Like the locals whose memory he helped preserve, Hal Averett did not live to see how far this dream would go.
The Columbus builder and longtime head of the Riverdale-Porterdale Cemetery Foundation died Nov. 28.
“It has been said that he spoke to the mayor and the homeless person on the street with the same deference and respect,” read his obituary. “He had the uncanny ability to make people feel important, valued and understood.”
He understood the value of 15 acres of cracked concrete, rusty metal and polluted soil on 10th Avenue north of Victory Drive, a blighted swath that divides the graveyards of rich and poor, black and white.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Ledger-Enquirer
It’s the old state farmers market, opened in 1955 and locked up in 2017, a fenced rectangle of mostly paved property that on its backside once hosted a towing company, where fuel leaked into the ground. Other pollutants include asbestos and lead paint. Two underground storage tanks are on the site.
West of the old market, across 10th Avenue, is Porterdale Cemetery. Aside from a slave cemetery on Sixth Avenue, it’s the first black city graveyard, where burials may date close to the city’s founding. The earliest documented so far is 1836, and early graves often weren’t marked.
Columbus’ first graveyard is Linwood Cemetery, laid out on the north side of the original town in the 1828 city plan.
On the south side of town, along the Chattahoochee River, were the commons, vacant land set aside for the public’s use. That’s where the other cemeteries followed.
North of the old farmers market is East Porterdale, a 1946 extension of Porterdale Cemetery. It has a paupers’ burial ground that opened in the 1990s.
South of the old market is Riverdale Cemetery, traditionally a white graveyard established in 1890, as space at Linwood ran low. It has a Jewish section owned and maintained by Temple Israel and Shearith Israel Synagogue.
Like East Porterdale, Riverdale has paupers’ graves, too, dating back to 1905. It also has a 1956 section of tiny plots called “Babyland.”
So, between graveyards divided by race and class lies a junkyard farmers market Averett foresaw clearing and landscaping, to join the cemeteries in an uninterrupted flow.
It seems a fit gap to bridge, as death takes all, regardless of color or creed.
“Hal worked on this for five or six years,” said Margaret Zollo, one of a few people Averett invited to a 2006 meeting that planted the seed the foundation grew into. Zollo said she now is called “’trustee emeritus,’ which is what we called Hal these last few years.”
Averett’s dream of bridging the cemeteries could come true.
The city’s to apply for an Environmental Protection Agency brownfield cleanup grant, hoping to gain $500,000 with the city contributing $100,000 more, as the grant requires a local pledge of 20 percent.
The $600,000 is to pay to wipe the site clean: Clearing the structures — 10 buildings in all, including a restaurant, offices, warehouses, covered loading areas and a vehicle maintenance building — taking out the underground tanks and removing or capping the polluted soil.
If the city does that, the foundation proposes establishing a park-like space with walking paths, a pavilion for funerals and possibly a columbarium for housing the ashes of the cremated.
“They come in a lot of sizes and shapes,” Zollo said of the columbarium. But it does not have to be a building: It could be a low wall, say 2 feet thick and 3 feet tall, that angles through a camellia garden with a flagstone walkway and benches, she said.
Part of the property would be used for parking, because Porterdale has none. People wouldn’t be parking there all the time, so the area could be grassed.
The city’s grant proposal shows some pavement may be on the site anyway, to cap polluted soil with asphalt and gravel.
Amenities may include an exhibit with a map guiding visitors to notable gravesites. The foundation already has a handy guide on its website, riverdaleporterdale.org, marking the graves of local luminaries such as Ma Rainey, Primus King, William Spencer, Aaron Cohn and “Columbus Stockade Blues” duo Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarleton.
If the city accepts its proposal, the foundation pledges to maintain the property, just as it has helped repair and maintain the cemeteries, adding trees and shrubbery, installing brick columns at entrances and renovating Riverdale’s 1915 sexton’s house, with its archway and bell tower.
The city has solicited other ideas for the old market. Some of the suggestions at a Jan. 8 public meeting included a pet cemetery, an urban or community garden with a teaching component, a city market like New Orleans’ French Market, other reuses for the existing buildings, or a “sensory garden.”
Zollo said a sensory garden has plants with textures and aromas that can help the visually impaired, and those with autism or dementia. The plantings also can feed birds whose calls add to the experience.
Gardens are in keeping with the foundation’s plan, and the rectangular land is long enough to accommodate varied uses.
It has promise, and though Averett is not here to advocate, he saw it coming.
“I suspect he knew it was at least very close at this point,” Zollo said. The foundation will take it from here: “We hope they will allow us to use the property.”
Joining the cemeteries would show “we’re all Columbusites; we’re not two different races.”