Morningside Heights resident the Rev. Eddie Walker said it’s hard to get government help when it’s for the other side of the railroad tracks.
The “Southside” of Gainesville starts on the east side of the railroad tracks. The first hamlet after that is Newtown. Then you reach the Morningside Heights community.
The area was the subject of a meeting last week with Hall County officials and members of the Concerned Citizens of Gainesville and Hall County, a citizens’ group representing about 3,000 residents south of the Norfolk Southern Railroad and east of Interstate 985.
Residents and group members are pushing for redevelopment between the boundaries of Athens Street to U.S. 129 South, including Floyd Road residential areas and Gaines Mill Road. At the top of the list is a park.
Prominent Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds has designed a park across the street from the Hall County Health Department off Old Athens Road and near Harrison Square. A rendering of his concept includes walking trails, basketball courts, group shelters, a fishing pond and a pavilion.
The land is available and it was priced at $1.5 million several years ago. Getting the land is the key, he said.
There was special purpose local option tax revenue money slated for the community, but it went to fund the Frances Meadows Center, Reynolds said.
“They (government officials) say to us ‘Tell us what you want,’” Walker said. “We can’t go out and buy no land. They know who has the land. We don’t know who has the land.”
Many local and state leaders have pledged their support for revitalization, including Gainesville Councilwoman Ruth Bruner; former Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver; former Commissioner Ashley Bell; State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville; and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.
Yet so far, all the talk hasn’t come with action or money.
The residential area falls partly into the city and partly into the county. Concerned Citizens President Michelle Mintz describes the mostly African-American community as neglected and almost forgotten.
“Despite assurances and promises from a host of past and present political leaders over time, our community has received very little in real assistance toward comprehensive redevelopment,” Mintz said in an undated letter.
Things most neighborhood residents take for granted, including parks, sidewalks, libraries, community centers and street lighting, are almost nonexistent. Convenience and liquor stores litter the area, but there are no grocery stores within walking distance and there’s limited public transit. There are a lot of older residents and a growing population of Hispanics, Walker said.
Public housing mixes with the large industrial processing plants of Fieldale poultry and Cargill soybean. Walker said he wants to see parks, grocery stores and restaurants nearby.
“It’s a forgotten area,” he said. “Even though it’s been there so long. Once you cross Martin Luther King Drive, it looks like most of the businesses stop.”
Reynolds knows the area like the back of his hand and narrates the history as he gives a private guided tour. A lot of the streets in the neighborhood became dead-ends when I-985 was built.
“For a long time, black folks had no where to go but out this way. This is the result of the urban renewal program of the ’60s and ’70s,” Reynolds said. “These people were usually downtown, where all the development is, and they came in and forced them to sell. This is one of the worst things in my whole life I’ve ever experienced.”
Reynolds said the residents were forced to sell, but weren’t fully compensated for their property. Cooley Drive and Black Street were the first places people moved, Reynolds said. The streets have had bad reputations for crime and drugs, but it’s been cleaned up a great deal.
Hall County has built sidewalks along Old Athens Road, Floyd Road and Brown Street that were finished in December. Some street lighting has also been put in. The new sidewalks have given some residents a place to walk, Walker said.
Resident Steve Jackson has lived in Morningside Heights for about 40 years. He said the thing they need most is to get the sidewalks finished on Floyd Road. They end at the stop sign, yet there are residents living above the stop sign who have kids.
“It at least could have gone to the church,” Jackson said. “People could have walked to the church if they (the sidewalks) went to the church. Did the money run out or what?”
He said the community also needs some run-down vacant trailers in the area removed. There’s a septic tank pool that just draws mosquitoes and the pond could be fixed up near Harrison Square. That would be nice, he said.
“That would be nice,” fellow resident Spencer Young said. “It would great to have a grocery store.”
The convenience stores buy from the grocery stores and charge residents more. Jackson and Young said police hassle them even though it’s a nice neighborhood.
County Administrator Randy Knighton said the next step in developing a master plan for the area is hearing more from residents on what they want. It’s an incremental process over time.
“Master planning has to come from the residents,” Knighton said.