Wednesday, December 15, 2004
What do you think of when you drive through North Midtown—the area between West and Mill streets and Woodrow Wilson and Fortification? In past years, you might have thought only of danger—that the neighborhood was one of those places where you double-check your car door locks and watch anxiously in your rear-view mirror at stoplights. Today, however, North Midtown is a family-oriented neighborhood just like other respected communities in Jackson. It's a place where mothers let their children play outside, and the elderly sit out on the front porch just taking in the world.
But getting to that place was not easy.
Ten years ago, drug trafficking and loud noise filled the streets of North Midtown. Crack addicts clustered in the many rundown, boarded-up "shotgun" houses. Today, most of the drug problems are gone. Although some problems linger, just like in other neighborhoods, the current levels are nowhere near what they used to be. If you look around today, you can see well over a hundred newly painted, three-bedroom Habitat for Humanity homes sitting right where those crack houses once were. North Midtown is turning itself around.
Excising the Tumor
Althea Collier and her husband, Kenneth Collier, who now live at 335 Duncan Ave., were some of the people who helped stem the tide of the neighborhood's drug problem. The intersection of Blair and Roosevelt streets is where the tumor of drug problem was in darker times. The Colliers, though, were determined to see their community fix the problem; they joined many residents to have "sit-outs" against drugs and violence in the area.
"I made a promise to myself that (after) seeing everything that happened on Roosevelt, I would help," Althea Collier says. "When the opportunity came for me to do my part, it was truly a blessing. Maurice Canard and my husband went from door to door, and then they met with City Councilwoman Margaret Barrett and decided to make signs and clean up all the trash out in the streets."
Collier describes the past: "There used to be gunshots all the time. People were hungry in the streets. The thing that opened my eyes was when I saw my kids walk through those same streets on their way to school. It was the fear of seeing my children get hurt."
The area was one of Jackson's worst hotbeds for drug activity before the neighborhood banded together. "I bet 90 percent of the calls to the police were from the Roosevelt/Blair area, but when they came you never knew what was going to happen. Back then, I would see an armed policeman running after a bare-footed man on the sidewalk, or once a man had run through our house trying to run from the cops." Collier says.
'Thank You, Lord'
Today, Dorothy Jones lives at 212 Roosevelt, and she, too, was a witness to all the changes in this area. Jones was born in 1952 at 1535 Blair St., and she has lived here all of her life.
"I remember all those juke joints and hole-in-the-wall places where they used to sell all the drugs, but those came down when Habitat for Humanity came in here," she says. Her street used to be a dead-end gravel road. "Then, Habitat came in and they [along with North Midtown CDC and the City] bought some of the lots and put houses on both sides, and I said 'Hallelujah, thank you, Lord.'"
Today, Jones says: "I can sleep with my front door open and the screened door unlatched if I want. I can sit on my front porch and watch neighbors take out each other's garbage and mow each other's lawns in this very neighborhood that used to be so bad."
Between Jones' house and the corner, there used to be seven houses crammed next to each other. Now, there are only two normal-sized houses there.
The neighborhood even has a new name. Since it began in the 1950s, the region was known as the Factory Hill Subdivision; however, it was recently renamed North Midtown when the community decided to turn around and put a new face on itself.
Help, and Be Helped
Dorothy Jones and her daughter Amberia have been very active in the turn-around. In fact, they live in a Habitat for Humanity house themselves. Jones recalls that when she moved, "I left all my old roach-infested furniture over there in my old house. After moving into the Habitat House, I got a financial blessing, and I got new furniture. It was wonderful. From this I have learned that you help other people, and they will help you."
Jones says she realizes that some of the problems will always be there—just like any other inner-city neighborhood, but she is willing to take a leadership role and make a change. She and many other residents are working to help improve things today, especially for the schools. Jones says she is always attending meetings and learning new ways to help through North Midtown Community Development Corporation. She also asserts "With the help of good Rev. Willy Varnado, if someone slips through the cracks at school, we'll try and get them at the church. We are all working together to make things better."
Like Jones, the community as a whole is banding together to improve their schools. The area has two schools—Brown Elementary and Rowan Middle School, which feed Lanier High School, Murrah High School and Bailey High School. M.C. Burkes, director of the North Midtown Community Development Corp., says: "The residents and families are not satisfied with the schools in this area, but we are working on it. Currently, both of our schools here are a Level 2, but our goal is to get to Level 5." They are referring to the achievement label required to be placed on the schools by the federal "No Child Left Behind" act, based on their students' yearly improvement in test scores.
According to the Mississippi Accountability System, a Level 2 School is one that is underperforming, failing to meet growth expectations and achievements. "There is no reason why our schools can't be a Level 5, too," Dorothy Young says. Brown is improving, though. This year, it met the federal "adequate yearly progress" requirements for reading and math.
The North Midtown CDC (Community Development Corp.) is working to improve the education levels in the neighborhood. The nonprofit organization seeks to redevelop Midtown through housing restoration, education, improved quality of life and economic development. They have a GED Center where adults can get tutoring, learn how to make a resume, fill out job applications properly and learn computer skills that are helpful in the job market.
North Midtown CDC also has an Enrichment Center at 215 McTyere Ave that helps about 50 children each afternoon. They offer tutorial services and teach manners and behavior modification, while the kids have fun playing together. Burkes says the program is working so well for the children that they haven't had a fight there in over two years, when all you used to see the kids do is fight. The kids can get help at the Enrichment labs for math, science, reading and computers.
M.C. Burkes has lived in this neighborhood for nine years. Today, he happily resides at 311 Alexander St. When asked about the area's history, he replies, "At one time, it was very vibrant. Look at the houses. People could afford very nice houses a long time ago."
A Segregated Past
Burkes is right. Observing the architecture there, one will notice that from McTyere Avenue to Woodrow Wilson, almost all the houses are brick. However, from Livingston Street to Fortification, most of the older homes have wooden frames and wood siding.
Why is this? Like every other place in Jackson prior to the Civil Rights Movement, North Midtown was fairly segregated. The white people lived mainly where the brick houses are today and from Lamar Street eastward. The blacks lived where most of the wood-siding houses are today in the southwestern corner of the neighborhood. Ironically, Lamar, the street separating the sections, used to be called Greyson Street. (white+black=grey).
So what happened to this vibrant place of the '50s? "It was white flight and neglect from the city," Burkes says. "Absentee landlords are milking property for all it is worth, while providing no maintenance for their tenants. That is why many of the houses were run-down."
Fortunately, help was on the way. Today Habitat for Humanity is building new homes all over North Midtown. There are around 180 Habitat Homes in the area. In fact, two are now being built on McTyere Avenue and Millsaps Avenue. These homes have changed the lives of many families.
When asked why he lives in North Midtown now, Burkes replies: "I would have to say convenience, because we are very near downtown. Some other advantages are that we live less than a mile from three major hospitals (Baptist, UMC and St. Dominic's Hospitals) and two major colleges (Millsaps College and Belhaven College)—they are good sources for jobs and are close enough that one can walk to work. We are also very close to the interstate, and don't forget that because of our past reputation and the landlords, our homes are a bit more affordable than some of the comparable areas around like the Belhaven area and the Fondren area."
Burkes says of crime in the area, "It varies now. The noise of the neighborhood has gotten much better, but some of the crime is still there. There will always be drugs here to some extent." In North Midtown there have been nine total crimes since the beginning of October. Seven of these crimes were crimes of property theft and the other two were violent crimes: an aggravated assault and a rape. Midtown is located in Precinct 4, headquartered at 3304 State Street. Most of the crimes in North Midtown are auto burglary. Burkes' comments are consistent with this. He says: "The majority of our problems are car break-ins and auto theft. There are not many home break-ins here. The perception of crime here is a little higher than reality."
What Do the Kids Do?
North Midtown is so densely populated with families that one can't help but wonder what all the kids in the neighborhood do. M.C. Burkes answers this well: "They mostly hang out in the streets and in the parks. They play basketball and kickball after school and on the weekends. However, it troubles me with them in the streets. We need a center for them. We need to have something positive for the children to engage in."
The two parks Burkes is referring to are Benjamin Bryant Park and Wightman Park. Wightman Park has been the talk of the neighborhood lately because North Midtown CDC raised funds to renovate it. "It was lying dormant before, with just some patches of grass and asphalt," Burkes says. "The basketball goal was 11 feet tall back then. Now after the renovation and the addition of the playground, the pavilion and the new basketball goals, it is buzzing with activities on the weekend. You see family reunions and picnics there all the time. It is definitely being utilized now."
Dorothy Jones remembers during the 1960s when Wightman Park was just a big, tall grass field on Livingston: "I just get so happy when I think about all the children that are playing there now. I remember when I was a little girl, and on the second day of school I was playing over there with all my brothers. I was running real hard when I cut my foot on a piece of glass. My mama said, 'I told you not to be playin' in that field with those boys.' So she wrapped a piece of red meat up in a white rag soaked in turpentine and put it on my foot. Then she said, 'A ha, get your bad ass back out there now."
When Dorothy Jones reminisces about all the ups and downs of her life in Midtown, I can't help but listen attentively. Ms. Jones truly has nothing less than a home for her heart, a tomb for her troubles and a spark for her soul in North Midtown.
An Artistic Integration
Andy Young, the owner and artist of Pearl River Glass Studio at 142 Millsaps Ave., comments about the Millsaps Arts District and how the street artistically integrated itself into Midtown. His was the first studio to move there in 1976, and then in 1980 Susan Ford bought a studio on Wilson Street around the corner. He then recalls, "In the mid-80s Debra and Chip Billups formed the 121 Millsaps Corporation and bought four buildings to renovate and rent out as artists' studios. That really pushed the district over the edge."
Debra Billups was also the woman that lobbied the city to name Millsaps Avenue as the Arts District. This led to the inclusion of many new, wonderful local artists, such as Chris Porter, Susan Ford and Gretchen Haines.
"The creation of such an area has led to wonderful collaborations," says Young. "For example it has given me a chance to work together with Ed Millet on a commissioned work. He did the metal work, and I did the glass work."
Unfortunately, the Arts District has never reached the point where it is massive enough to attract restaurants and the like. It's always been kind of struggling. However, Young says, "Recently, a medical company that makes prosthetic body parts bought the old Mori Luggage Warehouse on the corner of McTyere and Wilson St., and that says a lot for the area. It obviously has attracted some type of commercial activity, which has led to increasing all the property values around it."
I know I'm "bringing up old crap" here. But, I just wanted to say that I have worked with M.C. Burkes in the North Midtown area for the past four months. He is one of the best people I've ever met. Hands down. He's also one of my most favorite people in the world. He tolerates me because I know who Sara Vaughn and Billie Holliday are... and I'll sneak away and eat vegetarian with him on work trips. He continues to do great things in that community.
- Lori G
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