History provides framework for one neighborhood’s comeback

by Jordan Green

Volunteers at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church plated up turkey, ham and sides during a community dinner on Thanksgiving morning. (photo by Cheryl Green)

New Hope Missionary Baptist Church opened its fellowship hall for its third annual community dinner on Thanksgiving morning. Visitors looking for take-out meals filed into the kitchen; those who wanted to share the meal went through a buffet line at the back of the room. Volunteers loaded plates with the entrée — a choice of turkey or ham — and all the traditional sides.

At 11:30 a.m., church members, community organizers, at least one elected official and people who were simply looking for a holiday meal and fellowship heard a presentation about an initiative to revitalize the South English Street area, known to older residents as the Cottage Grove community.

“English Street used to be called Cottage Grove Avenue,” said Marilyn Baird, a member of the church who has been active in the revitalization effort. “This used to be a dirt road, but now it’s paved.”

Baird’s observation prompted a collective “amen.” Based on an effort in the East Lake community of Atlanta led by the nonprofit Purpose Built Communities, the Cottage Grove initiative works from an ambitious model known as holistic community revitalization that merges diversification of housing stock to accommodate a wide range of incomes, so-called “cradle-to-college” education emphasis, job training and private investment, among other factors.

Carol R. Naughton, senior vice president of Purpose Built Communities, was the keynote speaker at the annual Housing Summit, hosted by the Greensboro Housing Coalition last February. Afterwards, Naughton met with District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, city staff and nonprofit leaders to discuss bringing the program to Greensboro. Two representatives of the Atlanta nonprofit reportedly visited the Cottage Grove community in July. And, in October, the housing coalition highlighted the initiative in its annual educational bus tour.

New Hope Missionary Baptist Church is a community partner in the initiative. Hampton Elementary is an educational partner, and Superintendent Mo Green is reportedly enthusiastic about the effort. The target area is roughly midway between the Main Campus of NC A&T University and the South Campus of the Gateway University Research Park, which houses the new Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.

Organizers envision Cottage Grove as a bedroom community for future workers in the nanotechnology sector linked to the new campus by a pedestrian-friendly greenway. Skip Crowe, with the housing coalition, has said that his organization is working with the owners of Avalon Trace, a low-income apartment complex whose predominant population is Southeast Asian refugees, to redevelop the property.

A flyer describing the revitalization initiative that was handed out at the community dinner describes both an attractive past and the challenged present: “The South English Street area was once a thriving, safe community. But over time, housing stock has deteriorated, and crime has moved in.”

That characterization only partially tracks with resident Geneva Headen’s perception of the community. She has lived in a house built by her father for 49 years. One thing she likes about living in Cottage Grove is that her church, New Hope Missionary Baptist, is right across the street.

“It’s still a good community,” she said after the program, when asked about crime levels. “You’re always going to have your bad seeds…. For the most part, it’s not bad. You take a chance on any side of town.”

As relates to the housing stock, she said she would like to see more single-family homes in the neighborhood. “We need a makeover,” she said. “A lot of apartments are

boarded up.” Habitat for Humanity has recently received a $250,000 grant

from Wells Fargo. Baird said three fifths of the funds will be used to finance a door-to-door outreach effort to find out what specific changes residents want to see. Through outreach, orga- nizers hope to engage residents in a bottom-up effort to craft a strategy for revitalization that will be shaped by members of the community and that will enjoy broad support. Crowe said beginning in January organizers will hold plan-

ning sessions so that residents can meet with an architect. Residents will be invited to designate where they want to see different types of development, such as retail. Crowe also emphasized the importance of early childhood education in his remarks. “The way a lot of cities look at how many jail cells they need to have is to look at third-grade reading levels,” he said. “That’s a cycle we need to break, folks.” The residents and organizers received a pep talk from Mayor Pro Tem-elect Yvonne Johnson, who took time out from prepar- ing a Thanksgiving meal for her family to attend. Johnson related a personal story about surviving a miscarriage during her first pregnancy as an example of withstanding adversity. She said after praying about what she would say, she decided that she needed to testify.

“You need to really talk about the fact that with God all things are possible,” she had told herself. At the end of her remarks, she concluded, “We’ve stopped telling our stories.” Thomas L. McFarlin, a charter deacon at New Hope Mission- ary Baptist Church, did just that.

“Black history is no comic-book situation,” he said, prefac- ing a story about his experience as an African-American truck driver in the 1950s. “I drove extensively in nine Southeast states.

I could stop and buy gas, but I couldn’t use the restroom and I couldn’t get a drink of water.”

In Atlanta; Lexington, Ky.; Bristol, Va. and Birmingham, Ala. he could find lodging, he said. If nightfall found him any place in between he would have to seek out a black family that might have a spare room. On one such occasion, he woke up in Leba- non, Tenn. in a bed crawling with bugs. Some in the audience laughed, and McFarlin reminded them that the experience was not humorous.

He sketched the changes in the neighborhood since the time when the streets were unpaved in the 1950s. He mentioned a “smooth, harmonious transition” during the desegregation of Hampton school, where McFarlin served on the PTA. A mention of a garage drew familiar chuckles. Other neighborhood estab- lishments that gave pride to the community included a doctor’s office, an ice plant and small food stores. McFarlin reminisced about a time when there had been no garbage collection, and there had been no water or sewer hookups in Cottage Grove. He said at one time there were only four black policemen in Greensboro, and then listed them by name. The black officers were not allowed to arrest white people, McFarlin said, but emphasized that they took pride in their work because it was an improvement from their previous stations.

“This has been a long journey,” McFarlin said.