Monday, July 20, 2009

Urban Design: Macon

Cherry Street

Cherry Street

Cherry Street.
(My office happens to be in the building at right.)

Mulberry Street

Since the 1950's, urban design in Macon, Georgia has followed a path not unlike that of many US cities. Early efforts at nurture of its downtown area were based in the planning and zoning department and its active historic preservation groups. The two main preservation organizations recently consolidated as the Historic Macon Foundation. While quite multifaceted, virtually all urban design work in Macon has been closely coordinated with the city's historic preservation effort.

The formation of Newtown Macon in 1996 represented a significant step for serious and sustained effort toward urban design. Initially funded by the Peyton Anderson Foundation, Newtown initiated a sustained and successful effort to raise public and private funds beyond the foundation's for projects and its own existence. With its location near downtown, Mercer University has become another significant player in the nurture of the intown areas. Newtown's first chairman was Mercer president Kirby Godsey.

Through Newtown, various studies and conceptual designs have been undertaken within the overall agenda of revitalizing downtown and its more immediate ancillary places. In addition to its work that falls literally inside the bounds of the central business district, Newtown's focus has been the creation of the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, a system of paved walking/jogging paths, almost 10 miles to date, adjacent to downtown along the Ocmulgee River. This has probably been the largest single effort of the organization, in clear recognition that downtown can often be nurtured by influences beyond its immediate borders.

A little background on the city:
Macon was an ancient Native-American (Creek) center, a riverboat town, then a railroad town. Since the decline of railroads in the 1950's, it's been somewhat more low-keyed and of necessity economically diverse.

The Creek Nation had been headquarted in the place later called Macon, with its beginnings as far back as 8,000 bc. The Ocmulgee National Monument is administered and maintained by the National Park Service in recognition of the ancient presence of man in this location. Thomas Jefferson commissioned Benjamin Hawkins to set up a presence in the area toward negotiating permission from the Creeks for constructing a road from Washington, DC to New Orleans. The fort he constructed was later named Fort Hawkins, and restored during the 1930's.

A vestige of the road commissioned by president Jefferson remains, I think, in downtown. It's Cotton Avenue, the only diagonal street set inside the 1820's grid of streets and boulevards. It was likely named for being the route of cotton delivery from the surrounding area to wharves at the river, and as part of the ancient Creek footpath on which much of the road was built.

Cotton Avenue, early 1900's.

Macon is at the foot of the Piedmont Range, and is typically 300 to 400 feet above sea level, gradually falling to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. 85 miles to the north, Atlanta is 2,500 feet above the sea. The Ocumulgee River head is near Atlanta, and the water courses rapidly until it reaches Macon, where it suddenly stops rushing and meanders over the level land to a point near Savannah, where it merges with the Savannah River into the Altamaha. This matters, because it was as far inland as the Ocmulgee could be reasonably navigated by boat. This fact, along with fertile farmland in the area, drew the Creek Nation, then the European settlers who followed.

The city luckily didn't fit into Gen. Sherman's schedule for his March to the Sea. A part of his army actually camped across the river from Macon and heaved one cannonball into the city, but the move toward Macon was a feint intended to draw southern forces there, presumably away from the intended path to Savannah.

Macon didn't have much of an economic bounce in the years immediately following WWII. It did have a long-term benefit from the war, though, in the addition of Robins Air Force Base in nearby Warner Robins. Without the regional effects of this base, Macon would have been much less able to thrive over the period since the war. A city with a number of similarities to Macon is Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Anyone familiar with Macon would likely be interested in the similarities to Altoona found in the website for Tom Lynam Photography.) It was also a railroad town, and its downtown is quite similar to Macon's. Its population was similar to Macon's, as well, until around 1950. Being a railroad town was a temporary economic boon. After rail's decline, Altoona didn't have the good fortune of, for one thing, a huge Air Force base in the next county, and its population is now about half of Macon's.

Back to the point about the years immediately following the war: Macon's absence of aggressive economic progress during that period left intact a substantial collection of 19th-century buildings in its downtown and nearest neighborhoods. Big metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Charlotte or Dallas, with development pressure and skyrocketing land values, engaged in wholesale demolition of structures that stood in the way of what was at the time considered progress. It was valid progress of a kind, but it did have the side effect of destroying a lot more architectural and urban history than it preserved.

Macon's has remained a working downtown, an isn't a tourist mecca on the order of Charleston or Savannah. Tourism has certainly increased there over the years, with its historic charm supplemented with a well-known musical heritage in the persons of Little Richard, Otis Redding, the Alman Brothers and others. "Others" would include Lena Horne (born in NYC, she spent much of her childhood in Atlanta, Macon and Fort Valley,) a steady stream of performers like Ray Charles at the Douglass Theater and a current field of active musicians that includes Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.

Poplar Street

Poplar Street

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