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VOL. 125 | NO. 55 | Monday, March 22, 2010

Rhodes Fights for Neighborhoods With Plough’s Help

By Tom Wilemon

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Michael Kirby sat at the center of a table with a long list of complaints about specific addresses in the Hollywood-Springdale area and patiently went through them one by one.

Drug sales on Eldridge Avenue. Industrial junk on Shasta Avenue. Run-down houses on Hunter Avenue.

Kirby knew something about every property, and so did officials from the city, the county and other government agencies. These officials gave progress reports on the old complaints and set about addressing the new ones.

This meeting at the Hollywood Library between community residents and government officials occurs every month.

Kirby organized the “Police and Joint Agency Committee” meetings, but he doesn’t live in the neighborhood.

Kirby is the Plough Professor of Urban Studies at Rhodes College. The monthly meetings are just one initiative of the college’s urban studies program that focuses on several neighborhoods in the North Midtown area.

The program, which was funded with a $1.5 million grant in 2005 from the Plough Foundation, just got additional money from the nonprofit to do more. The Plough Foundation has invested another $750,000 to support the revitalization efforts.

Kirby said his first visit to the community a few years ago spurred him to do something when he took a group of college students to see an affordable housing development.

“I was horrified,” he said.

Kirby saw illicit drug sales in open daylight, weeds struggling to push past litter and vacant lots with hundreds of old tires.

In 2004, Rhodes College established a community resource center in the neighborhood with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Plough Foundation funded the program after the grant ran out.

“When we came into the neighborhood, government was missing in action,” Kirby said. “There were just all kinds of signs that government wasn’t doing much in this area. What has really surprised me is how excited they have been about working in this area.”

The community’s problems are far from solved, but neighborhood property owners said Rhodes is making a difference.

“If more neighbors would just come out and just listen and bring their complaints here, the agencies of the city and the county are here,” Maggie Bolden said. “They participate and they follow up. That’s the thing. They follow up.”

Mary Adkins said the key to getting more done is generating greater participation from neighborhood residents.

“We need more stakeholders to really care,” Adkins said. “Our neighborhood is so blighted now. We want to bring it back and bring some businesses into the neighborhood.”

Rhodes is considering using part of the additional funding from the Plough Foundation for small grants to train residents in grassroots leadership and to help businesses in becoming community partners, said Suzanne Bonefas, directors of special projects at Rhodes.

The money will also go toward continued funding of internships for students to work in the community and a full-time community liaison.

“The things that are interesting to us are the community revitalization and involving the students in that work,” said Barbara Jacobs, program director of the Plough Foundation.

The accomplishments of the program led the foundation to provide more funding, she said.

The program helps turn vacant lots into community gardens. It worked to secure a bigger police presence. And it provided staffing so the Vollintine Evergreen Community Association could serve as a welcome center.

“When Rhodes first came into this area, I spoke to a number of resident groups and businesses and they all asked me the same question,” Kirby said.

They asked how long Rhodes would work to improve the community and expressed doubts about any long-term commitment.

“What the Plough Foundation has given us is an opportunity to work in the area year after year,” Kirby said. “This is going to continue forever. My position is endowed, so whoever takes over from me will continue working in perpetuity. That funding is there.”

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