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Newtown project aims to resurrect neighborhood values
Beautification effort will target deteriorating homes in venerable Gainesville hamlet
Newtown residents Jerome Whelchel and Delinda Luster walk Friday morning along Desota Street, where well-maintained homes line the street in the historically African-American neighborhood. The Newtown Florist Club has launched the Newtown Beautification and Restoration Project to resurrect community spirit, clean up the neighborhood and mend dilapidated housing.

When trash rides the wind like tumbleweeds down the residential streets of Gainesville’s Newtown neighborhood, Delinda Luster wonders what outsiders must think.

“We want people to see something else,” she said.

When the house next door in this historically African-American neighborhood is in such disrepair it is more shotgun shack than family home, Jerome Whelchel is left shaking his head.

“We come from a very old neighborhood,” he said. “And back then ... people were real dedicated about keeping our community clean. The new generation now is not focused on how well things look, especially in this neighborhood.”

Luster witnessed a slow deterioration in the neighborhood over the decades, beginning in the 1980s, as older families moved out and younger ones moved in.

And when today’s generation is disconnected from the historic pride and tradition of the neighborhood, the consequences trickle down.

“Down through the years our parents and grandparents invested so much ... we owe a lot to the legacy that they left behind,” Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club civil rights group, said. “That is why this project is so important.”

The club has launched the Newtown Beautification and Restoration Project, which focuses on resurrecting community spirit, cleaning up the neighborhood and mending the dilapidated housing.

Club members will soon take their plans to city officials in an effort to generate financial and social support.

Specific projects include beautifying the main entrance points to the neighborhood off Athens Highway/Mill Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

This could entail developing a more natural buffer between residences and a nearby recycling processing company, inspired by the city’s efforts to create a small green space by demolishing a few dilapidated homes along this stretch.

And they hope to erect a sign, to properly mark the neighborhood, that reads: “You are entering Newtown, a proud community and nice place to live.”

Using creative approaches to remove the blight of abandoned and vacant properties in Newtown is a critical part of the project. These properties can reduce nearby home values and contribute to crime, according to local government officials and business leaders.

Finding ways to purchase abandoned lots and expand rehabilitation assistance to owners would allow the development of affordable housing and improve rental housing.

“As for the biggest issue that I see, it would be deteriorated rental housing,” Chris Davis, Gainesville’s housing manager, said.

His department is currently constructing several affordable cottage homes between MLK and Mill Street that will be made available for purchase. They also have renovated substandard homes in the neighborhood.

Homeownership can be a powerful way to create community bonds. An estimated half of all homes in the neighborhood are rented, according to Newtown residents.

Improving housing conditions here is also a matter of public health. Substandard rental housing is particularly risky, meaning many low-income families face the biggest threats.

For example, lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978, leaving residents in Gainesville’s oldest homes and neighborhoods, especially Newtown, at the highest risk level for poisoning, according to an October report from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Street improvements are also critical to improving a neighborhood’s health by providing safe places for pedestrians to travel and encouraging visitors.

Safe streets have long been needs for Gainesville’s poorest neighborhoods, where residents often feel underserved by government and community services.

But partnerships, grants and a renewed commitment to the residents of historic African-American neighborhoods like Newtown and Morningside Heights are showing results in Hall County’s work to complete a sidewalk construction project along Floyd Road, for example.

For Luster, the resolve of the neighborhood’s older generation is something she hopes will be passed down to the next.

“We are not where we used to be, but we’re coming back up,” she said. “And it begins with me.”

For Whelchel, it’s the sense of belonging and ownership that will reverse Newtown’s fortunes over the long term. It’s about pride, responsibility and togetherness.

“I’m at a point at my age reflecting on that,” he said. “It’s getting too out of hand. As my father used to say, ‘Be in line with things.’”

Johnson said she believes the project’s vision and mission will be expanded in the coming months as more residents and volunteers get involved.

“Our work today continues to build upon the rich history and tradition of the Newtown community as the village that raises the child by working to make improvements in these key areas,” she said.


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