10.00 an hour. Thus, most companies don’t feel obligated to pay employees anything more. He admitted that a car manufacturer approached the city to establish and build an assembly plant, but they were prohibited from doing so and were shut out because they would have offered jobs for $15.00 an hour and that would have obligated the current corporate power structure to respond in kind or risk losing employees. The auto manufacturer later moved to another Georgia city and local residents began commuting an hour away or more for the better wage.

Following these observations and some personal experiences, my impression of the people of this city is one of persistence, resilience, and optimism in the face of resistance from a city structure that insists on retaining power and resources in as few hands as possible. In spite of the mayor’s insistence that the future looks bright for the city of Columbus, GA (Tomlinson, 2015), the city itself does not seem interested in evolving or improving the lives of its citizens, especially the low income and people of color unless they are mandated by the state or the Federal government to improve infrastructure as they recently did with an increase in city bus routes with the assistance of grant monies. In order for the city to eradicate, or at least minimize, poverty, it will have to address the lingering inequities that exist in larger community businesses and corporations that insist on suppressing any wage increases.  Without the city personally investing in the infrastructure beyond the status quo, the conditions of the streets near my home will not improve and neither will the lives of the people.  Without funding or without major pressure on the city elites, I see few possible positive changes in the future.

The power structure of Columbus, Georgia is still controlled by a White plurality in spite of the over 30% Black population that has enough numbers to voice their displeasure with the status quo but do not due to historical conditioning that reinforces a false idea that they have no power, similar to other areas of the country. In the future, it will be necessary to reach this population and educate them on the power of their numbers and how effective they really are, individually and collectively. Looking at Columbus, Georgia short- and long-term, asset-based community development is just screaming to be implemented throughout.

Community decisions are made by the mayor, a ten-person city council, and a city manager government. In the case of a tie, the mayor casts a deciding vote. The mayor is the official spokesperson, it’s policy advocate, and appoints the city manager, the director of public safety, and the city attorney. The city council makes policy decisions and has the power to reorganize as well as create and alter the makeup of departments (The Columbus Consolidated Government, 1971).  How city governments are organized is not something that I have studied at length but if an elected body is permitted to create committees, appoint boards, and make other city appointments, the potential for perpetuating the status quo, reinforcing an older power structure, engaging in nepotism, and stalling progressive change is dangerously great.  It must be considered, even in light of any counter arguments that petitions, corruption, and other inequities can be stopped via legislation or judicial review, because those checks and balances may be controlled by that same power structure.  That could explain why change in Columbus is slow to occur.

 

Health Care Initiatives

While some communities in Georgia have well established health care initiatives intended to improve the local health care system, and therefore the local community, such as Atlanta’s Health Initiative for the LGBTQ community and Carrollton’s Community Health Needs Assessment at the Tanner Health System, there isn’t one in Columbus, GA that the city initiated independently. After a thorough search, I was only able to find the Project LAUNCH Georgia initiative that was awarded to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Project LAUNCH is a five-year federal program from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration that ensures the social, emotional, and behavioral health among children between birth and eight years old to promote safe, supportive, and nurturing families. Georgia is piloting this program in Muscogee County/Columbus, Georgia because the state views it as one of the top 25 at-risk counties in Georgia’s 2010 Maternal Needs Assessment.  The program hopes to develop a comprehensive approach to health and development to ensure that children are provided with the most advantageous conditions to succeed in school and in life (Georgia Department of Public Health, 2014).

 

Conclusions

Exploring my neighborhood and researching the power structure of the city of Columbus GA has given me a better perspective, but it has also confirmed the informal statements that I received from local residents that nothing gets done unless it benefits the old guard that controls the city. Given that the mayor is an outsider from Atlanta, and a woman, I can understand that she has faced many challenges, and while she may not have been able to accomplish a lot, she has accomplished some things, at least superficially, including the implementation of the Benning Park Redevelopment District and its 1800 jobs and $118 million in capital investment (Tomlinson, 2016). The correlate for the mayor is generating jobs to decrease the crime rate.  However, she and the city council have never addressed, with corporate and other business leaders, the suppressed wages city-wide that would begin to address the crime rate as well as the needs of those in poverty.

Most stakeholders in power are resistant to change, whether that change is minor or major. After the decades that Columbus, Georgia’s power structure has been in place, change will take time. That the current mayor has been able to institute some change is significant, though some of that change has amounted to minimal improvements that have not addressed any core issues.  In order for change to occur in Columbus, GA, I would like to say that a simple regime change would be adequate, but reality politics don’t function as smoothly as that.  For progressive change to succeed, if I am going to be a part of it, coalitions will need to be formed with individuals and the community, liaisons to the local business community and to government will be necessary, and it will be a long-term process.  It will also be necessary to utilize tools and ideas like those enumerated in Kretzmann and McKnight (1993).

 

References

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building communities from the inside out. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications.

Tomlinson, T. (2016). 2015 State of the City Address (United States, Columbus, GA Consolidated Government, Mayor’s Office). Retrieved from http://columbusga.org/mayor/2016stateofcity.htm

Georgia Department of Public Health.  (2014). Project LAUNCH Georgia Initiative. Retrieved from Georgia Department of Public Health: https://dph.georgia.gov/project-launch-georgia

The Columbus Consolidated Government (1971). Consolidation: A New Government for Columbus, Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.columbusga.org/history/consolidation.htm

United States Census Bureau.  (2016). Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015: 2015 Population Estimates. Retrieved from United States Census Bureau: http://factfinder.census.gov

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