Macon Interactions: Considering the Smoking Ban and Its Implications for a City
I’m a cheerleader for Macon. I don’t deny it. I want to write in a way that puts a spotlight on the positive things that Macon has to offer. The people, the places, the experiences, and all the things that make Macon great. I’m not a fool, as some would think to call me, because of my eternal optimism. I just believe that thinking and acting positively towards the things that are positive and putting your shoulder to the grindstone to make the negative things better is a much better system of changing things than constant complaint, throwing your hands up, and lack of interaction.
Sometimes it’s frustrating.
I was born in Macon, Georgia. I spent the first years of adulthood trying to get the hell out of this town. And I did leave and live in some fantastic places and some not so fantastic places, but when I came back I knew I had to make the city I was in a place I would love to call home.
Macon has everything a city needs to be spectacular. Great dining worth broadcasting in regional and national publications. Affordable living and landlords that are not slumlords. Charming neighborhoods where you can walk across the street and borrow a cup of sugar, just like your grandmother did in the old days. Historic preservation that gives us a sense of place and attracts more visitors than many suspect. A governmental body that, despite its in-fighting, disagreements, and unfortunate racial divide, still manages to get things done for its citizens and continually works to do more. Unique businesses that drive commerce from outside of the city. The fact that I could go on from here is a testament to how far the city has come since I moved back in 1996.
The blessing and the curse of Macon is the people. In 2003, when I was living in Los Angeles, I found that despite falling in love with the weather; the diversity of activities, food, and people; and the beauty of the coast, not to mention the mountains that were only a few hours drive away, I missed the unique friendliness that makes up Macon, Georgia. For example, when I moved back in 1996, there was a little coffee shop on Cherry Street. I’d moved from Boston and wanted just a good cuppa. John Relyea, the proprietor, not only had a great selection of teas but an eclectic group of customers that basically informed what I have come to think of when I think of downtown Macon. It was the only place I could go after 8pm. Now, I have a variety of places to plug in my laptop, so to speak, and though there is a different group of them, I wouldn’t trade the eclectic, diverse groups that make up my downtown experience for the world. I have made friends just by sitting at a bar and saying hello, something I have not been able to duplicate anywhere in the United States as well as I have here.
All That To Say…
17 days ago… 18 days ago… An extremely short period of time ago, the Hummingbird Stage and Taproom issued a ban on smoking. The hue and cry for such a ban has been going on since 2010. People have complained that they just would not go if it continued to be smoking or complained that they have not gone because it is too smoky. Initially, I was on the side of smoke free by governmental ban. I lived in Boston and Los Angeles. There, you didn’t smoke inside and it did not negatively impact businesses because every establishment was a smoke free establishment. If we banned smoking here, no one would be the worse for it, I thought. Of course, the ban would only work in the city and county businesses would be the richer for it. But one night I sat down with the guys fighting it the hardest, Vic Stanley and Tim Obelgoner, talked with bartender Tiffany Carver, and did some research on my own and ended up revising my opinion. It should be up to the business.
So, as a business decision, maybe to test the waters, maybe as a calculated gambit to draw support since funds from a particular night would be going to cancer research, the ‘Bird went smoke free. Online, it was as if confetti was thrown, the skies burst open, and the Hallelujah chorus was sung as the throngs of non-smokers who wanted to go to the ‘Bird for years but it was too smoky proclaimed their intention to finally be able to have a pint and watch a band.
Herein lies the curse of the people of Macon; they do not follow through.
The intentions are good. I’ve watched people fall all over themselves in social discourse about the plethora of good music, the “renewed” music scene, the great bands that are being formed by talented musicians in Macon. But in actual attendance, the lack of people showed the lack of follow through. Don’t get me wrong. Maconites, for the most part, have every intention of getting out. What they don’t understand is that the only way that anything we do will last is if all of us actually participate.
For years I’ve been going to the ‘Bird. But finally, about 2 years ago, it was becoming overwhelming. I was there at least 4 nights a week taking advantage of phenomenal drink specials. I was listening to bands and meeting with friends while ignoring the fact that my sense of smell was dwindling along with my sense of taste. I sounded hoarse all the time when I spoke. I was mistaken for a man on the phone. I knew it was time for me to make the very hard decision to stop going as much. Instead of saying that the ‘Bird should be smoke free, I just tried frequenting some of the many smoke free businesses like the Rookery.
In a lot of ways, Happy Hour Hummingbird was like smoke-free Hummingbird. A few people will light up because they forgot, but the overwhelming glut of smoke was not there because the number of smoking people was smaller. If I left before 8pm, I found I could kind of support my favorite establishment and begin to repair the damage I’d allowed from second hand smoke. But I missed a lot of my favorite bartenders and the people I’d come to associate with at 11pm on a Tuesday night.
The first thing we have to admit is that the non-smokers, with as much social and financial capital as you think you have, you just don’t go out.
You have kids who need babysitters and home lives that you really don’t want to leave in the first place. Yes, it would be nice if you could go out and go to the “most happening” spot (is that what the kids are saying these days) on the one day in 4 months that you socialize in a bar setting, but the bar is open for the people who like to drink regularly. They are catering to the people who are there when the doors open at 4pm, who are there after their odd work shift, who drink before they go to work at their own bar, who find their way to drink and chain-smoke at midnight, possibly spending more of their money in an hour that the non-smoking, one time a month drinker would spend in their entire visit.
You don’t follow through, Macon. You think all these things are a good idea and then you don’t show up. You erroneously think, “I’ll go next time… next week… next month” and then when it ends due to lack of participation, you decry the other people who didn’t keep it going without placing the blame at your own feet. If you are a drinker and your excuse for not going to the ‘Bird is that you can’t stand the smoke AND you didn’t show up in the more than two weeks the ‘Bird was smoke free, then the problem is you, not the ‘Bird. It’s time to admit there are other reasons you don’t go but also to admit that your spending capital is not as important as you want your complaint to be. As my friend Josh said, ‘I guess people forgot…victory carries responsibilities of its own.”
The fact that the ‘Bird returned to smoking in less than a month means that the people who opened their mouth didn’t put their money there.
What Macon needs to understand is that no city grows if its own citizens don’t even participate. I’ve heard politicians complain about “the city” not working to build up other areas of town. But can those same politicians get the people who live in those areas to participate in the things that go on there, to be advocates for their own revitalization? Downtown Macon is not growing because politicians decided to put money into downtown. It is growing because I, and people like me, have worked damn hard to have an impact. Our activism is being rewarded. The Second Street corridor construction, the increase in residences and businesses, and the growth of entertainment is the culmination of actions from myself and others who wanted to be able to go out after a long day of work not far from where they lived and hang out with their friends.
Just in my case: 1996 when I started hanging out at Cherry Street Cafe with the other weirdo, writers, and artists, there were not politicians saying, “We need to make downtown Macon grow.” In 1998-2003 when I started using my money to frequent places like Joshua Cup, Bert’s, Adriana’s, Trio, Cherry Corner Cafe, and Tic Toc’s appetizer menu there was not a group trying to make it easier on businesses in downtown Macon. In fact, banks were still telling people not to invest their money in this area. Even in 07-08 when I started to believe that the people of Macon needed to take advantage of the things downtown Macon had to offer and support it, which is when I started this blog, no one but the businesses and residents were trying to make things happen. Our sweat equity forced the city to consider that if they put money into the area, the people here would work to help it continue to grow. If these are just my efforts and many more worked as hard or harder for downtown Macon, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the city eventually got behind it. I don’t make a lot of money, but the money I make goes back into downtown. I order all of my books from The Golden Bough. I buy or have things bought for me at The Rookery, Downtown Grill, The Bird, Roasted, BJs, Ginger, Tokyo Alley, Main Street Pizza, Lazy Dog Growler, Ocmulgee Traders, etc. I go to shows, I drink beer when I’m out, I don’t complain about the students or who have begun to encroach on what I once considered my territory because they are spending the money to keep these places going just like me.
But there is a lesson that the ‘Bird’s experience could teach those trying to shape downtown that might be important moving forward.
The guy who makes 2.15 an hour and survives on YOUR tips just helped changed the direction of a business versus the guy who makes more than $50,000 a year who hasn’t gone to the ‘Bird since it got too smoky. It’s a generalization for sure, but the people that are being priced out of living downtown are doing the most to support the businesses that are in downtown. As I’ve paid attention to the direction that Downtown Macon is going – and maybe gentrification is too strong a word and too laden with ill will to use – I wonder if downtown will survive it, not just financially (which I am less worried about) but culturally as well. As we try to implement community action that favors taking every bit of flavor from the craziness that is downtown to make it more of someone’s idea of “normal,” are we actually hamstringing the continued growth? So now that the Dannenberg is full of people who can afford to pay $700 for a studio apartment (for perspective, my 2br is $500 a month and includes cable/internet), is all of that financial “clout” doing anything to increase profits for the businesses downtown?
Maybe the ‘Bird could have stayed non-smoking for 6 months because as much as people won’t show up, they also need time to realize things are different. As much as word went around on the 17th that the ‘Bird reversed the smoking ban, there are still people who had no clue that there had been a change at all. If these are people who don’t keep up with the continual changes in the first place, these are also the same people whose impact will not be felt in the long run. Just like the downtown resident that spends all of their money in North Macon or Atlanta is not giving back to the local community despite paying the higher rate for a place to live, the person that reviles a place they never frequent is just as culpable for forcing a change that they then don’t participate in. I think the ‘Bird decided to take back something of themselves as they realized they were pushing for a clientele that didn’t appreciate them as much as the 15 pack a day guys did.
As we watch the changes that happen, can we see ourselves reflected in them? As much as I want to avoid the smoke, I still find that I am compelled to go, whether with friends who have parties there or because of bands that I long to see playing. I always wish there was a way for me to enjoy the Bird without putting my health at risk. But I care about my friends as well and never wanted to see them expelled from their favorite place solely for my health reasons. So I go when I must, don’t when I can, and hope that where I put my money reflects what I want in the society I am trying to build. Is that what you are doing? We could just as easily have been talking about the new era of a non-smoking ‘Bird. Will we look at downtown Macon in 15-25 years and realize we should not have pushed out the people with less money willing to give it all to the area or priced out the people who were fighting for that creative class in this downtown space? Or will we be like the Hummingbird and cater to the group that has proven itself to be our greatest champion, even if it’s not the vocal favorite of the surrounding community. I know it’s just smoking and it’s just a bar, but I think the implications are there just the same.