New Town Success Zone Five Years Later

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.

Published May 21, 2013 in Urban Issues -

New Town is located west of downtown Jacksonville between Kings Road, Myrtle Avenue, Beaver Street and CSX's Moncrief Yard.

Almost five years ago in July 2008, Mayor John Peyton and the Jacksonville Children’s Commission established the New Town Success Zone (NTSZ) to turn around a blighted city neighborhood just south of Edward Waters College on the city’s northwest side. Bounded by Myrtle Avenue on the east, Kings Road on the north, Beaver Street on the south and the railroad to the west, New Town according to the 2000 Census was home to approximately 5000 folks including 1575 children. One-third of the adults were unemployed, 35 percent were poor, less than half had high school diplomas and 98.8 percent were African American.

The neighborhood’s children had the highest asthma rate in the city; the schools were failing; and the residents viewed crime as their number one problem. New Town fit the stereotype of inner city collapse.

Mayor Peyton knew the numbers about school kids failing and dropping out. He knew Jacksonville had the highest per capita homicide rate for large cities in Florida. He also recognized that his city could not begin to achieve greatness without improving conditions for folks living in New Town and similar neighborhoods across Jacksonville.

A year earlier at the suggestion of Linda Lanier and her staff at the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, the mayor had taken a group of community leaders to New York to tour the Harlem Children’s Zone, the highly praised program begun by Geoffrey Canada to provide hope for his city’s impoverished children. Canada’s pre-school to college curriculum with wrap around services appeared to be working. Ninety-eight percent of his high school graduates continued on to college.

Returning to Jacksonville, Peyton enlisted a team of supporters led by former sheriff  Nathaniel Glover, and volunteer citizen extraordinaire, Pam Paul, to work with Lanier and the Commission to create a comparable program locally.

After much discussion, New Town was selected from among several inner city neighborhoods based on  its having two neighborhood schools—S.P. Livingston Elementary and Eugene Butler Middle—and Edward Waters College, a potential hub for serving the community. It helped that Glover had become EWC’s president. He had grown up in New Town, graduated from the college and symbolized the potential for success any young person from the community might achieve. There also were a number of churches and businesses along the bordering thoroughfares, plus HabiJax, the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, which already had built or refurbished more than 100 homes in New Town.

A major problem was money. The city and nation were deep in recession. Budgets were tighter than tight. Co-chair Glover suggested building on agencies already serving the community to develop partnerships using existing dollars. A private benefactor was the Chartrand Foundation. Others would follow.

The challenges were great. Residents accurately perceived a high crime rate. The sheriff’s department reported 443 offenses in New Town in 2008, 81 of them violent. S. P. Livingston had an F rating, Eugene Butler a D. Unemployment at 33 percent was three times the city average. Boarded  up buildings next door to inhabited homes often served as drug sites. There were no public parks, supermarkets, pharmacies, libraries or financial institutions. Residents had little access to medical care other than the emergency room at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center.

A coalition of public and private agencies went to work. Barriers existed. How does one find jobs for men and women with relatively little education or technical skills in the midst of a recession? How do nonprofits and the city squeeze dollars from tight budgets to provide programs? How do teachers, youth professionals and volunteers reach kids, many of whom had what Linda Lanier calls toxic stress, the inner city equivalent of PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder?

These children lived in dilapidated houses sometimes without heat, often with one overworked parent or grandparent. Some were in foster homes or homeless. They ate fatty, fast foods in lieu of nutritious meals and read few books. Less than half the kids had internet access. Asthma attacks and other health related disorders interrupted school attendance. Random violence and drugs pervaded the neighborhood. No wonder many were anxious, stressed or depressed.

The question became: given the circumstances, limited resources and seemingly mammoth challenges, could anything substantial be done to enable children and adults in New Town live any semblance of the lives lived by  the more affluent residents of Jacksonville?

Kings Road in 2010

Kings Road in 2011

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.

Related to the health of the New Town residents is the third goal of the success zone: early childhood. Parents and prospective parents need to learn positive measures of child rearing including nutrition, hygiene, physical and emotional development. Reading and talking to one’s kids on a daily basis is important too.
Early on with funding from the Community Foundation, Carol Brady of the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition and partners designed “Jacksonville Children’s University” to train moms and dads in prenatal and early childhood care. Over the years more than sixty parents have taken part. Children are also provided with pre-school opportunities preparing them for kindergarten.

These programs housed in the Schell Sweet Center on the Edward Waters campus joined with a range of services provided by the Family Support Services of North Florida. This private, nonprofit agency implements programs for the Florida Department of Children and Families. They emphasize preventive measures to assist parents and families while also providing remedial support. Their services included parent training, budgeting, resource referrals and GED preparation. There is also a senior fitness group, computer training, health screenings and services for veterans. Their monthly food distribution is particularly popular and necessary for families on tight budgets. For a while Shands provided an in house physician at city expense at Schell Sweet until budget cuts ended the effort. Efforts are underway to find a replacement. Seattle-based Casey Family Programs has designated Schell Sweet as one of its national “Community of Hope” centers for its exemplary work, a citation that may bring additional funds to the community.
The final major thrust of the New Town Success Zone is education particularly at the two public schools. At S. P. Livingston, children wear uniforms and the classroom is enhanced by extracurricular activities such as girl scouts, Boys & Girls Club, and the involvement of Celebration  Church volunteers. Results have been positive as state ratings of Livingston  have improved from an F to a C over the past five years.

Eugene Butler has been a greater challenge, partly because the children are older and more aware of their dysfunctional environment.  They are more likely to challenge authority. Also subject matter in middle school is more challenging. In the earlier years Principal Johnson identified 40 percent of students as two to five years behind peers. She established a Renaissance Academy within the school to separate and enable the overage students to focus on catching up at their own pace. She engaged children in annual district wide science fairs, reached out to parents and police who established the after school intramural program at the Mitchell Center. When cold weather came, Johnson sought help in providing warm coats for kids who otherwise did not come to school. Seemingly simple things like providing underwear, socks and shoes for kids at both schools fall under the principals’ domain.

The merger of Paxson Middle School with Butler in 2011 brought fresh challenges as teenagers from different, sometime competitive neighborhoods, began classes together. Butler students have struggled with state ratings and the school currently has a D. In an effort to help, United Way has introduced its highly successful Achievers for Life program for sixth graders who are behind in subject matter or have absentee or disciplinary problems.

Both schools have partnered with Edward Waters College, which long had been in the community but not engaged with the community. Now EWC athletes volunteer to mentor or read to youngsters. Butler and Livingston children attend college sporting and cultural events. They hold special activities on the college campus. President Glover wants to encourage the younger children to learn to think of college as the next step following high school. He calls it raising expectations and creating a “culture of hope.”

Edward Waters’ community commitment also is seen in donating the land for Success Park,  housing the new Center for  the Prevention of Health Disparities, and hosting the proposed police sub-station.

Also important for the New Town children is BOLD (Building Our Limitless Dreams), the Boys and Girls Club’s partnership with the children at both public schools under the direction of  Cedric Hicks. Recruiting some 250 kids from Livingston and Butler (with more on the waiting list), BOLD provides a range of after school programs which have contributed to improved promotion rates at both schools.

The  Best of BOLD parent group has been active providing additional support. It recently celebrated its third anniversary honoring the role fathers play in school and community. It sponsor, Jewel Flornoy, from the nonprofit War on Poverty program, also has a parenting group called Stork’s News for 28 women and men which encourages members to work together on common issues. One participant recently graduated from the Clare White Mission janitorial program, and another from the Beaver Street Enterprise hospitality program. For Flornoy, seeing hearts and minds opening to these new opportunities brings satisfaction.

Missing from New Town’s cradle to college scenario is a high school component. Butler Middle School graduates may go to Raines High School, but they may also choose to attend Ribault, Jackson, Lee, or another magnet school. In effect, these high school students move out of the community and beyond New Town’s support or control. PeDro Cohen is concerned about this situation but has yet to find a solution. The move of Northside Community Initiative, an after school program for teens, to the old James Weldon Johnson school site just north of Edward Waters, may provide a partial answer. So too might  a data system for all New Town residents including teens which would enable the program to maintain contact with the teenagers. Cohen is looking for state funding resulting  from the recently concluded legislative session.

Another concern is employment and training for a neighborhood where many people have no jobs. LISC Jacksonville (Local Initiative Support Corporation of Jacksonville) has begun a GED program for adults at Eugene Butler which will feed into technical training programs at FSCJ, all tuition-free. More significant would be a substantial improvement in the local and national economies to provide jobs as happened in the 1990s.
For five years a lot of people partnering in multiple organizations have worked hard in New Town openings doors and encouraging residents, both children and adults. Residents gather monthly in the Better Living Community Association meetings to discuss issues. Safety remains a major concern. So are jobs. Newer residents want grocery stores with a full range of healthy foods. They also would like a pharmacy and need a clinic as an alternative to Shands. One mom voiced a desire for an ice cream store to treat her children, a facility suburban moms often take for granted.

Bertha Richardson, the retiring president of the Better Living Community Association, praises the new energy level in New Town reflecting hope and belief in the possibility of more change.

New Town Success Zone Executive Director Irwin PeDro Cohen

Much has happened in five years, and there is the promise of more with a new school superintendent, a center focusing on health disparities, and additional HabiJax homes. The success of multiple agencies partnering with limited funds remains extraordinary. Sustainability is crucial because five years of effort can not  turn around a neighborhood like New Town. The kindergarteners of a half decade ago have not yet reached middle school and have a long way to go. The public-private partnerships need to continue thinking long term.

For co-chairs Glover and Paul, executive director Cohen, the partnership agencies, and the community residents, the goal is continued positive change for New Town, especially for the children.

Article by James B. Crooks

Crooks is University of North Florida professor emeritus, author of two books on Jacksonville history and past chair of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.

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Metro Jacksonville