Written by Terri Marshall, Executive Director, Housing Opportunity Foundation, Charlotte Regional Realtor® Association
“To Plant a Garden is to Believe in Tomorrow.” Audrey Hepburn, Actress
Everyone needs to hold a belief that tomorrow brings promise and hope. That was the case when the Charlotte Regional Realtor® Association and its charitable arm, the Housing Opportunity Foundation, undertook a project in the historic African-American Druid Hills community in Charlotte, N.C.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership (CMHP), a long-standing partner of the Housing Opportunity Foundation, has a vision of “ensuring that everyone lives in safe, affordable and well-maintained housing in a vibrant community.” With a vision that is so compatible with that of the Realtor® organization, it is only natural that plans came together for a project that “creates spaces out of places.”
CMHP approached the foundation about the possibility of working in the Druid Hills community based on their knowledge of the work done by our Realtor® community through the annual Realtors® Care Day project.
Understanding the history of an area and the potential for partnerships is crucial to any project, but especially to this one. The Druid Hills neighborhood is located in close proximity to the Center City area of Charlotte (approximately one-half mile from uptown), and the Druid Hills Park comprises a seven-acre site of green space in an inner-city (and formerly troubled) area.
Playground in Druid Hills, NC
The Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department has long-term plans to revitalize the park area, but unfortunately budget constraints won’t allow any significant upgrades until at least 2020. After months of conversation and planning with CMHP, the NC Cooperative Extension Agency, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department and St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, the foundation determined that focusing a volunteer Realtor®-driven project within the community gardens would be the most appropriate way to assist in the overall revitalization efforts currently underway. This idea was supported by the National Association of Realtors® in the form of a $1,500 Placemaking Micro-Grant.
Why did this project take on so much importance? The concept of a community garden was introduced by CMHP in 2015. It was met with great enthusiasm, and the area’s residents could begin to see physical evidence of interest in preserving and restoring their community. Unfortunately, initial work on the garden began in late fall of 2015 – not exactly prime planting time for summertime vegetables and produce. After a long winter, the designated garden space looked abandoned and was in need of repair. The residents began to grow concerned that their park would not realize its full potential.
Realtors® to the rescue! On April 22, 2016, more than 200 Realtors® attacked the weeds, laid a ground cover of weed barrier and recycled concrete, rebuilt 15 raised garden beds, repositioned existing plants and reinforced raised watering beds. Each of the beds also received new plantings (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash) to get the residents started on their summer crop, and the garden itself received new blackberry, blueberry and raspberry bushes along with a new fig tree. At the end of the ten-hour day, there were plenty of sore backs from transporting 180 wheelbarrow loads of compost and 100 wheelbarrow loads of recycled concrete, and from cutting 247 pieces of lumber – but the smiles on the faces of the residents, most of whom grew up in this neighborhood, was worth it.
What does tomorrow look like in Druid Hills? Classes on composting, nutrition, diet and healthy lifestyles have been planned by the Druid Hills Neighborhood Association. As of this June, Carolinas Medical Center started offering free weekly mobile health screenings in the park. The Arts & Science Council is planning a free concert in the park this summer. CMHP is actively recruiting new business and retail establishments, and has plans to announce the addition of a grocery store within a few months into this area that is currently a “food desert.” Two new restaurants are expected to follow.
CMHP has also joined with St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, which is one block from the park, to open a Work Assistance Center offering financial planning, job prep, resume writing, professional development and homeownership counseling. And despite the budget concerns, the Park & Recreation Department has started to create a small interactive exercise space adjoining the children’s playground and the community garden to create a safe space for families to enjoy the outdoors. Lastly, CMHP has just completed repair work on 19 homes in the immediate area surrounding the park in an effort to complete the neighborhood transformation.
What was the most significant outcome? Realtors® engaged in bringing hope and promise to a community.