Georgia’s Black Wall Street Gets an Urban Makeover

By Iris M. Crawford Jul 06, 2021

Equitable urbanism looks like putting the essential components in place to sustain and nurture a prosperous and healthy community ecosystem. When one thinks of urbanism, images of tall skyscrapers, concrete streets, and chic corner cafes come to mind. However, one community, colloquially known as Greenwood Bottom, in Macon, Georgia, is expanding the conversation of what urbanism and the reclamation of history and space can look like for the Black community in the South. “We have to take a holistic view of history,” said Weston Stroud, transit planner of Macon-Bibb Transit Authority. “And it’s important, especially now, as we bounce back from COVID, to look at new ways to make life more enjoyable,” Stroud explained. For Macon, this looks like more affordable and sustainable housing, streets designed for people, not just cars, and amenities that make for a richer urban experience like green gardens and more. 

Conversations about continuing to develop and revitalize Macon have been ongoing for quite some time. The city’s former and first Black Mayor, C. Jack Ellis, set the policy groundwork for Roxy Park, which is a food truck park and pedestrian plaza right in the heart of Greenwood Bottom. During his tenure from 1999-2007, Ellis outlined parts of Macon to be considered ECD (Economic Community Development) target areas which included Greenwood Bottom. These target areas had reduced zoning processes to help encourage development. With Stroud following in the footsteps of former Mayor Ellis, Roxy Park is just the beginning of what is to come for Macon.

The History of Macon and Why it Matters 

The city of Macon was historically a manufacturing and processing hub. During the Reconstruction Era, many Black people migrated from Tybee Island and parts of coastal Georgia because of Macon’s economic promise. Known as the Gullah Geechee people, this group of African Americans share a deep collective West African heritage along the coasts of Georgia, the Carolinas and northern Florida. 

As Macon began to urbanize and build communities such as being home to both historic  Baptist and A.M.E. churches, Black banks and more, the cultural heart of Greenwood Bottom was the Roxy Theater which is near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr, Boulevard. It was the place where musical legends like Otis Redding, James Brown and Little Richard got their start. “Macon was where the music hall of fame was located and was the capital of Georgia at one point,” said Stroud. However, it was the passage of the Federal Highway Expansion Act under the Eisenhower Administration that changed the trajectory of the city. Interstate 75 cuts through the entire west side of Macon. “They took so much of the community that GDOT (Georgia Department of Transportation) had to come back and give the community money to rebuild because of the destructive practices that they allowed,” said Stroud. He further explained, “this is why it was so important for me to become a city planner.” Originally Stroud had plans to become an environmental lawyer, but in the process he learned about the different ways one could enhance people’s living experiences using environmental approaches. 

Macon Today

As a city planner, Stroud is constantly researching how public transportation, land use and housing can be crucial indicators of a community’s success. “Those factors affected the black community, more than anything else,”  Stroud said. With Greenwood Bottom, he is pushing for the “full gamut of the human experience” which means Black people feeling safe and being healthy in their living spaces.

In August 2020, Stroud became an 2020-2021 Emerging City Champion,  which is a fellowship and microgrant program created by the Knight Foundation and 8 80 Cities. “It was really important for me to start from an environmental basis because everyone will tell you the problem with the fish but they will never look at the water,” Stroud said. This fellowship was the starting point for him to push for a new vision of urbanism in Greenwood Bottom. His top three goals for the neighborhood include creating better access to local high quality produce, better public transportation infrastructure and a cultural for-profit gathering space, similar to Washington D.C.’s Busboy and Poets. Stroud is originally from Atlanta but moved to Macon after completing his undergraduate studies at The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Seeing the stark differences in Black life between the two cities is what inspired him to move. After winning the fellowship, Stroud got to work bringing Roxy Park, Macon’s first and only food truck park and pedestrian plaza, into fruition.  

“Being able to bring healthy options, smart design, inclusive and holistic development is just one part of the conversation I was able to crack and open up,” said Stroud. Once the homeowners association realized what he was doing, they supported him because creating the plaza meant more value for their homes. “With that right mindset and opportunity presented to people, now all of a sudden, this space becomes of value,” said Stroud. Stroud further explains that, “understanding people’s natural habits makes it so much easier to create a system that accommodates those habits”. Those habits also speak to the community’s needs.  In mid June, Roxy Park hosted a hip hop community cypher with graffiti art lessons, a mental health pop up informational for Black men and organized a community Black Lives Matter mural.  Two upcoming events happening in early July include a community ball and comedy show that is being organized to specifically serve Macon’s unhoused population. “There’s a lot of people here  who are homeless, who want to be on stage and get to tell their story,” said Stroud. 

For former Mayor C. Jack Ellis., the creation of Roxy Park is one ray of hope in undoing the “ systemic racism and structural racism that is built into the cake.” “I think whenever you can bring life back to a community is a good thing,” Ellis said. During his tenure from 1999-2007, his main focus included creating strong economic workforce programs and rebuilding affordable housing. Echoing Stroud’s vision “we’ve got to create that whole environment – that critical mass just like downtown,” said Ellis. Just two weeks ago, a portion of Greenwood Bottom  was designated the MLK Small and Minority Owned Business District. The neighborhood will once again be referred to as Macon’s Black Wall Street in honor of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921. With the creation of Roxy Park, this designation is another push in which Greenwood Bottom is strengthening its cultural currency with Macon. “Being able to translate cultural norms into currency is crucial because it is something that the Black community can leverage,” said Stroud.  
rnAlternatively, because of Greenwood Bottoms’ location and proximity to central downtown Macon, some folks, Stroud says, are wary of these revitalization efforts. “The biggest fear is that the area will be gentrified – meaning people will be kicked out,” said Stroud. In 2018, Macon was ranked one of the most redlined cities in America. “There’s fear of development since the racial divide, education gap, and attainment gap is just a huge factor here,” said Stroud. Another fear is the threat of renaming. “When things start getting renamed, history starts being rewritten and eventually lost.”
rn“This is a public space that people are creating,” Stroud continued. Preserving the cultural assets of Greenwood Bottom while empowering what the community is already doing is the primary goal. Stroud recently received another round of grants to start a neighborhood association. The association will work to increase neighborhood safety, be a source of information on developments regarding planning practices, and most importantly will ensure that all new businesses coming to the area will help serve the community in some way. In an effort to protect Greenwood Bottom from gentrification, “we need to vet them [new businesses] and make sure that they’re reflective of the community and understand what the community is looking for,” said Stroud. He wants to see local businesses hire at least 70 percent Black people. “If you don’t do that we’re gonna fight you tooth and nail when it goes to the planning and zoning commission, ” Stroud affirmed. This is a bold effort in meeting the needs of the community, yet for Stroud, this is just the starting point for more change. The concept of Roxy Park is simple – recapturing the community’s history and reclaiming Black space.

Iris M. Crawford is an environmental and climate justice journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her second love is arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter @IrisMCrawford