On the downtown flats sits a relatively small, rectangular set of streets. This area is bounded by Walton Way to the north, and Laney-Walker to the south, with a trainyard and miles of open swampland beyond. To the east is Magnolia Cemetery, encased behind a high brick wall. To the west are more tracks, and then the landscape changes as one approaches the medical colleges. This rectangle was known historically as "The Terry," short for "Negro Territory." Within these boundaries Augusta's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods are located. I've heard that police don't bother to patrol the streets, some of which are said to still be unpaved, and virtually no one I know has ever turned off Walton Way or Laney-Walker to see if the rumors are true. Well, I did, but we'll get to that. We're moving slow, so we're still checking out the warehouse in the photo below.
As the 2005 Master's Golf Tournament is wrapping up, I'll be a spoil-sport and mention an unpleasant event that used to take place at the once-grand Bon Aire Hotel, now a nursing home, much farther up Walton Way, on The Hill. In the 1930's, members of Augusta National Golf Club would recruit young black men, mostly from The Terry, and have boxing matches. In these matches, six men all fought at once, each blind-folded, and often with one arm tied behind their backs. These free-for-alls were a tradition, and club members dressed up in their finest for the matches. It's been said that James Brown participated in some of these bouts, which is possible only if they continued well into the 1940's, or if Brown's real birthdate is earlier than 1933, as has been speculated. Incidentally, the first African-American joined the Augusta National Golf Club in 1990, although Lee Elder had been playing the course since the 1970's. Now, of course, the controversy is over whether the Club should admit women.
As I mentioned, I don't know anyone that can tell me much about this part of the flats. In all honesty, it's probably best that way. Most of my friends in Augusta, like me, are white males, considered to have only two reasons for being in this particular area: 1.) drugs; and/or 2.) prostitutes. It's unfortunate, but residents and police, not to mention dealers and hookers, all know that to be the case. Therefore, it seems disrespectful to me to go into these neighborhoods to "check it out, man," when these folks are having a hard enough time without wacko urban tourists coming down and getting themselves into trouble. This is a mysterious photo of the Augusta Iron Works, actually very close to James Brown Blvd., and a street down from Walton Way. I know you can't see much, but there it is. At least for now.
After saying all of the above, I did finally break down and take a short trip through on a couple of occasions, basically driving a straight line from Walton Way to Laney-Walker and back. Yes, there's plenty of places that had been torched, and homes that were barely livable, though lived-in they were. I recall a large, two-story building that had obviously been a bar. The doors were wide open and, normally, I'd be unable to resist. James Brown, referring to these neighborhoods, said, "You look at this, it kinda take your breath." But there were also well-kept homes with flowers and lawns, and it was the looks I received from the owners of these residences, more than anything, that convinced me not to start wandering around. They didn't look pleased to see me, and followed my car closely as I passed. I don't consider this racism, nor do I believe it's a class issue (my car is worth about $300). As I mentioned, it's likely these people simply figured I must be looking for drugs, prostitutes, or some kind of trouble. To get out and start walking around with a camera, taking pictures, would be the height of audacity/stupidity. This is the back of the Augusta Iron Works.
In 1967, Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor was shot and killed by Hobart Ison. Ison lived in Letcher County, Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountains, where Lyndon Johnson had declared a "War on Poverty" in 1964. O'Connor was making a film at the behest of the U.S. Department of Commerce which was to show the many facets of American life. A scene was being shot during which a woman went to a common well to draw water. The well was on Ison's land, but Ison hadn't been told of the filming. Eventually, the crew was warned that Ison, gun in hand, was on his way, and began to pack up. Ison arrived, screaming "Get off my property!", and began firing. Some members of the crew thought the bullets were blanks. O'Connor turned to tell Ison they were going, and was shot in the chest. A movie was eventually made, released recently, called Stranger with a Camera. The film is directed by Elizabeth Barrett, who grew up in eastern Kentucky. "Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people we portray? I came to see that there was a complex relationship between social action and social embarrassment. As a filmmaker, I live every day with the implications of what happened." Ison wasn't the only member of the community who saw the filmmakers as "do-gooders" and "outsiders." Below is Sonny Boy's Barber Shop, and, despite what I said last time, we're actually back on JB Blvd. for a moment. Sonny's is gone now, and all that remains is a black and white checkerboard floor and a pile of glass block.
We're on the edge of Walton Way, but we won't cross the street. James Brown can drive his limousine through, because this is where he's from. It also doesn't hurt that he hands out $50 bills to residents. But, even without his generosity, he is not an outsider, and everyone knows he's not looking at them as "the other." Not so for me. I might take photographs if someone from the neighborhood offered to show me around. But maybe not. Such places are best documented by those who live there, who, given the means, could do a better job than I. For a northerner, such feelings seem even more pronounced in the South. Writer and SC-native Dorothy Allison has said something like, "Nowhere are you more aware that you are an outsider, who will never entirely fit in, than when you are in the South." No matter how comfortable you get, if you weren't born in the South, you will always find yourself somewhere, at some time, knowing that you are different. Then again, this can be just as true, if not moreso, on the street where you were born. I've been in abandoned restaurants, movie theaters, and motels, but never a strip club. I badly wanted in, but, as open buildings in this area are quickly occupied, the one below was sealed up like a fortress.
James Brown: "They want me to help build this place back. What can I do? Get on my knees and pray, and ask, 'Mr President, come. Mr Bush, come in here and clean it out and put decent homes in here'?" We'll turn back now and start heading downtown again. On our way, we pass this cement factory. At least, I think it's a cement factory. Thomas Croft, who wrote an interesting article on Augusta National Golf Course, has quoted his mother as saying, "Augusta is damned near three hundred years of history unblemished by progress." That, of course, depends on your definition of progress and your patience with the process. Next time, as usual, we'll look at more of the Augusta that hasn't progressed. Or is progressing back into that whence it came.