Heart of ‘The Creative Class': Belhaven, Fondren Residents Build A City To Love | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Heart of ‘The Creative Class': Belhaven, Fondren Residents Build A City To Love

When new residents move to Madison Street, Pattye Dunlap makes sure that she takes time to greet the new neighbors and give them information packets about the neighborhood. Dunlap, president of the Belhaven Heights Community Association, said: "If we have a new neighbor, I'll get them a pamphlet about the neighborhood. The association tries to keep abreast on who's new and get them acclimated to the neighborhood." But the association's work goes beyond just greeting newcomers.

In addition to sponsoring a yearly Christmas party, a spring potluck, working on a summer barbecue and participating in National Night Out, the association devotes much time and energy to going after derelict property owners. "When we first started looking for derelict properties, there were several homes," Dunlap said. "Our main goal as a neighborhood is going after derelict property/homeowners that take every penny of rent and put no percentage back into their property. We've had success." She said the ultimatum the association gives to such property owners is: "Either sell it, renovate it, or it will be condemned by the city."

No 'Cookie Cutter' Houses

Using Jackson's environmental court system, the association has gone after derelict property owners. Dunlap said "derelict" includes people with "junker cars" in their yard, people who have a "continuous garage sale" in their yard, and so on.

The Belhaven Heights Community Association consists of an eight-person board and an e-mail list of about 120. Anyone in the neighborhood who e-mails Dunlap is added to the list. The recipients of the e-mail list don't have to be dues-paying members. "We're not really concerned with how many dues-paying members we have, but more about getting a cohesive neighborhood," Dunlap said. "If someone has a problem, we are very cohesive, helping each other out. If someone from another association calls, we'll help." The association's board meets monthly or bi-monthly on an as needed basis. Because everyone is busy, they will sometimes do a vote over e-mail if they can't schedule an meeting.

Since Dunlap moved from Flowood to the Belhaven area three years ago, she has seen a "great revitalization of the neighborhood," largely because of the association's effort. "Everyone is committed to this neighborhood," she said. "We chose to live here. That is what pulls all of us into the association. We want to see (the neighborhood) survive and grow. If we think something will help our neighborhood, we're there."

The association is also determined to preserve the look and feel of Belhaven. "We live in an historic district, which means someone that buys a house here can't change it," Dunlap said. "The historic district was put in place to keep another old lovely home from being torn down. It preserves the charm of this neighborhood. My house was built in about 1919, according to archives in the history department. That's another pull to this neighborhood, you can tell by the styles of the houses. This neighborhood, built after the Civil War, is older than Belhaven College."

Residents live here, Dunlap said, because they choose to. "You can't buy the feel of an old house. I don't want to see cookie-cutter houses. I like very eclectic neighborhoods. There's a man that lives behind us that plays bagpipes. You can't find that in Madison."

Another reason the association has had success is commitment. "You have a lot of long-term people in this neighborhood who have lived here their entire lives here," Dunlap said. "Also, people are moving back here, tired of the commute and the traffic. Because people are very committed to it, this neighborhood is like a 'little town' within Jackson."

Safety: Top Concern

Dunlap also believes the association has made the neighborhood safer. Neighbors are not afraid to walk their dogs, and children are not afraid to go outside and play, thanks to the neighborhood security association headed by Realtor John Lewis. "I personally don't feel unsafe. You can sit here any time on my porch, and see kids playing. We're not all locked up in our houses with our alarms on," Dunlap said.

The association has watched the neighborhood experience rapid growth over the last two to three years. "We've seen a huge influx of families. It's an eclectic neighborhood, with lawyers, artists, doctors, students, she said.

The main responsibilities Dunlap has as president include presiding over meetings, finding properties in need of improvement, working as a team with the other board members and informing everyone of the association's goals. She said each member has a vision of what the neighborhood can be, and it's important not to lose the current momentum.

"We're well on our way. The Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation is our umbrella. We fall under the canopy. Fortification transects us. The Belhaven Heights Community Association is south. The Belhaven Improvement Association is north."

Belhaven 'Proper'

On the north side of Fortification Street, the Belhaven Improvement Association, originally organized in the mid-1960s, works closely with Belhaven Heights Community Association. Like the BHCA, BIA seeks to ensure that all of the area houses are maintaining their historic character. If property is being rezoned in Belhaven, BIA must be notified, and this gives the association a voice to the city council.

Former BIA President Stratton Bull said that group, with about 300 members and an active, very involved 15 member board, has "significantly contributed to the overall good of the neighborhood." BIA has earned a good reputation with city planning in the midst of several controversial zoning issues—the Fairview Inn expansion into a restaurant and the Belhaven College parking dispute.

Bull moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, "It's just overall generally improved," he said. "A lot of neighborhoods wither and die, but we've remained a stable neighborhood, as far as houses selling and the market value increasing. There have been a lot of folks come in."

This group is also concerned about what rotting homes mean to a community. BIA has a Derelict Properties Committee, headed by Bill Osborne, trying "to have homeowners with property in disrepair held accountable, under the belief that if you clean up your bad properties, it helps make the neighborhood safer." Bull said one of the most notable things the association has done was when John Lewis and Belhaven College fixed up the apartments at Jefferson and Gillespie Street and helped "get them in better hands." Before, they were considered to be drug havens.

"Security is obviously something we're concerned with," Bull said. "We have the Greater Belhaven Security Association, Securitas, and it does a good job."

A New, Improved Fortification

Bull said the association has three main items on their agenda: the re-design of Fortification, the multi-use zoning plans for Fortification and the new Main Street designation. The Mississippi Department of Transportation is helping to fund the $10 million to $12 million Fortification Street project, which is expected to be completed by mid-2007.

Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation Executive Director Virgi Lindsay said, "The most important thing is for people to realize this kind of change doesn't occur immediately." The plans include replacing the 100-year-old water and sewer lines, resurfacing sidewalks to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and eliminating above-ground utilities. Bull said that everyone involved sees the necessity of making changes in Fortification. "We all believe we've got to make Fortification people friendly, a place where you could enjoy sitting on a sidewalk drinking coffee."

"We need to be proactive. This street, Fortification, is ugly and blighted, not sending the right message," Lindsay said. "We want it to send the message that people care. The appearance of a neighborhood, the signage, flower beds, etc.
… sends a message."

The Belhaven Improvement Association and the Belhaven Heights Community Association are working toward having Fortification become a multi-use zone, which means an area where restaurants and houses can be side by side. Lindsay said, "If we really want to enhance this neighborhood, we have to clean up Fortification. Forty years ago, it was a quiet, sleepy street. When the interstate system came, the city came and took everybody's front yard and converted this into a commuter road." The revitalization takes an enormous amount of support. According to Lindsay, her organization has pledges of $1,000 minimum on an annual basis from 100 people.

'Mixed Use' Like Fondren

What is all this talk about re-zoning? Bull said the goal is to adopt a new zoning classification, where a piece of property can have storefronts and residential areas, homes and businesses existing side by side.

Belhaven was recently recognized by a national organization, Main Street, an arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Main Street, Lindsay said, "is probably the best economic development model. It was created in the 1980s to save our downtowns." For it to be a success, it is projected that 300 to 400 volunteers will be needed per year. There are 47 areas in Mississippi recognized by Main Street, but only one other urban Main Street—Fondren.

A couple of miles from Belhaven is the historic Fondren District, another area that has largely been revitalized by neighborhood associations. In the late '90s, some neighbors got together, wanting to start a group to protect the neighborhood, and founded Fondren North Renaissance, described as "a reactive organization, reacting to rising crime and wanting to protect property values." FNR charged their members dues in order to fund private security for the neighborhood.

In 1997, Fondren Renaissance Renewal began as a sister organization, intending to be a proactive group by implementing "programs and projects in the Fondren community to improve the quality of life." According to Camp Best, executive director of the current organization, the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, the two groups merged in 2001 to create the foundation that exists today. The focus of the new group "became more proactive, project-oriented, program-oriented, doing things to benefit Fondren," Best said. The Fondren Renaissance Foundation has evolved into a major influence in the Fondren area. "We've grown beyond being an association; we're more of a foundation. We're like a chamber of commerce for Fondren: marketing and promoting this community," Best said.

Fondren: Heart of the 'Class'

The members of FRF are passionate about the community and have been relentless in promoting Fondren and convincing people "this dream is a reality." Some of the events FRF sponsors include Fondren Unwrapped, a big holiday open house for merchants and shoppers, and the spring-time version: Arts, Eats and Beats. "There is food, drink and music, our little version of Jubilee! Jam in Fondren," Best said.

Lindsay said her organization often works together with Fondren. "We know it's important for the health of both neighborhoods. The success of each of us depends on the health of the other," she said.

In addition to being the first urban Main Street recognized in Mississippi, Fondren has been named by the Convention of Visitors Bureau as an "End Destination," which has brought a lot of good PR, especially from tourists.

Mary Jo MacAnally, associate director of the Foundation, said that Fondren "was a community to itself" when it was incorporated in the 1940s—going from being Jackson's first suburb to a real city neighborhood. "We breathed life into a town that was already there. We're a real town with our own schools, stores, churches. We have more than one stop light. We're bigger than some of Mississippi's small towns."

Now the Fondren Renaissance Foundation wants to focus on the west side of State Street. Best wants to see continued growth, more retail businesses attracted and crumbling buildings being torn down. "I see this neighborhood continuing in this direction—the creative class," Best said.

More Creatives=Less Crime

When more activity and concerned citizens come to an area, Best said the crime rate goes down. In addition, Fondren has worked closely with Precinct 4 of the Jackson Police Department, which is in the neighborhood. "When people think of Fondren now, they think positive: fun, interesting, diverse. Four to five years ago, we were pleading our case, and about three years ago, we started seeing some change. Three years ago, you could have never convinced anyone that you could walk around here at night," MacAnally said.

As Fondren has become more pedestrian friendly, residents have been moving back to the neighborhood. "It's amazing to see how many people have been moving, folks who love urban living, attracted to the architecture and love for living in the city, being able to walk into the city, their own little town, going to restaurants," Best said. Residents, eager to "go back to their roots" are buying houses that date to the '40s, '30s, '20s and renovating them.

Things recently have also changed commercially. "If you make an area attractive to investors and business owners, there's a demand both commercially and residentially. We have no vacancies for businesses now," MacAnally said.

McAnally said that FRF, with a weekly e-mail list of 700 people and a newsletter mailed to 1,500, has been the first neighborhood group with a full-time staff: "This is run like a business."

MacAnally and Best say that the Foundation's promotion of the arts has helped Fondren become what it is today. "The bohemian crowd has become attracted to the energy created here. (We attract) not only the artsy crowd, but the old. We have a well-developed antique market, first-class antique stores. Nice mix," Best said.

MacAnally adds, with a laugh, "I bet there is not another (dry) cleaners in the U.S. that hangs art. We say, 'Only in Fondren.'"

For Jacksonians who are interested in implementing an association in their own neighborhood, Lindsay suggested: "For the ones that succeed, it is a grass-roots effort. This organization (GBNF) grew out of a grass-roots need. It's always important to have organizational structure. I think (an association) needs a purpose, a mission statement, a great deal of commitment."

How to Start a Neighborhood Association

1. According to the leaders of some of the Jackson neighborhood associations, starting an association is usually a "grass-roots" effort.

2. Set up a steering committee to form the neighborhood association—preferably a person
from each street in the neighborhood.

3. This group can canvas their respective streets and build a list of people willing to join
the association.

4. A set of bylaws needs to be written. Membership fees, length of time officers will serve, etc. needs to be included in the bylaws.

5. You need to have a neighborhood-wide meeting and elect a governing Board and from the governing board, officers need to be elected.

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