Wednesday, October 20, 2004

School's Out...Forever!

The John S. Davidson Magnet School for the Fine Arts is a school of some reknown in Augusta and, in fact, the nation. Teaching kids from grades 5-12, the school was voted the best high school in Georgia in 1996, and was one of only three high schools in Augusta to even make the top half. Lucy C. Laney High, just a few blocks away, was ranked the third worst in the state that same year. The school teaches drama, photography, and dance, among other things, and sounds like a darn nice place. However, the school has been at a new location for the last few years as the old building, at Telfair and 11th, was closed due to asbestos contamination. While from the front it looks like MAYBE someone is planning on cleaning it up, it's more likely that they're just waiting for the thing to fall down. Go around the back and there's nothing but broken windows and piles of old tires.

We'd been told that the Davidson School was well-known and well-populated since the water and electricity had been left on. This makes for a tricky situation. In fact, on our first visit, someone was behind the building standing around and yelling incoherently. We decided to abort that mission. Whenever there's a chance of encountering people you have to be very cautious. If I know a place is occupied, I usually won't explore it. I wouldn't want someone walking into my living room, particularly with a camera, and you have to respect the people that got there before you. It is, after all, their home.

In this case, the Davidson School seemed large enough to warrant an entry. There was a good chance we wouldn't have to come face-to-face with anyone if we were careful and, really, it sounded like such a popular place that we might not even be noticed. Aside from staying away out of respect, there's usually no reason to avoid the homeless. If you come across someone, you acknowledge them and, if they tell you to leave, you leave. If they ask for some change or a cigarette you give them something. Often you might get some useful advice out of the exchange. There are, however, exceptions, and you have to use all the perception and intuition you've got in certain circumstances. Sometimes, if the vibes just ain't right, it's best to turn and walk (or run) away. You can't afford to come across the wrong person too many times. Usually the wrong person isn't a homeless person at all, but someone else. Oh yeah, when I say "you" I don't mean "YOU." Again, I don't recommend that anyone do this.

It looked like it should be a cinch to get in the school, but after trying my luck at every door and window and looking up and down (and under) I was about to give up. I had just turned to tell my companion that I didn't see an entrance when he waved at me from inside. It really WAS easy to get in, I was just looking for the hardest way.

As it turned out, and a bit to our surprise (and relief), there wasn't a soul around. The drip-drip-drip of water from somewhere sounded like footsteps for a moment, but once we realized it wasn't a tenant we didn't see or hear anything else. This might be because at this point the building is in terrible condition in many places. Windows have been open for years, walls are collapsing, and ceilings have fallen in. Oddly though, we didn't see any evidence of anyone having EVER been inside for an extended time. No old clothing, no bottles, no magazines, not even much graffiti.

So where the hell was everyone? Who knows? The building had been closed because of asbestos, so maybe folks are just feeling a bit health conscious these days. It seems like the students hadn't been told they'd be going anywhere beforehand. Class schedules were still posted, lessons remained on the blackboards, and various flyers were still hung up. Hmm, I sure hope it was asbestos they found. Asbestos is generally harmless when exposure is very limited (i.e. one visit) and those holes in the wall gave us some ventilation. Still, it felt a bit like a mini-Chernobyl.

We had two full floors to explore and these pictures are all just the first. The first floor had the theater, a few classrooms, the cafeteria and kitchen, and the shop area. Large drill presses and band saws were still sitting about and I have no idea why they didn't take them with them when they moved. I'll post some photos from the second floor next time, which had more interesting classrooms, a darkroom, bathrooms, and some fine grade-school kid graffiti.

You come across homeless people frequently while walking down the empty streets of downtown Augusta and there have been some worthwhile books and films published about the homeless in recent years. Marc Singer's documentary, Dark Days, about a group of people living in an Amtrak tunnel in NYC, is intense and empathetic. It was even made by the people in the tunnel, which is a story in itself. Here's a pretty comprehensive review of the film, now on DVD. Incidentally, Mole People, by Jennifer Toth, a book purportedly about people residing in the subway tunnels in NYC, has come under fire as being at best inaccurate and at worst made up . Brennan's website documenting the tunnels themselves is really something. God's Movie, a film of interviews with homeless people along the beaches of LA, is also well-done and worth seeing. It was supposed to be Vol. 1, but I waited a few years for Vol. 2 and it never came out. Joe Cole, the filmmaker, was killed in a mugging in LA in 1991 shortly after filming some of the footage and it was compiled posthumously. Copies are still available through Henry Rollins' website. I also recommend Cormac McCarthy's "Suttree" for an astounding portrait of southern life on the fringes.


Will Sansbury said...

The school didn't have a shop... the tools must have been stored by the county after the school closed.

The room they were in was probably the band room (the one across the hall from the cafeteria/dance studio?).

Jmhouse said...

Hmm, you know, I can't be entirely sure, but I think the tools were in a room very near the back door, close to the theater. Maybe it was just an old classroom. The storage part makes sense though.

Anonymous said...

T. Meimarides said...

actually, i have no idea why there would be shop presses & drills laying around in the school. there were no shop classes or anything like that. davidson taught music, art, dance, & drama instead of homec and shop and etc. perhaps left by work crews shoring up the walls after we (students left).

in 97 or 98 when the new building was done, basically for about a week, half the day was class, the other half was carrying that teacher you were with's stuff out of the old building, through the back yard, over the canal bridge, through the student parking lot, across 12th street and to wherever it needed to go in the new building. basically the old buildng was used right up to the day it was left. i guess unimportant stuff like bulletin boards didnt matter.

Jmhouse said...

Interesting. The half-teaching/half-moving schoolday you describe would explain why the rooms all looked liked they'd been abandoned right in the middle of classes. Because they were abandoned right in the middle of classes! Sounds like it must've been kinda wierd.

Thanks for your comment