Her experience informs her perspective. Before joining Habitat in 2006, Oberle spent seven years on the staff of one of several community organizations working to address crime and drug issues in the Boston Thurmond neighborhood of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Once I came to Habitat, it was apparent that if you could address that one last piece in a neighborhood — of making sure that there was quality housing and making sure people had an opportunity to feel safe in their neighborhoods — then that really was the final piece of neighborhood revitalization,” she says.
Shortly after Oberle’s arrival, Habitat Forsyth built 27 houses on the edge of the Boston Thurmond neighborhood, where once there had been crumbling and crime-ridden housing projects. As part of its revitalization push, the city had cleared the land to make way for new, quality low-income homes, zoning some lots for nonprofit builders like Habitat.
As work progressed, it became evident that much also needed to be done to save the existing homes along nearby North Cherry Street and the adjacent blocks. Also in disrepair were Boston Thurmond’s unique “Y-stair” apartment buildings, named after the shape of the exterior stairs at the front. Designed by a local African-American architect, the buildings were a pivotal factor in getting the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. However, Boston Thurmond’s architectural make-up and historic status meant it was more than Habitat could handle alone.
The affiliate began talks with the city and the state historical preservation office, at the same time finding private developers who would partner on a revitalization project that included the preservation of the Y-stair apartment buildings. By 2010, Habitat Forsyth had built 16 new homes on Cherry Street, and many more houses in the neighborhood had been rehabbed. Landscaping and lighting projects added to the appeal and safety of the area, and a neighborhood watch began. Crime and drug activity declined significantly.
After Habitat and the city began to focus on the neighborhood, “you would not recognize it if you’d moved away and came back,” says lifelong resident Patricia Caldwell. “You’d be totally surprised at the improvements!” Last fall, volunteers helped repaint Caldwell’s house, repair her crumbling chimney, and clean and reattach her gutters.
Over Labor Day weekend, neighbors and volunteers worked on home repairs, winterization and clean-up projects in Boston Thurmond. “We used this as an opportunity to talk to people about the shift from new construction to a neighborhood revitalization approach,” says Kelly Mitter, Habitat Forsyth’s neighborhood revitalization coordinator. Teams also refurbished a community garden and poured concrete for a walkway and outdoor teaching stations at Kimberley Park Elementary School.
School principal Dr. Amber Baker has been a valuable Habitat ally and now sits on the affiliate’s board of directors. Baker has encouraged residents to attend community meetings and join Habitat Forsyth’s efforts. She’s been at the school for five years and remembers how depressed the area was when she arrived. Now, she has seen the decrease in crime and loves that more of her students walk to school. She’s even considering a move to the neighborhood herself. Habitat’s work, she says, is “rebuilding a sense of community.”
In an area where so many families have lived for generations and for which even those who have moved on to other places still harbor a strong connection, community support is important. “I was amazed when we’d be out there just starting, working on foundations of houses and different things, people would stop and say, ‘We’re really glad that you’re here,’” Oberle recalls. “I think that was a really important message for us to hear and to protect that trust that people had that we would be doing good things and the right things.”
I wanted to live in this area because I felt like I was a part of a bigger dream to make Cherry Street a ‘neighborhood’ again. -Shelby Powell
Among those good and right things is Habitat Forsyth’s work to create connections and a sense of community among the neighborhood’s residents — those who have been there for generations, those more recently arrived and those soon moving in. Patricia Caldwell and other community leaders are forming a new neighborhood association. To aid those efforts, Habitat Forsyth has partnered with nonprofit Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods and is helping to organize clean-up days and neighborhood projects.
Shelby Powell, who moved into her Habitat home on Cherry Street in 2009, can see change happening with “the entire area coming together and taking pride in our community.” Though she was unfamiliar with the area prior to partnering with Habitat, the community enthusiasm drew her in. “I wanted to live in this area because I felt like I was part of a bigger dream to make Cherry Street a ‘neighborhood’ again,” she says.
Oberle estimates that new construction and home repair projects in Boston Thurmond will continue for three to four more years. She hopes that Habitat Forsyth’s work will inspire the urban revitalization work of other developers and Habitat affiliates. “It’s not going to happen in one building cycle, it’s not going to happen in two or three building cycles, and it’s very complex work,” she says. “All too often people say, ‘Why should we bother?’ Well, you bother because its story and its future really impact everyone in the whole community.
“I get on a soap box,” she adds, “but I really believe that.”