REVAMPING NEIGHBORHOODS - Bon Secours primes the pump for redevelopment of struggling neighborhoods

August 15, 2012

When Peggy Baxter returned home to retire in 2003 after being away for 36 years, she hardly recognized her old neighborhood of Sterling in Greenville, S.C.

Once a proud African-American community with historic roots dating to the 1800s, Sterling had fallen on hard times. Gone was the feeling of safety and sense of community among neighbors, as well as many of the black-owned businesses and homes.

"I didn't feel there was a lot of joy and happiness in the Sterling neighborhood," says Baxter, 74, who spent most of her career in pediatric health care in northern California. "It was quite opposite of the neighborhood I remembered as a teenager."

In the nearby state of Virginia, Mary White Thompson, 75, had much the same feeling toward her own community, where she has lived all her life. She had watched with concern as young people moved away and her once tight-knit East End neighborhood in Richmond slowly deteriorated.

"When homes start going downhill and no one is repairing them, your community can become very blighted in a quick span of time," says Thompson, president of a neighborhood association in the East End.

Anthony Clary, 27, grew up in a public housing complex in Blackwell, a Richmond neighborhood about 3 miles south of East End. In his lifetime, the African-American neighborhood has always been defined by its extreme poverty, violent crime and a rampant drug trade. Clary says there were so many shootings when he was a boy, he became numb to the sight of dead bodies, even when he recognized the victim.

He was determined to get out and never come back, but a desire to help children trapped by poverty and similar circumstances, led him back to Blackwell and work as a mental health counselor and a social worker there. The $150,000 home that he and his wife bought in which to raise their young family is part of a collection of new and affordable homes built in the footprint of a failed public housing complex.

Blackwell, the East End and Sterling are being renewed in a variety of ways, in part due to the efforts of Bon Secours Health System of Marriottsville, Md., which operates hospitals and other health care facilities in seven states in the Eastern U.S., including South Carolina and Virginia.

Affordable housing in Richmond
Blackwell is benefiting from Bon Secours Health System's Community Investment Program, an initiative to provide capital in underserved communities in ways that are consistent with the health system's values and the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

Edward Gerardo, director of community commitment and social investments for Bon Secours, says the health system has committed to use up to 5 percent of its unrestricted assets in low-interest economic development loans to organizations that lend money in underserved communities. To date it has loaned more than $12.5 million to more than 15 organizations.

As part of that program, in July, Bon Secours announced it had extended a $500,000, three-year rotating loan to the Mercy Loan Fund, part of Denver-based Mercy Housing. "We asked them to look for opportunities in our communities," Gerardo says.

Mercy Loan Fund responded by earmarking the Bon Secours money for use by the Better Housing Coalition, a not-for-profit redevelopment agency that has been revitalizing the Blackwell neighborhood since 2008. That coalition said in a press announcement that the new funding will be used for construction of 14 new houses for low-income or working class individuals or families. Clary, who became a coalition board member after he bought one of its homes, said the redevelopment money brings hope to the Blackwell community. He says seeing new homes going up is motivating parents to clean up their credit ratings in order to qualify for home loans.

East End resurgence in Richmond
The East End neighborhood of Richmond, where Thompson resides, is made up of about 6,200 houses — the community surrounds Bon Secours Richmond Health System. In June 2010, East End residents participated in a weeklong intense planning session to help map the renewal of their neighborhood, especially along the Nine Mile Road corridor and in the historic Church Hill district, where Patrick Henry gave his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech.

The meeting was sponsored by Bon Secours Richmond Health System, the city of Richmond and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Since then, new sidewalks have been built, a neighborhood health clinic has opened and residents have planted neighborhood gardens, providing fresh produce to areas that had become known as food deserts, says Dougal Hewitt, senior vice president of mission for Bon Secours Richmond.

At least 40 cherry trees now bloom along a major thoroughfare, and other landscaping projects are either under way or completed.

In May 2011, Bon Secours Richmond also awarded its second $50,000 installment of a total of $150,000 to five businesses to either expand or start new ventures, as part of a three-year project, Hewitt says. Some new businesses include a coffee shop and hair salon, as well as a bakery that will be expanding.

Future plans include building a roundabout at a major intersection that also will serve as a community gathering spot and an anchor for new businesses. In other areas of the East End, new homes are being built and existing ones are getting rehabbed. Young families are moving in.

"I'm so very pleased with what's going on," says Thompson, who adds that over the years, she and her husband put their home up for sale more than once. But when they looked at other areas, they always decided to stay put.

"I'm just a cheerleader saying, 'don't give up,' but it does take time and it does take patience," she says. "People have to realize things don't happen overnight."

Sterling rises from the ashes
In Sterling, Greenville's Bon Secours St. Francis Health System started its renewal efforts in July 2008 with the hiring of Maxim A. Williams as director of community relationship building. He is employed through the Building Healthy Communities Initiative, which was launched throughout the Bon Secours Health System. St. Francis – Downtown literally looks out its front door onto the Sterling neighborhood of about 900 homes.

When Williams first arrived in Sterling, he found a community where 30 percent to 40 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty line and where it was difficult to find fresh produce. But, given Sterling's close proximity to downtown Greenville, gentrification was displacing longtime residents. Crime and the drug trade lingered though.

Having arrived from California, Williams spent his first two months knocking on doors in the Sterling community, getting to know people and asking a lot of open-ended questions to find out what they wanted for their neighborhood.

"I had to get the trust of the residents before we started anything," he says.

Another step Williams took when he arrived involved a physical change that was also a symbolic opening to the community. He noticed there was so much kudzu covering the trees across the street from the hospital that it literally created a kind of wall between St. Francis – Downtown and the Sterling neighborhood.

It took more than a year, but with the help of many volunteers and Greenville County, the kudzu was cleared. In its place is a new hiking and biking trail, which is part of an overall neighborhood improvement plan fostered by St. Francis and approved by a steering committee of Sterling residents.

Other improvements include an outdoor amphitheater soon to be completed near the trail and community vegetable gardens, spearheaded by Sterling senior citizens. One of the gardens is on a vacant lot owned and provided by Baxter, who proposed the garden. She heard what Williams was doing and wanted to be a part of it. Greenville County Recreation District paid for and installed an irrigation system and fence, while Baxter pays the water bill.

There is a plan to develop "urban farms" on some of the vacant land in the neighborhood. The profits would be split among the residents and the farmwork would provide jobs, says Williams.

Another project under way is the establishment of a land trust to help residents become home owners and to gain and keep local control over land use. St. Francis, a private developer and the City of Greenville are working on a commercial development partnership covering three acres that will create jobs and bring some stability to the struggling community, Williams says.

An after-school program for youth has been expanded and the number of senior citizens at the community center has tripled, says Williams.

Sterling itself is changing, with the once predominately African-American neighborhood now an ethnic and interracial mix that includes Hispanics and whites. "This work has been creating a common ground for some people to come together," adds Williams.

Community building
Gerardo says Bon Secours Health System's role in all this is as a "catalyst for change. Bon Secours is neither leading nor responsible for transforming a community," he says.

Transforming a community requires a lot of resources, "and we don't pretend to have all those resources," says Gerardo. So Bon Secours works with local politicians, small business owners and neighborhood residents. Rather than determining what is best for a neighborhood, Bon Secours responds to the neighborhood's concerns, be they issues of health, safety or lack of jobs. Residents have the power to decide how issues should be addressed, says Gerardo.

"At the end of the day, a community is made up of people and the most important asset are the people themselves," says Gerardo. "The outcome that is desired above all else is an empowered people determining their own community's future.

"What we expect, we hope and we strive for is that the residents come to view the neighborhood as a community, rather than simply a place to live or an address," says Gerardo.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.