Fund Aids Resident-Led Revitalization In Wilmington-Area Neighborhoods

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WILMINGTON, Delaware – Edgemoor Gardens, a 1940s-era row-house neighborhood originally built as worker housing, had experienced an all-too-familiar downward spiral: properties began to deteriorate; investors bought them cheaply and offered them for rent at low prices; renters lacked commitment to the neighborhood; litter, poor maintenance and crime began to flourish.

But in 2006, Edgemoor Gardens’ story took a new turn. A small group of residents started The Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative with the goal of finding a path to solutions.

“We realized early on that the crime, deteriorating properties, dumping of garbage and overall decline of this suburb could not be handled by a police action,” a group report states. “It is a social problem at the core. Social problems are people problems. It will take people to change.”

Today, Edgemoor Gardens is actively changing people, from school children to entire families.

The progress in Edgemoor Gardens, and other similar neighborhoods around Wilmington, has prompted the trustees of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to invest more than $400,000 in the University of Delaware’s Wilmington Area Neighborhood Development initiative, a joint project of the University and the Federal Home Loan Bank. The trustees made their second grant of $175,180 to the University in February.

Through a competitive process, the University selects neighborhoods interested in community improvement to participate in the initiative, and provides technical assistance and funding to help community stakeholders in those neighborhoods identify their needs, plan their activities and achieve their goals.

The work grows out of recognition by both the University and the bank that they, as major institutions, have a role to play in building healthier communities. The University sees a responsibility to extend its resources — knowledge, technical expertise and human capital — to its surrounding community. The bank, which has a mandate to support affordable housing and community development, hopes to see a better return on its community reinvestments.

Edgemoor Gardens is one of nine Wilmington area communities that were initially accepted into the WAND program in 2008. Six of those communities, commonly called “Blueprint Communities,” remain in the program and a seventh has recently been added.

For Edgemoor Gardens residents, being selected for the program was, as the group says, “a sign from the universe” that they were on the right track.

The program provides the technical support, coaching, networks and financial resources that community leaders need to create the infrastructure that can support lasting community change. The focus is on practical, meaningful and achievable change.

“Vision without implementation is hallucination,” said Steve Peuquet, director of the Center for Community Research and Service at the University.

“At the end of the day, we them to make something happen in their communities,” echoed Dave Buches, community investment manager of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, which serves Delaware..

Edgemoor Gardens residents established a Blueprint Team that, like those in other communities, included residents, a local banker, a government official,  a for-profit or nonprofit developer and a representative from a nonprofit srevice agency.  The team then worked on identifying and mapping the neighborhood’s assets, gathering and analyzing neighborhood data, and learning how to work together and work with others.

“Learning conflict resolution skills is a big part of this,” said Raheemah Jabbar-Bay, an assistant professor and senior policy scientist with the Center for Community Research and Service.

A survey of residents showed that the No. 1 concern was “how to engage young people in positive activities.”

The answer has come, in large part, through the Resource House project and the leadership of Cherie Whitney, who leads the Blueprint Team and is executive director of the Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative.

At the end of South Cannon Drive in Edgemoor Gardens, the last row house boasts purple shutters, new fencing and a fresh facade. Inside, the walls are freshly painting and decor is sleekly modern. This is Resource House, one of the first products of the community’s efforts. Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative purchased and renovated the building in June 2010.

Resource House is a place for the community, but, more importantly, a place for students age 12 and older to gather during non-school hours. About 30 were enrolled at the start of the 2011-12 school year, Whitney said.

Sharing meals, homework time and free time creates opportunities for skill-building among the youngsters, Whitney said.

“We are creating an environment where they can speak openly,” she said. “They are learning how to negotiate with one another, and they have learned how to correct the pack.”

Whitney has a very personal stake in the neighborhood. She has lived there for 10 years and raised her son there.

“This [Resource House] would have made a very large difference in my son’s life,” she reflected. “He dropped out of school. I don’t see him very often. He’s like all of the kids here — he can only see about 15 minutes from now.

“But they [youngsters at Resource House] are figuring out that they can think about things. In the beginning, I would ask them their opinion about things and they couldn’t tell me because they had never thought about it.”

Extending the outreach beyond youth, the Edgemoor team has launched a series of community dinners in cooperation with a local church. The young people prepare the meal, the church provides the venue and the team invites adults — family and neighbors — to share time together, establish stronger relationships and learn about community activities.

Not all Blueprint communities have tackled activities like those undertaken by Edgemoor Gardens. One focused on aesthetic enhancements, another established a community garden as a means of bringing residents together, a third is working to preserve its historical identity. Regardless of the focus of the work, the programs’ goal is to stimulate resident-directed positive change.

“We don’t tell the communities what their issues are,” Peuquet said, “the communities tell us.”

“Everybody wants the community to be a better place,” said one Blueprint team leader, “but you don’t always know where to start. Blueprint gives you a model — a way to start.”

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