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Building a neighborhood

Citizens group pushes for safety initiatives, recreation, better roads

POSTED: December 21, 2008 12:30 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Michelle Mintz looks over the aerial photo map of Mornigside Heights, the area of the county that the Concerned Citizens Group would like to see improved.

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On the south side of Gainesville sits a network of neighborhoods that some call the twilight zone.

Though you aren’t likely to have any paranormal experiences while you’re there, you may get lost in the labyrinth of dead-end streets.

"It looks nothing like the north side of town; it’s like the twilight zone," said the Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson, president of the Concerned Citizens of Gainesville and Hall County.

This old, predominantly black neighborhood hasn’t seen many changes over the years; the main access road is the narrow and crumbling Brown Street.

But the citizens group has banded together to try to bring improvements to the area.

The group is serious about accomplishing its main three goals: improving safety, building a recreational facility and beautifying the neighborhood.

"We want to bring it up to where it looks like it’s connected to the rest of Hall County," said Michelle Mintz, vice president of the group.

The Concerned Citizens group got started in 2007 to help combat some of the drug problems in the area.

And though the group is young, the problems they are trying to fix are not. The isolation of the community has compounded over the years as development has charged forward.

"Without the background, it really is impossible to understand what’s led to all this," said Garland Reynolds, an area architect and a Gainesville native.

* * *

Many of the issues the Southside, or Morningside Heights, faces started in the 1960s when a federal government program known as Urban Renewal came to town.

Urban Renewal was a federal program that aimed to reclaim run-down property for city-initiated development projects.

"This was a program to redevelop selected American cities," Reynolds said. "What was promised was the area would be cleaned up. It didn’t happen exactly that way."

A large number of Gainesville’s African American businesses and homes were claimed by Urban Renewal and replaced by other businesses and roads instead of returning to the thriving black business district it once was.

Many of the members of the Concerned Citizens group remember the days when Athens Street boasted the Roxy movie theater, barber shops and cafes, which have been replaced by a beige strip mall on what is now E.E. Butler Parkway.

The construction of Interstate 985 caused even more problems. The highway effectively cut in half many of the roads leading into town, sealing off the remaining neighborhoods.

"There was really no planning done for that," Reynolds said. "It just sliced right through that area."

And now, with such limited access for hundreds of homes in the Southside, the Concerned Citizens worry that in the case of an emergency or a natural disaster, help may be out of reach.

"My thing is peoples’ safety," said Johnson. "No way out for these people in emergencies, no sidewalks, no lights."

Gloria Evans, the group’s secretary, fears a large scale natural disaster would put many of the neighborhoods’ residents in danger.

"Every street in this community is a dead-end street. We’re landlocked. We don’t want to be like (Hurricane) Katrina. We don’t want to be stuck," Evans said.

The Concerned Citizens want to see more access roads out of the neighborhood. The best possibility they see is a bridge over 985 connecting to Ridge Road, or expanding one of the smaller streets like Biscayne Boulevard.

"We have to make sure that we can get in and out for emergency purposes," Johnson said. "If a big tree fell down here on Floyd Road, emergency vehicles couldn’t get in, you couldn’t land helicopters, the people would just be stuck."

* * *

Driving through the area at night, it’s easy to get lost.

Each street sign is crowned with a yellow ‘dead end’ topper, and the dim lights and circular routes leading to Bethel Church of the Nazarene, the group’s meeting place, illustrate the group’s concerns.

The Concerned Citizens have been actively contacting government officials and inviting them to meetings to explain their goals.

And they are starting to get things done.

After meeting with the group, Hall County Public Works Director Ken Rearden said many projects are already under way in that area.

Brown Street, the main entryway to the area and one of the group’s biggest concerns, is getting some attention. The road dips severely in many places because of collapsed pipes.

"We are finishing up the drainage pipe improvements," Rearden said.

Rearden said additional lights will also be installed, and many roads will be resurfaced over the next year.

"The activity that people will see will encourage them to see that Concerned Citizens are making a difference," Mintz said. "That’s what it’s about ... We’re not just meeting here enjoying each other. We are about improving the community in real ways."

And with its momentum going, the group plans to stay strong to have more of its goals realized.

"We have to do it step by step," Mintz said.

Though the group is having some success getting government assistance, Johnson said he thinks Hall County needs to change the way it does business.

He feels the county is too focused on making money through expansion and not focusing enough on maintaining existing communities.

"They’re after the dollar," Johnson said.

But he said the people of the Concerned Citizens of Gainesville and Hall County, many of whom bear the names of the founders of the original black community, will make sure the neighborhoods get the attention they deserve.

"Stuff our parents took, we don’t take," Johnson said. "These young people are smarter, they want something better for their community."

* * *

The Concerned Citizens start each meeting at Bethel Church of the Nazarene with a prayer, which in a way illustrates the gravity of their efforts.

Their prayers serve as a spiritual metronome, beginning and ending each meeting and keeping tempo, a reminder of the goals they have to leave their neighborhoods better for their children.

"We thank you first, Lord, for the blessing that we have to be able to live and to enjoy our neighborhoods, Lord. And to live wherever we desire, God. God, we also give you praise for this organization and for all that we are striving to do," Mintz prayed she led the group in prayer at its December meeting.

Following the prayer they discuss what they have accomplished and what they have left to do.

With many of the safety and road projects under way, the group has started pursuing its other priorities — recreation and beautification.

The Concerned Citizens feel there is a pressing need for a recreational facility in the area, similar to the East Hall Community Center.

They have been seeking out property and looking for grant money to bring a multiuse recreational facility to the area.

The recently completed Frances Meadows Aquatic Center off of Jesse Jewell Parkway has added some options, but the Concerned Citizens worry that kids without transportation need to have a place to play.

The only gym in the area, at the Butler Center, closed recently, and Johnson feels it could cause problems.

"Butler Gym is already closed. Crime probably will be up," he said. "No gym, more kids on the street. That’s one area we need real bad."

To top off the long term plan for their community, the Concerned Citizens put beautification as a top priority. They want the area to get updated and spruced up to blend in with the rest of the rapidly expanding county.

Many of the old buildings in the area have become rundown or have junk that needs to be removed. Many could use landscaping.

"If you beautify a place, people will respect it," said the Rev. Eddie Walker, a member of the group.

So the Concerned Citizens continue their work, determined to make a difference.

"If we start with prayer and end with prayer, I think everything will be all right," Johnson said.



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