After Five Years, Has Jacksonville’s New Town Success Zone Made a Difference? James B. Crooks, University of North Florida professor emeritus, author of two books on Jacksonville history and past chair of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, takes a look.
Five years later we begin to have some answers. The city hired Irwin PeDro Cohen, a bright, dedicated Jacksonville native and University of North Florida graduate with business experience to manage the effort. Administrative responsibility was shifted from the city to Edward Waters College to provide more flexibility and continuity. Four focus areas were identified: neighborhood safety and stability, health care, early childhood, and public education including after school programs.
Neighborhood safety and stability was a priority for residents both young and old. Sheriff John Rutherford assigned a team of officers led by zone chief Wayne Clark to reach out to the community in new ways. Instead of telling residents what they should do to protect themselves, the police asked about their needs. Officers listened to grandmas tell of boarded up buildings, pitted streets, broken sidewalks, missing street lamps and overgrown shrubbery, which made the neighborhood unsafe and unattractive. The officers called the city’s public works department, JEA and other agencies to begin to clean up. They recruited men and women from the prison farm to remove debris from streets, sidewalks and other public properties. They took a closed community center next to Eugene Butler School and turned it into the Mitchell Center for teen basketball and other activities. The basketball and tag football teams won citywide trophies. Officers took kids to sporting events and concerts. They provided clothes, back packs and food in partnership with other community volunteers. In the process the kids began to see the police as no longer their enemies. Butler principal Sylvia Johnson concluded JSO officers made a huge difference with the kids.
Regular patrols cut the crime rate substantially, particularly drug deals. In the first year of this new community policing, the number of crimes dropped 25 percent. This past year it dropped another 16 percent. Drugs, gangs and crime still exist, but when a drive by shooting took place in November, 2012, neighbors helped the police identify and arrest the perpetrators. Safety remains a concern, but police and community have partnered to address residents’ fears. The completion of a police substation under construction on the campus of Edward Waters will provide an anchor focus for law enforcement in the community.
Neighborhood stability also depends upon adequate housing. HabiJax has increased its ties to New Town. It has committed all of its resources on building and repairing homes there for the next four years. HabiJax coordinator Angela Leatherbury, estimates that 140 houses have been built since the late 1990s with 25 more scheduled for 2013. The longer term envisions 100 more houses built.
Some properties are donated by the city; others are purchased. Housing costs run about $100,000 per unit with interest free mortgages. Their sizes range from 1000 to 1300 square feet with heating, air conditioning and kitchen appliances. Applicants must pass a review board, have a stable monthly income sufficient to meet expenses including mortgage payments, pay a one percent down payment and commit to 300 hours of “sweat-equity” to qualify. In effect, new homeowners work to achieve their goals. Their efforts have resulted in a very low foreclosure rate over the past fifteen years increasing community stability.
Meanwhile JEA has begun an energy audit of New Town housing to determine ways in which residents can reduce their use of electricity and water, promising modifications without charge.
Missing in New Town in 2008 was a public park. A group of resident-volunteers engaged in a Photovoice project sponsored by a coalition of organizations and funded by the Women’s Giving Alliance. Their goal was to strengthen the voices of women as community leaders. The women developed a photographic essay of their community and concluded that New Town needed a park. They persuaded Edward Waters to donate the land and the city to build a park which opened in 2012. Named by the women, the two-acre Success Park includes walking paths for older citizens and playground equipment for kids.
Across from the park, Second Harvest Food Bank is partnering with the community to create Success Gardens which this spring will provide fresh fruits and vegetables for residents. Residents also can shop at the Beaver Street Farmers Market where food stamps are now accepted, if they have transportation.
Site of Success Park in September 2011.
Success Park Grand Opening - October 2012
Nutritious food and exercise are but two parts of developing a healthy community, the second priority of New Town Success Zone. Under the leadership of Michael Lanier from Baptist Health Care Systems, the community has developed additional components. First, with a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, Baptist partnered with the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida to survey New Town. They employed and trained 25 residents to engage in door to door interviews. Their neighbors responded enthusiastically completing 625 interviews, substantially beyond the goal of 500. Instead of experts telling the community what their problems were, the residents told the experts. The results showed that more than half the children in New Town had asthma, more than twice the rate of children across the city. Without treatment, children miss school and parents miss work. The results led the Baptist Foundation to fund a registered nurse to treat children at both S.P Livingston and Eugene Butler schools. In addition, each year children are screened for and provided eye glasses. A substantial number need them.
Most recently, Michael Lanier and Baptist’s partners at Shands and Mayo have created a Center for the Prevention of Health Disparities on the Edward Waters campus to address the higher incidence of sickness among New Town and other inner city residents. It opened in February 2013 with the goal of identifying and finding solutions for the major health disparities existing between poorer and middle class residents in Jacksonville.