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Preserving Fair Street
Group to make decisions about neighborhood growth, preservation

James Brooks walks past two manicured lawns on College Avenue, proudly proclaims their owners' history and narrows his eyes in contempt.

His eyes fixed on a trail of Cash 3 lottery tickets that leads toward the Kangaroo on Athens Highway, Brooks acknowledges that things could be worse.

"This is a good day," the 69-year-old fixture of the Fair Street area said. "Come down here when they got a big jackpot, like Mondays - whooo."

Brooks is an observer. As he walks through the streets of his native neighborhood, noticing the trees and the growth of his neighbor's tomato plants, Brooks also notices the less desirable inhabitants of his neighborhood and the litter that always comes back to visit.

He is not the only one. Brooks sits on a steering committee for Gainesville's first neighborhood planning unit. The committee, which includes area residents and Gainesville's senior planner, Jessica Dempsey-Tullar, will soon take part in decisions about neighborhood growth and efforts to preserve some of the neighborhood's historical sites.

"Whatever happens, we want to be a part of it," Brooks said. "We know we can't hold back progress, but we want to be able to implement smart progress, smart growth and growth that respects our tradition and our cultures."

The committee has spent its first year organizing and meeting with members of various city departments and determining goals and objectives for the future of the 330-acre area situated on the south side of the city.

Most of the group's goals are simple: Members want to protect the residential nature of the area they call home, get rid of the blight and make others appreciate it.

Some of that protection involves preserving how the neighborhood got its character. Brooks points out homes of past professors of the once-segregated schools, owners of pressing shops and his desire to keep those memories standing in the neighborhood the way they are.

"This is the only thing left of the traditional ‘over there' black neighborhood," Brooks said. "This is all that's left."

Mayor Myrtle Figueras, whose ward includes the Fair Street area, said one of the most important things to her is maintaining the single-family residential feel of the neighborhood, which is actually zoned to allow multifamily uses, such as apartments.

"Because our lots are less than is required (to be zoned) R-1 that's why we were designated R-2," Figueras said.

Figueras and the rest of the group hopes the neighborhood can be rezoned into a neighborhood conservation district that would help the residents "maintain the feel of a neighborhood rather than it becoming ... apartments, everything else," Figueras said.

To Brooks, preserving the history is important. If neighborhood residents appreciate the history of the neighborhood, they would be more inclined to take care of it.

On his daily walk, Brooks points out blighted homes where young men go in with backpacks on and later leave without their luggage. Having lived in the neighborhood for almost 70 years, Brooks says he is not blind to what may sometimes go on in those houses.

He thinks if those residents and the ones who discard their trash on the street knew about the history of their neighborhood community, they may act differently.

"If people know about it, they have a sense of ownership," Brooks said. "If you have a sense of ownership ... you want to preserve some of it. It gives you a sense of place."

For Brooks, one of the biggest parts of preserving the charm of his neighborhood is keeping it clean. He spends one day a week walking the streets around his Summit Street home picking up the litter left by those who have not learned to appreciate a clean street. He notes another neighbor cleans the streets Brooks does not.

The litter always returns, usually in the form of lottery tickets and Burger King food wrappers.

"I find that so offensive. This is my neighborhood, and the people who litter, they live in here too, but they don't have that sense of place," Brooks said.

One of the goals of the planning unit is to have the city's Public Works department install city-owned trash cans throughout the neighborhood, and to have the city post "No Littering" signs to remind people that such an act is not acceptable.

Aside from the trash, some of the homes in the area have lived long years without much upkeep. Part of the purpose of the planning unit is to have the City Marshal's office come in and educate residents about building codes and help them take care of code violations.

The planning unit wants to create a stronger sense of community by organizing a neighborhood volunteer group that will help other property owners with lawn maintenance and painting projects.

Members of the group have high hopes for restoring and preserving their community, and not all of their goals and objectives have plans of action yet.

The group wants to find a way to get rid of absentee landlords who care more about collecting a rent check than maintaining properties, and find a way to take houses away from known drug dealers.

"At this point (members of the group decided) if we could have the pie in the sky, this is what we would see happen," Dempsey-Tullar said.

Dempsey-Tullar says achieving those goals is going to take a lot of brainstorming, and next month, the group will meet to prioritize goals and later figure out how to tackle the most important ones.

But the group, no matter how ambitious, will set a precedent for other neighborhood planning groups across the city. Dempsey-Tullar expects a similar group from the Ivey Terrace area to soon follow in the Fair Street footsteps. One day, all wards in the city will have their own planning unit to give the neighborhoods more of a voice in the way those areas are developed than they have had in the past, Figueras said.

"Wherever you live, then you should have the right to talk about what you want to be near you," Figueras said. "It lets the residents of the neighborhood have a say in where you'd like to live."

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