Wednesday, November 13, 2019
"Now this street has really gone down. And you can tell a lot of renters are here," Stephany Brown said as her husband, Herbert Brown, turned onto East Drive in Alta Woods in south Jackson.
The street was teeming with houses of various architectural structures, some still in great shape, while others were blighted. A brick house with four archways has a cracked driveway with a damaged basketball goal in the yard, which has missing patches of grass, and a few cracked or broken shingles on its roof. Down the street is a green house, gated away from the rest of its counterparts. Its grass is as fresh and vibrant as the house, its driveway smooth.
"A lot of the architecture is beautiful," Stephany said.
"You get something different with every house," Herbert Brown said.
"A lot of good bones. We just have to get some good people that care and that appreciate these type of homes," she said.
Stephany and Herbert Brown were touring the Jackson Free Press through Alta Woods, a neighborhood where the married couple has spent more than 20 years. She recalled a well-manicured Alta Woods once called the "Belhaven of the South."
Attorneys, politicians and known public figures like long-time WLBT weatherman Woodie Assaf lived there. The community was predominantly white when the Browns became the first black family to move onto Merigold Drive in 1996. "When we moved over here 20 years ago, none of this looked like this," she said as the car passed another dilapidated house.
Herbert Brown remembers lawn wars with his two neighbors. "It got to the point where if one of us felt froggy, we got out there and cut our yard, the other guy would say, 'Why would you do that? Now I got to cut mine,'" he said, laughing.
"That camaraderie is not really there now," Stephany added.
Over the years, the neighborhood changed as friends and neighbors moved out or passed away. Some residents gave their homes to their children, but many of them do not stay in Alta Woods, opting to rent the properties out instead, he said.
"A lot of the people that owned property don't even live in Jackson. They live out of state or out of the city. They rent it to anybody, and they don't care what it looks like. These houses go down because they don't live here," Stephany said.
She estimated that the neighborhood is now made up of 80% renters, adding that many renters do not care enough about the neighborhood, citing some of the poor conditions some houses are in. That is also a testament to absentee landlords not doing enough upkeep on the properties.
"We started having a lot of folks move. It brought in folks who like parking cars in the yard and letting overgrowth come in. Right now, we have a good number of homes that are vacant. Some need repair or painting. Trees have gone down into homes on Will O Wisp Way," Herbert said.
He hopes the City of Jackson will help revitalize the historic neighborhood. "The homeowners want the neighborhood to go back to its former glory. We hate to see it tore up," his wife said.
They'd also like to see more help from the churches in the neighborhood—many of them large, formerly white facilities that are costly to keep up. Stephany said Alta Woods Baptist gave its church to New Jerusalem three years ago, and they were supposed to help fix up the neighborhood.
"They haven't done anything. Maybe (the pastor) has too many churches, but he hasn't done anything to try to bring back the neighborhood," she said.
Terrance Smith, pastor's assistant and head of marketing at New Jerusalem, told the Jackson Free Press that though the church was gifted to them, the work it needed cost the church a hefty penny. But the church has held food drives and clothes giveaways in the neighborhood, he said.
"We have done different mission work in the community, but you can't just go in and buy people's property. You can't just go in and tear down houses," Smith said. "It's not just, 'hey, you come out here and sweep the community.' It's a work in progress."
'It Was A Color Issue'
Iasia Collins, an activist and poet, said south Jackson was once a thriving community not far from downtown Jackson, surrounded by interstates and filled with thriving local businesses, including at Metrocenter Mall and the Jackson Square Promenade. South Jackson was majority white with a mix of affluent, middle-class and working-class residents, unlike northeast Jackson, which was historically the wealthiest white part of the city.
Collins said she discovered the history while researching south Jackson for her senior thesis at Jackson State University. She focused on the demise of south Jackson and white flight—the migration of people from one area to another due to integration of black people or other ethnicities moving into the area, she said.
"South Jackson experienced white flight later than any other area such as Gary, Indiana, or Atlanta, Georgia. In New York, they experienced white flight in the '60s and '70s. We experienced it here in the '90s," Collins said in the interview.
She noted that white real-estate agents fed on the fears of white homeowners, who were afraid of black people moving into the neighborhood. In addition, white families often start fleeing a neighborhood as schools start to integrate; both Forest Hill and Wingfield High Schools were popular white high schools forced to integrate in late 1969 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bishop Ronnie Crudup Sr. confirmed Collins' findings as he recounted his experience living in south Jackson back when it was majority white.
"They moved because we were black. It was a color issue. What I found out from some of my white neighbors were that they were afraid of black people, they were particularly afraid of our children, black boys. They didn't see them as children," Crudup Sr. told the Jackson Free Press.
The bishop at New Horizon International Church in the old Super Walmart on Ellis Avenue recalled a time when his son, Ronnie Crudup Jr., was playing basketball with some friends in their front yard. Later that day, his white neighbor told him that he noticed none of the boys fighting or cursing.
His neighbor could not fathom that black boys could just be children.
"When blacks started coming in, (whites) made a decision at this point that they weren't going to live with us. It's fear that you're going to affect the economics, that you're going to bring crime in because you don't curb your children. For most of them, they're not willing to risk finding out if that is true or not," Crudup Sr. said.
During her research, Collins found that white flight did not affect Alta Woods as directly as other neighborhoods in south Jackson. She said most of the white people that lived in the community—one of the most upscale in the area—stayed in their homes until they died or, if they did leave, it occurred at a slower rate.
"A lot of whites stayed until they passed because they invested so much into their homes. Some move because it's harder to navigate around the house or (because of) crime," Collins said.
But the community still paid for white flight all the same as the reduction in home ownership and values in the community lessens tax dollars, which go toward keeping an area up to par and maintaining a strong quality of life for residents, she said.
"It takes away police coverage, school funding, tax-paying businesses, protection of firemen in this area," Collins said. "Jackson has to now allocate resources to cover this area, where you used to have people paying tax dollars. Businesses leave, (and) it leaves properties that are dilapidated. You lose your stature in the Legislature because there's not that much money, and they're not going to invest in this area."
So how does a place like Alta Woods recover?
"It's going to take people being committed to staying here and investing, not only just financially, (but) with these kids and these communities. It's the hardest work. It's not going to happen in 10 or 20 years, and it's going to be something that's going to take a long time," Collins said.
She noted that some local businesses have started to open in the area again, including Godfrey's Caribbean restaurant; Pop-de-licious, a gourmet popcorn store; and a martial-arts facility.
"I might not be around for the change, but I believe it's going to happen," Collins said.
'Nowhere To Go Now'
Kristin Brenemen, the creative director of the Jackson Free Press, said her family moved to Alta Woods in the mid-1980s when the community was still mostly white, with a retired generation of homeowners. She remembers the neighborhood having festivals and other events around the churches and schools in the community.
"It was pretty nice and felt safe. I could walk to school. I went to Key Elementary and Lester Elementary School and then Peeples Middle School. It just seemed like a regular place," Brenemen said.
Older people started to die off in the mid- to late '90s, she said, and a new influx of residents started to take their place. Many of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the 1940s to the 1970s, including her home, she said. She said the community was more like a suburb of Jackson, and many of the properties were larger than those one would find in north Jackson.
"We started seeing the transition to new families, a lot of younger families. Some people bought the houses and turned them into rental properties immediately," she said.
After Brenemen's parents moved to New Mexico, she moved back into her family home 10 years ago and does not want to leave. "It's comfortable in a way. I knew where everything was. I knew how to get to the interstate from the house or where the grocery store was," she said.
Brenemen has noticed the changes in the neighborhood as one house beside hers has been empty the entire time she has lived there, and the other is a rental property with new people moving in every year, she said. "That's just kind of how it is. You just see people come and go," she said.
Local businesses and even big-box stores—beyond the ubiquitous dollar store and check-cashing stops—would help south Jackson thrive again, as well as more people owning their houses instead of renting them. But people need an incentive to buy, Brenemen said.
"You don't go to south Jackson to buy things or eat out really because there's not businesses anymore. All that left. It wasn't quite walkable in the way that we design neighborhoods now, but in a couple miles you could get anywhere on your bike as a kid and still go to the store.
"There's nowhere to go now," she said.
Alta Woods resident Ronnie Crudup Jr., elected last year to the Mississippi House of Representatives, works to increase homeownership through his nonprofit New Horizon Ministries Inc., which fixes up houses throughout south Jackson, among other community efforts.
"We're finding dilapidated homes that we renovate and find families to live in. Some we do a full renovation and some we do a partial renovation. We (also) do a lot of demolition work," Crudup Jr. said.
The ministry has been doing this work for seven years, and it all started from a phone call about purchasing property. "We purchased the houses for a lot cheaper cost than some, and we just started going from there," he said.
Crudup Jr. said the ministry has partnered with Habitat for Humanity as well as some private investors. He has seen an increase in homeownership since they started, saying that the goal is to fix up 200 homes and bring 200 homeowners back into south Jackson.
"We're going to keep working. The number can do definitely go larger than that," he said.
So far, New Horizon has renovated three houses in Alta Woods, one of which he hopes to put on the market this month. "We did (one) that was a rent-to-own model. We renovate it, and then a family just kind of pays us a certain price, and we finance it ourselves," he said.
Crudup Jr. said he wants to see more business leaders taking a chance on south Jackson. He said the ministry has a limited source of funds, but a larger pool of money can help them thrive in the housing and business market.
"There are a number of businesses that wouldn't mind being in south Jackson, (but) some of the landlords aren't really taking care of the property," he said. "If we had the finances, we would try to buy some of the properties ourselves, (and) try to be a better landlord and try to help bring more businesses in the area."
'I Haven't Given Up'
Alta Woods' neighborhood association dissolved years ago, but Herbert and Stephany Brown are thinking of bringing it back, now that they are retired. "I worked the voting precinct for the primary and runoff, and a lot of folks were interested in trying to get our neighborhood association cranked back up," Herbert said.
Even with all the changes in Alta Woods, the Browns want to stay there.
"A lot of people feel comfortable when they come by (our house) because it's like being with family. So, we actually inspire a bunch of folks that we feel good about inviting over, and they spend time with us and get ideas about what they can do with their home. We want to be a light here, so that's why we haven't moved," Herbert Brown said.
The neighborhood can thrive again if everyone comes together, and he has ideas of how he can help improve the community, Brown added.
"I have these crazy dreams about coming into a whole bunch of money and getting me a bunch of equipment for yards and hiring folks just to clean the neighborhood. Not only here, but in other parts of Jackson as well," he said.
But Brown said it is going to take a group of people, young and old, who are no longer satisfied with the status quo and want to change it.
"They may have given up, but I haven't given up," Herbert Brown said about his neighborhood.