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Residents trying to revitalize Chicopee Village
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Allison Bailey, president of the Association of Chicopee Village Residents, walks on Wednesday down a village street being chewed up by oak trees that have outgrown their green spaces between street and sidewalk. The root systems are disrupting draining and destroying sidewalks, and the association is calling on Hall County government to take action.

Homeowners are trying to breathe new life into one of Hall County’s historic neighborhoods: Chicopee Village.

With its rows of red brick bungalows near Atlanta Highway, its company town quirks and a fascinating history going back to the 1920s, the Association of Chicopee Village Residents hopes that nearby development and expanding infrastructure will restore an area struggling with the effects of time and recession-era malaise.

They want to start with sidewalks, many of them now broken and choked by trees that weren’t supposed to last a century.

But they have — water oaks, dogwoods and maples whose roots are pulling up both sidewalk and street, in some areas disrupting stormwater drainage and in general making life more difficult for those who struggle to use the craggy walkways.

“An elderly person with a walker or a wheelchair or a mom pushing her baby stroller would not be able to navigate this sidewalk,” said Allison Bailey, president of the neighborhood association, pointing to a section of wrecked concrete near the Chicopee Baptist Church on Wednesday. “Quite often what you see here in Chicopee is … people just walking in the street.”

Designed in the 1920s, Chicopee’s interior streets are too narrow for school buses, which forces families or unaccompanied children to walk to the larger avenues closer to the highway. Bailey says it’s an unsafe situation in the neighborhood and, with her association, is taking her case to Hall County.

She presented a four-page report to the Hall County Commission on Monday laying out the sidewalk needs of the area and the location of every single tree in the neighborhood — complete with its species and state of health.

There are 331 trees in Chicopee, if you were wondering. Forty of them are dead or have already been cut down and left as stumps.

The county is responding. Warden Walt Davis with the Hall County Correctional Institute is overseeing early work on what he said will be a “major project” in the years to come.

“We’ve assessed that there’s about 500 feet of sidewalk that really needs to be replaced,” Davis said on Wednesday. “It’s crumbled. It’s broken, busted up because of those old trees.”

There’s some money set aside for sidewalk work in the county’s budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, but Davis said he couldn’t disclose the amount. Repairs in the area will be “gradual,” he said.

In the near term, the county is sending a crew out next week to remove several stumps along the main arc of First Street.

“I think that’ll help aesthetically. It’ll make things look a lot nicer,” Davis said. “As we can afford to do things back in the back area of the village, we’ll do so.”

In addition to making Chicopee safer for its more vulnerable residents, making the area look a lot nicer is a big deal for some of the more motivated homeowners who live there.

Unincorporated Chicopee was pulled up from the earth beginning in 1926 by the hands of Robert Johnson, of Johnson and Johnson, who had the town of 250 brick homes built for his workers at the nearby textile mill.

Its oddities — including the network of walkable utility tunnels that run underneath the entire village — and history are well documented at the Northeast Georgia History Center.

With Left Nut Brewing Co. now operating in the former mill, the county rebounding from its recession and expansion along Atlanta Highway, the association is hoping they can revive tired Chicopee Village and make it a more attractive spot for families looking at buying their first home.

Rebekah Williamson moved into her home with her daughter and husband, a former Marine, in September. She works from home for a marketing and web design firm based in California.

“I think the sidewalks and the trees help it look like a fun community, an active community, but when they’re all like this it seems like people just don’t care,” she said.

Williamson grew up in Jackson County and always knew about Chicopee Village. When her family returned to Georgia after being stationed for five years in California, she sought out the neighborhood.

“I just found this house,” she said. “I love old, historic stuff, and that’s what I was looking for, so when it came up I fought for it.”

For David Haynie, Chicopee was the only place to live.

Haynie’s parents spent their working lives at the Johnson and Johnson mill. He was born in Chicopee and spent his early years there. He moved in and out a time or two before, but has now returned and is finishing the renovations of his new home in the back of the village.

“It was always home,” Haynie said, standing in his tool shed. “I wanted to come back home.”

Time was hard on a lot of Chicopee. In addition to the state of its sidewalks and streets, it now has 40 percent of its population made up by renters, according to Bailey. Some of the homes are in poor condition, but Haynie said more owners like Williamson are taking up residence in the past two years.

“I’m seeing people buying the houses and starting to fix them up. Instead of using them as rental property, they’re starting to live here,” he said. “I think if that trend continues you’re going to see more young couples with little kids. These are perfect starter homes.”

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