Last week I drove my children up North Main Street and back again and I asked them to count the number of buildings – houses and businesses – that looked like they were falling down and empty.
One child counted 15, another 13, the third 12. I’d counted 12 that afternoon, but if I didn’t know the fish market was occasionally open, I’d have counted 13 properties that appeared to be vacant.
(Clearly we have different definitions of “falling down and empty,” kind of like our definition of clean rooms.)
That’s 12 on one 1/3-mile road, from the former sandwich shop to the corner of Ripley Avenue, including the Main Event, which is not technically on North Main, but touches it.
When you expand the search area, you’ll observe only one occupied property, a beauty or barber shop, on Spring Street between North Main and North Maple.
The former All Day Lawn building on North Maple was torn down over the weekend, but it was vacant, as is the former electric company and a gas station on opposite corners at the intersection of East Liberty and North Maple.
We are at nearly two dozen vacant properties now, if you’re not keeping up, and we haven’t even traveled to the south and west sides of the square.
There are vacant and dilapidated buildings on every approach to the city’s crown jewel, the historic court square, and city hall is surrounded by a church that’s reportedly closed its doors, two vacant homes and a vacant business.
It’s ridiculous if you ask me. (I realize that you haven’t, but I get paid to deliver my opinion to you about once a month, so just feign interest, okay.)
It’s not just that these properties are vacant, it’s that most of them are eyesores. Paint is peeling, porches have rotted, roofs have fallen in and vultures are perched on what remains of them (true story), as if foreshadowing the ending to the house’s storied history.
In preparation for a story on combating the blight, I pulled the land transfer records of each property on the city’s priority list back to its original purchase. North Main was once home to affluent African-Americans and many of the homes on the street were passed down in families through two and three generations, but today they look pitiful. I’ll dare to suggest the original owners would be ashamed of what their homes have become.
We can agree that the square, lately, has been stunning with its beautiful pink blooms and new signs of life after a bitter winter. We can agree that the square is important to the city, especially when it comes to sales tax revenue, and its status as a little small Southern town that’s survived not only the Civil War and Reconstruction, but the Civil Rights movement and 18 seasons of Dancing with the Stars. We love the square not for the businesses’ convenient operating hours, but for the sense of security and small town life that fills our souls when we visit. We are proud of the square and we certainly take pride in its beauty.
So why, then, do we not take pride in the homes and businesses that surround it? Why have we allowed these homes to fall into such a state of disrepair that the city will end up paying for demolition?
To the city’s credit, Lessie Fisher, who works in the building and planning division, has been working to alleviate the city of its eyesores, and not just the ones around the square. Several properties have been condemned and 16 added to the priority list. The owners have been asked to repair the properties, have them removed or the city will remove them and put a lien on the property.
I applaud Fisher’s work on this project and hope to see her through to its completion.
If the vultures are any indication, this will not end well for the properties, but it means fewer eyesores for residents. Hopefully it will also mean a renewed enthusiasm for taking care of other properties in the neighborhood.