The Augusta we don't see during the Masters

Known well (but superficially) for its tournament, Augusta, Ga., is a complex city where hope and hopelessness reside.

Updated: March 30, 2007, 5:51 PM ET
By Christopher Solomon | Golf Digest

When the world says Augusta -- breathy, whispery, church-of-golf Augusta -- the world always, always, means the 365 acres of this city that lie behind a 12-foot hedge of bamboo, pearlbush and red-tipped photinia. Say Augusta and the world always means one week among 52. Before commercial breaks, the CBS cameras linger in soft focus almost indiscreetly on shots of flugelhorn azalea blossoms. Those same cameras never pan to the horizon. For just beyond the privet hedge lies a world that doesn't comport with the carefully tended, Truman Show-Sponsored-By-AT&T Masters soundstage. Beyond lies a messy Augusta that can't be tamed to that precise, 3/8-inch height of the fairways.

Outside that hedge is an Augusta that is by turns squalid, handsome, proud, defeated, race-haunted, yearning, mired, God-fearing and frequently utterly exasperating. It is Georgia's second-largest city -- and a most unlikely First City of Golf.

The other 51 weeks are different in Augusta: The Dom Perignon is off the menu at Hooters.

Augusta photo gallery
Want to see the real Augusta behind the Masters? Take this photo tour of the city. Photo gallery
Hooters sits on a mile-long strip of asphalt called Washington Road, halfway between I-20 and Augusta National GC, and not far from the Bobby Jones Expressway. If you've ever been to the Masters, chances are you haven't seen much more of this city than Washington Road in all its Olive Garden'd, drive thru'd, strip-mall'd unremarkableness, and which, if it looks vaguely familiar, is because it's the millennial geography of your town, too. There's the Taco Bell, and the Goin' Postal shipping store, and the A&E Dance Studio ("In Step with Elegance") and Circle K's squaring off across the street from one another, not far from dueling Japanese steak houses. Facing the gates of the National, as the locals call it, lies yet another strip mall, all of whose storefronts have been consumed by the evangelical Whole Life Ministries and which is called, slyly, The Master's Plaza.

If you return to Washington Road any other week of the year, the stores will all be as you remember them, and the traffic almost as bad as you remember. What's gone, however, is the frisson: Gone are the smiling white men in Easter egg-hued pants streaming onto the grounds clutching their golden badges. Gone are the entrepreneurs selling those men Macanudos and Cohibas and Ashton Churchills as fat as a pipefitter's fingers. Gone is the tent for the Christian Motorcyclists Association Resurrection Riders with tattooed men in "Riding for the Son" jackets hawking pop the color of antifreeze, and the black guy on the sidewalk with a hand-lettered sign advertising "cold juicy apples" from an old Styrofoam cooler that appears to have recently held bait. Hooters -- yeah, it's still here, still packed, but now the crowd comes for Monday Night Football, not the Green Jacket Bikini Contest.

What's gone, in short, is the party, and the feverish city-wide embrace of golf and belief in its saving powers, or at least belief in the redemptive power of golf's money, and the feeling -- for a single week in April -- as real and heady as the azalea-drenched air that, just maybe, all things are possible here.

Summer doesn't abandon Georgia by late October. Step outside and a soft washcloth-slap of humidity reminds you that you're in the South. The sky has the kind of look that wouldn't be welcome if on a boat a far piece from land -- bright but reconsidering, edged with cauliflower cumulus. In the yards not far from the National, the azalea blossoms have been replaced by red Georgia football pennants. This is Dawg country. The only challenge to their popularity is the political yard sign. It's election season in Augusta. And many Augustans say the autumn's mayoral race is crucial -- the indicator whether this city will finally grope its way forward.

This is a city still shaking off the blows of its past, some of them subtle, some as sharp as grenade blasts: a violent race riot in 1970 that drew national attention, suburban malls that sprang up in the late '70s, further decimating the once-vibrant downtown. Between 1950 and 1986, the city's population dropped more than 40 percent, from a high of 72,000 to 42,000. Augusta was dying. So in 1996 voters agreed to merge governments with the surrounding county.

Suddenly -- immediately -- shrunken Augusta became swollen Augusta-Richmond County, the second-largest municipality in Georgia behind Atlanta -- 200,000 people today. A chunk of Georgia that spraddles from high-rises to piney-woods, all under the name Augusta. During last year's Masters, the local newspaper, The Augusta Chronicle, reported the arrest of a local man for making moonshine.

The consolidation was supposed to be salvation, but it hasn't worked out that way. Nearly one in five residents lives in poverty ($20,000 or less income annually for a family of four, according to federal guidelines). Of Georgia's 159 counties, 105 have lower poverty rates than Augusta-Richmond County. The school district is in disarray.

Talk politics for even a little while in Augusta and it soon seems that an inordinate number of politicians' names are followed by the phrase "who was later indicted" or "who went to jail" -- three local or state pols from Augusta in the last four years. Augusta's governing commission, whose districts were drawn to favor either blacks or whites and whose commissioners are colored accordingly, regularly splits (and gridlocks) along racial lines. Sometimes the commissioners simply abstain so divisive issues don't get decided -- one frustrated resident/activist finally sued last year to make the county's leaders vote more often.

For better or worse, Augusta has "a small-town attitude in a big-city body," says Ralph Walker, professor emeritus at Augusta State University, who teaches a course in southern politics. "We still haven't grown into the idea that we're a major city." During eight days in Augusta last fall I heard everyone's version of this statement, many not as generous. One afternoon I stop by the G&S Beauty-Barber in the black neighborhood of Laney Walker Boulevard to talk to William (Philpot) Green, the barber. Green is smoking. When he finishes a Kool he wets the stump in the sink. John Kenner, a life-long Augustan, enters, lays down on a couch, looks down his Ping visor at me.

"We're just limpin', man -- that's all," Kenner says. "We're just limpin'."

Perhaps it's the view from the eighth floor of the municipal building, but Mayor David S. Copenhaver sees a brighter horizon. The mayor ("Call me Deke," he says, grabbing your hand) is 39, fit, with a sweep of fine blondish hair. Swap out the patrician Augusta drawl and he could be Wayne Gretzky. Less than one year ago, with no previous political chops, Deke won the race to finish the short term of the departing mayor. Deke likes to explain that he's a competitive guy, and colleagues in other cities kept needling him: "I got so tired of hearing, 'What's wrong with Augusta?'" Now he's running for re-election, for a full, four-year term.

Jensen LarsonLocal politics are always on everyone's lips in Augusta, and campaigning can be an art in itself.

Deke talks plainly about Augusta's problems, the poverty, the lack of politicians' vision. This particular morning, the Chronicle says nearly $8 million must be cut from next year's budget, in a region that abhors taxes. But Deke is an optimist. On his desk is a plaque that says "It Can't be Done." The "t" has been crossed out. "I always say if Augusta was a business, it would be a prime takeover candidate," he says, ticking off the assets: Cheap housing costs (home prices in the greater Augusta area are about 65 percent of the national average, according to the Local Market Monitor), Augusta's good brand, four colleges and universities (Medical College of Georgia, Augusta State University, Paine College, Augusta Technical College) and the major medical centers for the Veterans Administration, out at Fort Gordon and at MCG.

On the table before him is a plan to broadcast free WiFi throughout the downtown core this year. He talks about more high-tech jobs, about eco-tourism in the Phinizy Swamp Nature Park and on the Augusta Canal. "I simply want to be a catalyst for Augusta to become a progressive community," he says, "but I always tell people that I can't do it alone." The mayor doesn't even have a regular vote on Augusta affairs unless there is a 5-5 tie.

But getting elected in Augusta, folks will tell you, is more complicated than just having good ideas and a vaguely famous smile. Deke is white. His father belongs to the National, and his wife's people, other folks will tell you, once owned all the gas stations in Augusta. His opponents, all three of them, are black, in a city that's now about 52 percent black. And in Augusta, these things matter.

Augusta -- the old city of Augusta, anyway -- is not large, about four miles by six miles of river-spread sand reaching westward from the alligatory Savannah River. Just around the fringe of the National and the old city limits, the streets are named for English cities -- Canterbury Drive, Sheffield Circle, Oxford Road -- and lined with well-kept if not ostentatious brick ramblers. Their yards are clipped as close and clean as a marine recruit's hair, each fronted by the requisite dogwood and a soaring yellow pine that hoards its limbs to the top. And the campaign signs. Come autumn, you can often tell where you are in Augusta based only by the signs in the yards. Here those yards are of one mind: Deke for Mayor! Just down the road is The Hill, a 300-foot knoll where people first summered to escape the fumes of rotting cottonseeds believed to cause fever, and which, by the arrival of the 20th century, was such a fashionable address that people simply listed "The Hill, Augusta" in the New York Social Register. Today under protective oaks are the kind of grand antebellum homes with stout whitewashed columns that would make a fine advertisement for the most genteel of southern living. In fact, here's a photo shoot now, for the local convention and visitors bureau, in front of an 1830 Greek Revival pile, with a spread of Whole Foods cheese and crackers untouched on the lawn. The Hill, too, is Copenhaver Country.

Jensen LarsonThe Savannah River cuts right through Augusta, making for a quaint, picturesque Southern landscape.
Things can change quickly. A few turns and you enter a neighborhood (one of several in Augusta) where you reflexively reach for the door locks. One day I walk from the National to downtown, through a corner of the old Harrisburg neighborhood. Couches cough up their stuffing on crumbling porches. On the sidewalk spent lottery tickets sit beside crushed Newport crushproof boxes, and ketchup packets, unzipped and bloodlet. A closed appliance store. A locked storefront church. Later, a church in what appears to be an old appliance store. A Catholic Social Services Thrift Shop (also closed, with a sign: "Rosary Broken? Let 'Boots' fix them for you"). Further on, two crosses nailed to a tree, with plastic flowers and no explanation. Even the dogs in Harrisburg sound hungrier. There are no signs for Deke here, but there are some for the black candidates, including Ronnie Few, a former fire chief with a somewhat checkered record but a catchy slogan ("Many may be called, but Few will be chosen."). On the most hopeless streets, there are no signs at all.

Everywhere in Augusta, however, the one constant is churches. Storefront churches. Cinder-block churches without windows. Down by the Savannah River, the white clapboard Springfield Baptist Church -- the oldest black church in the nation -- where Morehouse College was founded. Out on Walton Way among Augusta's biggest homes (more Deke signs here) stands First Baptist Church of Augusta, so startlingly Egyptian in its proportions it's been dubbed "Six Flags over Jesus", and where, at 5 p.m. one fall Saturday, a bride arrives in a gleaming white Cadillac Escalade stretch pickup limo that takes a half-block to turn into the parking lot.

"We've got more churches than -- I was going to say liquor stores -- but I'm not so sure about that," Ed Cashin, a professor emeritus at Augusta State University who has written the big book of Augusta's history, says one morning as we tool around downtown in his Honda. On every block downtown, handsome restored churches roll past in the windshield. Cashin remarks that a fervent religiosity was one of the founding hallmarks of Augusta. The car passes the restored, Carpenter Gothic Union Baptist Church and the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. A few days later, I pass the latter's parish office. The lawn is aflutter with hundreds of pink and baby-blue flags like those used to mark sprinkler heads, representing (the sign says) 44 million fetuses killed by abortion. A godly conservatism, deep as a well, abides here. Spin the FM dial looking for some honky-tonk music and hear Pastor Donald Cole taking the Harry Potter books to task. Or lean over your morning coffee at the Whistle Stop Cafe and crack open the Chronicle: You hold in your hands what is by several accounts the South's most reactionary newspaper, owned by the family of Billy Morris III, a National member and don of the Masters press room. Atop the Op-Ed page is a passage from the Book of Revelation, before a pre-election editorial telling why "Democrats are dangerous in many ways."

Jensen LarsonChurches are abundant in Augusta, reflecting its godly Southern charm.

Cashin and I stop to watch the film at the Augusta Canal, which put a 10-mile straw to the Savannah and created cheap power to run Augusta's foundries and textile machines, and for a time in the 1850s and again in the 1870s and 1880s made Augusta "the Lowell of the South" that the canal's visionary imagined. This, Cashin says, was Defining Characteristic No. 2 of Augusta: from the get-go, it has always been a city on the make, business-wise. It remade itself with industry, and when that collapsed, it retooled as a quieter roost for Flapper-age snowbirds. It has tried to stay relevant. It has known boosterism, and rebranding: "The Paris of the South." "The City of the Golden Future."

Today, Augusta is the kind of place where the nation's unsung work gets done. In South Augusta, where the land unspools in sandy yards so flat you could true a level on them and the carports shelter bassboats, the nation's supply of NutraSweet is made in a factory out on Lovers Lane. When you dial an 800 number and ask for help with your Electrolux vacuum cleaner? Your phone rings in a call center in Augusta. You can drive past the Solo cup plant on Wrightsboro Road, recognizable by its front door in the shape of an XXL Styrofoam cup. Every E-Z-GO and Club Car golf cart coursing the nation's fairways is made in Augusta. Much of the USofA washes its T-shirts in the Tide and Cheer suds made in Augusta. Not exactly hog butcher to the world, but still.

And golf? Oh, people play golf here, on two dozen public and private courses close by.

One black resident proclaimed that, thanks to the legacy of the Masters, there are more black golfers per capita in Augusta than anywhere else in the country (intriguing, if unprovable). The National's role is more complicated. It's everywhere. And it's nowhere. It's invoked in National Cab and the National Lanes bowling alley and Masters City Corvette Parts. But mostly what the National does best, sequestered behind its hedgerow, is make you forget it is even here. Even its charity, though generous -- the club has given some $11 million to the Community Foundation of the Central Savannah River Area since 1997 -- has been bestowed without much fanfare or direction on how it must be used. Like the long limo of the late favorite son James Brown that residents occasionally used to glimpse ghosting through downtown, the Masters is a source of vague civic pride among Augustans as a whole, only a dream of prosperity -- something so foreign, so Other, as to be unreal to most of them. In conversation it simply doesn't come up, much.

"Eighty percent of the people in Augusta really don't care. It's not like it's the Super Bowl," Dr. E.T. Martin, the preacher at Springfield Baptist, says to me one afternoon. The reverend is a cannonball of a man, who blinks his watery bullfrog eyes at me as he says this. I point out to him that he occasionally pairs the nice suits that he favors with a pair of snappy golf cuff links. (The reverend does not play golf.) He smiles, as if acknowledging Cashin's city-on-the-make theme. "We always play the Masters up, though -- I give us that."

"The fact is," an Augustan says to me one day, "the city just don't roll like it should." During my trips to Augusta, I hear nearly a dozen variations of this assessment. What seems to be holding back the city -- and, to be fair, what cities across the South still seem to wrestle with -- is race. As the racial makeup of the area has shifted, power is shifting. Payback is happening -- politically, anyway. "Socially everything is great. We can mix and mingle all the time," Rev. Martin says. Still, something's different. "I'm dealing with six decades. Augusta was a loving city, very loving city. I remember the days when we didn't even lock our doors. And it always was a very political town. But it always had a sense of kindness among politicians and people." Here he laughs a rueful laugh. "I guess we have joined the rat race, for survival's sake, and competition's sake, and that sense of compassion has been lost.

"The people who ran our government, they were really compassionate and concerned, and they would also provide whatever was needed to create unity and harmony among everybody. And they always found a way to make things work -- whether it was economic growth, religious or even social." He chooses what he says next more carefully than others do: "I think the quality of leadership is not representative of the people who live in this area."

And now, thanks in good part to this, a malaise hangs over the place like a smog. One new transplant to Augusta wonders aloud to me, without cynicism, whether residents have breathed the dysfunction for so long that they have come, not to prefer it exactly, but to be accustomed to it. Like the smell of a rendering plant on the outskirts of town, it has become part of the fabric of life, a reliable thing to complain about, even as it never gets fixed. "I do think Augustans are their own worst enemies. & We tend to dwell on the negative," says Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta, a group that has been involved in many restoration and preservation projects of Augusta's handsome old buildings and churches, including the boyhood home of President Woodrow Wilson. Second oldest to Savannah, second in size to Atlanta -- eventually a city starts to believe it can only be second-rate, instead of Georgia's first-rate Second City.

Most corrosive is the lingering, hobbling mistrust. One Sunday afternoon I talk politics with a deacon from Springfield Baptist named Roosevelt Robinson, who spent 24 years in the Army. Earlier, we had attended services. The Rev. Martin, his voice rumbling at the rear, had given a sermon about loving your neighbor. Small girls in choir robes sang off-key to near-empty pews. Now, over lime Kool-Aid, Robinson says that, yes, he's experienced racism here. And yes, he's got some thoughts about the race for mayor.

"They do this every time," he says. "They get a couple black candidates to run against one white candidate, and split up the black vote."

"They?"

"I don't know who it is. Somebody. This one black lady, she gave her vote to the white guy in the last election, to break the tie, and now she's living in a nice new house on Riverwatch." Robinson looks me right in the eye.

"Now you tell me."

Someone says downtown Augusta has the widest streets in the nation, another claim that's impossible to verify but that might as well be true. The streets are huge, yawning boulevards, sometimes four lanes across in each direction. Combine their expanse with the lack of traffic and bustle thanks to years of commercial and white flight, and the effect is Hopperesque. At 9 o'clock on a Friday morning, downtown's old commercial centerpiece still feels as tucked in as a Sunday evening.

Broad Street is a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of low, two-and three-story brick buildings fronted by messy chinaberry trees and dominated by the Lamar Building, a sober Romanesque Revival high-rise built in 1913 that's capped by an undignified toaster-looking penthouse designed by I.M. Pei in the 1970s. Pei's design does not grow on you. Around 13th Street are the furniture stores that moved in to take advantage of the low rents and high ceilings -- State Furniture, Furniture Land and Merry's Trash & Treasures. After them, down a few blocks, the loan companies appear. There are a few shops serving the black community that have hung on after the JCPenney and J.B. White's left -- throwback-feeling places such as Crosby's Women's Apparel that serve its black clientele with baroque Sunday hats, and Rhodes Variety Shop, whose window has two-tone faux alligator shoes and silver shoes with buckles, like something Buck Rogers might wear to the prom. There is a store with a black Santa in a shop window advertising layaway for Christmas. Yes, America, layaway is still available in downtown Augusta, Ga.

Take somebody's advice and turn the corner, to Hildebrandt's, the old variety store open since 1879 that has MoonPies on the rack and Buttercup Sweet Scotch Snuff under the countertop. There is a lunch counter in back where strangers sit together at a low white slab of marble under the approving, grease-cataracted eyes of the Hildebrandt generations on the walls, and Luanne Hildebrandt (in her Deke T-shirt) will ask "Sweet enough for you?" as she refills your tea. And you tell Luanne "yes, ma'am" because it's so sweet that your back teeth ache, and goes so well with your pork-chop sandwich. And you think, not for the first time, that there's charm in Augusta when you look for it, and real good folks when you aren't looking for them.

Augusta is, of course, home to many -- and a good home if you are a person of a certain means. One of those people is Frank Spears, who is 56, father of two, and owner of a State Farm Insurance Agency for 25 years. He has lived in the area for 34 years, his wife all her life. "Great place, great quality of life," Spears says, "good values, at least if you're in the middle class. It's a medium-size city with a little bit of culture, and just good, honest folks." And none of the traffic of an Atlanta, he adds, echoing everybody else. Which is flat true: You can get anywhere in Augusta in about 10 minutes. Yes there's a symphony orchestra, and decent shopping at the big regional malls, but Spears tells you with particular pride that he is a season-ticket holder to the Augusta GreenJackets, a Class A baseball team owned by Cal Ripken Jr. -- "brother Cal," he'll say. "There's even talk today that they may bring a stadium downtown." For the last 20 years or so, and just like at least 700 other households in the area, come Masters week the Spearses have enhanced their lifestyle by renting out their home and fleeing town. "We get $3,200 for the week. And we are about $1,000 low," Spears says, explaining that he sticks to return clients. Some houses in their neighborhood get $10,000 a week; some not far away get $20,000, he says. A lot of folks just go to Hilton Head, but the Spearses travel -- a cruise through the Panama Canal; Spain and Greece; a safari in Tanzania.

There are signs downtown is coming back, too -- a new restaurant, a tap room, a nice tattoo parlor under construction. There is the newish Augusta Common, where a bronze of Georgia's founder James Oglethorpe looks toward a newish statue of the Godfather of Soul, holding his mike-stand like a ruling rod, Augusta's new aristocrat. While I'm in town, the city signs a deal with a developer to build 182 high-end condos downtown where the old train depot stands, just across from the Savannah. "I think the next five years are going to be exciting, I really do," says Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, one morning at Broad's New Moon Café. Like Deke, Woodard ticks off the city's assets: reasonable housing prices, the cleaned-up canal, the four colleges and universities, the standout medical center, the handsome brick Riverwalk beside the Savannah -- and not least, this old downtown with its good bones just waiting to be fleshed out again. It's the litany Augustans know by heart, and one that you hear so many times when you visit that the recitation begins to feel incantatory, as if by saying it enough they could conjure success. And you hear in the repetition a disbelief -- disbelief that despite all this, the future still hasn't yet arrived for the City with the Golden Future.

Yet those empty storefronts still stare blankly out at Broad Street. A sign flapping in front of the Lamar Building advertises 80,000 square feet of office space for lease. Even the space being used by Deke's campaign headquarters on Broad is for rent. The marquee on the Miller Theater says simply, "It's Time." It's demanding, exhausted: It's Time. As if it's sick of this crap. Yet sick of what, exactly? The marquee is gnomic. And there's no one around to ask. For the Miller, too, is dark. Woodard, though highly optimistic, agrees Augusta's downtown could still go either way without a lot of hard work in the next few years. In fact, she is 20 minutes late because a vandal threw a brick through her office window last night. "Happens all the time," she says, shrugging it off. But it's unclear if she sees the irony.

Later that day, you keep walking down Broad, past the new pub under construction and the closed pawn shop. There's a bell, and a rumble: It's a train of Georgia Pacific railcars pushing out of South Carolina, banging through downtown at Sixth Street. You look around and notice that except for a few strip joints, even the hope of commerce has ended: You are literally on the wrong side of the tracks. And out of nowhere a smudge of a guy appears, and over the noise he's yelling for you to come his way. He's motioning with his arm, hollering for you. And even though it's only 6 p.m. and still plenty light out, and you know the statistics say Augusta is actually a very safe city, much safer than other cities its size, you're a little afraid because you realize there's not a single other person around.

On Election Night something unheard-of happens. Deke wins 65 percent of the vote, the first mayoral election in Augusta not to require a runoff since 1995. He wins 29 of Augusta's 38 predominantly black precincts and ties in another. In this fractured city -- hell, in any city -- it's a mandate. It's a sign, Deke tells the Chronicle, just how much people want to come together and have good government. It's a sign how much they want Augusta to move forward, he says. "The sky is the limit" for Augusta, he says.

People want to believe, badly.

Before leaving town, prior to the election, you drive around some more. The National sits behind its hedge, coolly aloof as ever as Washington Road dispenses its lamp tans and Krispy Kremes and Readings by Angel. Through downtown, balanced between the future and More Of The Same. Then the car steers into neighborhoods not seen yet, more heartbreaking areas that look as if a tornado has preceded you, and where once again you feel so conscious of your skin that it nearly burns. You wave to a young man in baggy sweats who's watching. He returns it without enthusiasm, and his stare follows you all the way down the block. He's wondering who you are, and why you would bother, and maybe wondering, with your big sunglasses and your big sedan and your out-of-place whiteness and unearned friendliness, if you are a cop.

But by then your big car is already drifting out of the neighborhood, out of his life, out of Augusta, and probably not taking his mistrust with it.

But here, too, is where the Spearses are like so many members of the area's upper-middle class: Though Frank's business is still in Augusta, the couple long ago moved over the county line, part of the white exodus to swelling Columbia County. The "education system is 10 billion times better" there, Spears, a former Columbia County commissioner, says simply. In fact, "the vast majority" of the Masters rentals aren't in Augusta at all.