In Aldean’s hometown, they’re trying everything

by Patricia Murphy

Country superstar Jason Aldean, who grew up in Macon, Ga., got into hot water recently with the video for his song “Try That in a Small Town.” It featured images of Black Lives Matter protests and Aldean wearing a pricey leather jacket, growling during a nighttime video shoot, “Try that in a small town, see how far ya make it down the road.”

The video sparked a national debate so loud that Sunny Hostin of “The View” spoke up to say that Aldean’s hometown of Macon is “one of the most racist places in this country.”

Her father had also grown up in Macon when there were not one, but two, Confederate monuments in the middle of town. But he also grew up there before Macon elected its first Black mayor, Jack Ellis, and before the current mayor of the city of 160,000 (it’s not actually a town) took over in 2021.

I met Mayor Lester Miller during my first road trip series two years ago and was surprised that, like Atlanta, the biggest issue that Macon struggled with then was its spiking murder rate.

Miller grew up in Bibb County, too, so poor he remembers counting out change with his mom at the end of the week to pay the family bills. Now as the mayor, he has tried to lead an apolitical city in a scorching hot political climate, with crime being the most pressing issue when he walked in the door.

Instead of taking a “conservative” approach to the crisis by simply hiring more police officers or a “liberal” approach of focusing on poverty and the root causes of the violence, Miller and the Macon-Bibb commission were planning to try all those things — hiring more officers, tearing down abandoned properties, greenlighting no-cost mental health services, getting fresh food to poor neighborhoods. The ideas were innovative and deliberately apolitical. And I really wondered whether any of it could work.

I’ve been back to Macon three times since then, including a trip to see leaders raise the flag of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation over city hall to recognize the tribe that lived in middle Georgia for centuries before being driven off the land by the Trail of Tears. The Muscogee (Creek) flag now flies alongside the American flag above the city every day.

More recently, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the city’s decision to relocate its Confederate monuments to a cemetery, as well as the thousands-strong response to antisemitic demonstrators at a local synagogue.

All of that is to say that neither Aldean’s video, nor Sunny Hostin’s memories of Macon, rang true with the Macon I’ve seen lately. But the controversy made me wonder whether all of those ideas that Miller wanted to try two years ago ever happened. And if they did, did they make a difference?

The first answer is yes, the ideas the mayor talked about in 2021 are happening, many made possible by more than $18 million in one-time federal COVID-19 relief money that the city commission earmarked for targeting crime rates.

Miller wanted it to be “sheriff-led” and “community-led,” and it has been, with 235 new sheriff’s deputies hired in Bibb County and dozens of local organizations getting $1.6 million microgrants to improve education, summer youth programs, food deserts or problems they’ve identified in their own neighborhoods.

The clearest success so far has been the “Blight Fight” program, with bulldozers tearing down more than 500 abandoned or burned-out structures that had been identified as havens for crime.

Local news cameras have come out to document them, and the city streams them live on its Facebook page. An additional $7.5 million has gone to a fund to fill in the areas with affordable housing.

“It’s probably the most renowned success in the county so far,” Mayor Pro Tem Seth Clark said.

The city has also started using its building codes to sue landlords of run-down apartment buildings or close or modify “vice marts,” convenience stores that were the sites of hundreds of gunshots monitored by city technology.

“You close those early or shut down the vice marts and crime is going down 80% in those areas,” Miller said.

Among the community grants that the city funded are programs for at-risk kids that range from mentorships to summer programs to drum circles, job training and yoga classes. “In those areas that we targeted, we’re seeing a decrease in crime,” Miller said. “We’re also seeing a decrease in referrals in the principal’s office, and schools are seeing better attendance.”

But the COVID money that made all those grants possible is a one-time infusion, and Macon’s challenges, like those of all communities, are systemic and even generational. So a focus of the grant process has been teaching applicants how to apply for additional grants through a foundation or company in the future.

“The whole goal is sustainability because they can’t stay with the government forever,” Miller said. “But now we have foundations and other private individuals stepping in.”

The results in Macon are real. Murders are down 40% since last year’s record number, and violent crime is down 57% this summer compared with the summer 2022.

They’re getting somewhere, but Miller and the city commission know that none of the problems — homelessness, blight, poverty and crime — have gone away. But they’ve improved for now and hopefully for the long term.

One thing they aren’t trying in Macon — in fact it’s the only subject Miller avoids — is partisan politics.

When I ask him whether he’s a Democrat or Republican, he says, “Ask me in five years.”

“I’m not solving abortion or gun control right here,” he said. “We all have our own convictions, but we’ve got to realize what is within our control.”

Clark, the mayor pro tem, echoed that sentiment.

“Macon had to suffer for a very long time from this gridlock and this division that fell along ideological lines,” he said. “And we’ve very intentionally tried to hold together. … It’s not easy, and I do find it to be increasingly unique.”

And what about Jason Aldean, Sonny Hostin and the rest of the mess?

The mayor called Hostin’s statement “stupid” and said Aldean “left Macon in the rearview mirror a long time ago.”

If Hostin or Aldean do get back to Macon soon, they’ll see there’s a lot they’re trying in that not-at-all small town. And much of it is working.

Patricia Murphy is a political reporter and columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.