published Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Alton Park still hopes as dreams remain unfulfilled

Alton Park was supposed to be rejuvenated with the building of the Villages at Alton Park.
Alton Park was supposed to be rejuvenated with the building of the Villages at Alton Park.
Photo by Tim Barber.

ALTON PARK HAPPENINGS

• Alton Park Farmers Market opens at the Bethlehem Center from 3-4 p.m. Thursday. Because of donations from the Brainerd Farmers Market, EBT food stamp customers will get food at half price.

• The Summer Literacy and Leadership Academy at the Bethlehem Center is still taking applications for students who are entering first grade to those going into eighth. The weekly fee is $15, but is waived for children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Parents of children who want to attend may come by the center or call 266-1384, ext. 20.

• The Bistro @ the Beth is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

• Chattanooga Study Group Self-Improvement Center at 101 W. 38th St. will meet from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays.

• Eat To Live restaurant at 107 W. 38th St. is open 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday 5:30-10 p.m. Friday and noon-10 p.m. Saturday.

BIG PLANS

At the time HUD awarded Chattanooga a $35 million HOPE VI grant in July 2000, HUD's press release stated the grant was suppose to accomplish the following:

• Provide housing for 535 families; instead, 275 rentals and 44 homes for ownership now exist

• A new community center; never built

• A day-care center; never built

• A senior service center; never built

• A health care center; never built

• Retail space; never built

Source: HUD

The shortcomings of a promised revitalization in Alton Park in the early 2000s may have resulted in dreams deferred, but community leaders refuse to let their hope for a thriving community be a dream denied.

"I don't believe in giving up," said the Rev. Lurone "Coach" Jennings. "Every child will read at or above grade level, and there will be economic development through job training. Even adults who have fallen through the cracks will have an opportunity."

To reach that goal, Jennings used work scholarships to hire 20 students from Howard School of Academics and Technology to staff his Summer Literacy and Leadership Academy, which begins Monday. On Thursday at 3 p.m., the Bethlehem Center in Alton Park will host its first farmers market, hoping to supply produce in a community classified as a food desert.

Jennings isn't the only community member or businessman focused on uplifting the Alton Park community.

Local Nation of Islam representative Kevin Muhammad and Nation of Islam members have opened a restaurant, a bookstore and a car wash in the neighborhood. The overall goal is to pool their money to open a grocery store by the end of the year, said Muhammad.

"We've got to set up businesses that will give hope to our people," said Muhammad. "For us it's not about the money; it's about empowering our people."

Rejuvenation of the declining neighborhood in south Chattanooga was the grandly stated goal when the federal government awarded the Chattanooga Housing Authority a $35 million Hope VI grant in 2000. The money was meant to demolish Spencer J. McCallie Homes, then the largest public housing site in the city, and build a new set of homes, the Villages at Alton Park.

The grant came with promises of bringing jobs to the community, reducing crime, increasing home ownership and developing a commercial corridor along West 38th Street and Alton Park Boulevard.

Residents had community meetings where they spent time visualizing locations for laundromats, playgrounds and banks. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development news release dated July 26, 2000, said the grant would help leverage funding for a new community center, day-care center, senior service center, health care center and retail space on 38th Street.

But none of that happened.

There was supposed to have been a grocery store, a dry cleaner and a hardware store along 38th Street, but those never materialized, said Milton Jackson, a community activist who participated in the neighborhood meetings and was at former Mayor Jon Kinsey's office when HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo called to announce that Chattanooga would receive the federal grant.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority ran out of money, said Jackson, founder of Stop Toxic Pollution, an Alton Park environmental group.

Part of the problem was about $3.5 million the housing authority had to unexpectedly spend on cleanup after discovering 78,000 tons of contaminated sand at the Spencer J. McCallie Homes site. Some housing units initially planned were cut to offset that cost.

And some of the agencies that contracted with the housing authority did not fulfill their obligations, said CHA Board Chairman Eddie Holmes. Housing officials said contractors were supposed to build some more houses but did not.

A 2000 HUD news release said the new Hope VI site would include 200 public housing rental units, 75 lease-to-purchase units, 60 affordable home ownership units, 100 market home ownership units and 100 affordable and market-rate senior units -- a total of 535 housing units.

"The [Spencer J. McCallie Homes] project was torn down and rebuilt and that's it," said Rosemary Porter, who has lived in Alton Park for 50 years.

Less than 25 percent of the people who once lived in McCallie Homes returned to the Villages at Alton Park. Now CHA officials say that Villages residents who aren't elderly or disabled must have jobs or attend school. Less than half the residents of the former McCallie Homes held a part-time job, according to news reports.

In 1999, the median income for Alton Park was less than $10,000. The median household income for the 37410 ZIP Code, which includes Alton Park, has increased to $15,942, according to ZipDataMaps, but that's still less than half of Chattanooga's median household income of $32,174.

Muhammad said his plan for community improvement in Alton Park is undeterred by broken promises.

"I'm hoping that black people will open up dollar stores, will open up grocery stores, gas stations," he said. "We can no longer depend on someone else. We have to do it ourselves."

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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