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Residents support each other amid environmental battles
UGA created plan in 10 to add to quality of community life
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Gainesville School Board member Willie Mitchell and Faye Bush, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, walk along Desota Street in the Newtown community. - photo by Tom Reed

About the series

These days, small towns are beginning to look more and more alike, with a fast-food chain on the corner and a big-box retailer down the street. But this winter, The Times will take you to the unique communities within Hall County, sharing their history, their characters and their charm. Look for a story each day through the New Year. To see previous profiles, go to gainesvilletimes.com/hamlets.

Newtown resident Cheryl Castleberry can remember playing with other neighborhood kids in a clear field until Blaze Recycling & Metals set up shop on that land.

Newtown is 10 city blocks located in southeastern Gainesville that grew from the discarded remains of others after a devastating tornado in 1936.

The community has several industrial businesses situated nearby, and residents have complained about the smell of chemicals in the air and of family members and loved ones who have died of illness and disease.

Still battling the demons of the past, the community fights for better living conditions. Some said its strength comes from an organization known as the Newtown Florist Club.

“We shouldn’t have to live like that,” said Faye Bush, executive director of the club.

The Newtown Florist Club, an environmental justice organization, was formed in 1950 when neighbors who were collecting money for funerals would sometimes come up short. More than a dozen women made up the founding members; 10 cents was due from everyone at each meeting. Members later discovered that some residents were coming down with high rates of lupus and cancer.

The community includes about 100 people, mostly African-Americans with a few Hispanics. The area is mostly older people, their children having grown and moved away. But some residents stay or even move into the community.

Community activist Andre Cheek grew up in Gainesville, but she moved to the neighborhood in 1999. If the community has a problem, they bring it to the club, she said.

“The florist club is the beating heart of the community,” Cheek said. “It centers and grounds the community.”

Bush, a neighborhood resident for about 50 years, said the club has fought toxins from the Purina feed mill and the Cargill manufacturing plant. They’ve complained about the dust and the noise of the Blaze junkyard.

Many residents living near the Old County Landfill located off of Athens Highway and U.S. Highway 129 complained last summer about the smell of decaying food being composted in a nearby landfill. Hall County stopped the food waste composting because it was prohibited under the property’s zoning and land-use laws.

“They should come in and find out what’s being released into this community,” Bush said.

Despite the area’s challenges, Castleberry, 40, said growing up in Newtown “was pretty cool.” A fourth generation resident, the medical assistant lives in her father’s house on Desota Street.

“Everyone was nice and looked out for one another,” she said.

It’s the original house built after the 1936 tornado destroyed downtown Gainesville, killing more than 200. Many African-American residents were relocated to what was then named New Town, according to a 1998 book “The Newtown Story: One Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice,” by Ellen Griffith Spears and published by the Center for Democratic Renewal and the Newtown Florist Club.

Castleberry’s father Jerry, who suffers from lupus, was born in that house 65 years ago. She has lost two grandmothers to lupus and cancer.

“It’s a huge problem.” Castleberry said.

The University of Georgia created a plan in 2010 to add more quality of life to Newtown. It created and imagined more retail businesses in the area such as grocery stores in the area. Newtown established a community garden and residents picked the vegetables that grew.

The community has been cleaned up a lot, Castleberry said, and she’s proud to be part of it.

“It’s built on good principles.”

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