A neighborhood rises
● By Steven Hoffman
When LaToya Myers was growing up in the historic East Linden section of Kennett Square, she wasn't allowed to play outside. It wasn't a particularly safe neighborhood back then, and Myers can remember having to walk with her mother to the bus stop at the corner of North Willow and State streets to catch the school bus to Greenwood Elementary School, even though it was just a short walk from her home.
“There would be men standing around that we didn't recognize,” Myers recalled. “I was not allowed outside without an adult. I knew that this was not how neighborhoods should be.”
Even as a child, Myers sensed that there was something amiss in the neighborhood—but being a child comes with a certain amount of innocence. She didn't fully recognize the dangers that those strange men hanging out in the neighborhood represented. But her mother certainly did. Theresa Bass understood that the East Linden neighborhood was teetering on the brink. The open-air drug trade had taken hold, and local residents—the good people who called this proud neighborhood their home—lived in fear. Theresa had lived on East Linden Street since she was a child in elementary school, and she wasn't about to sit back and watch this neighborhood deteriorate the way that so many other neighborhoods across the U.S. had. So she started organizing the neighbors, and had conversations with them about some of the issues that the community was facing.
“We really wanted to address some of the street behavior,” explained Myers.
Police Chief Edward Zunino, who is a 40-year veteran in the Kennett Square Police Department, said that back then the historic East Linden neighborhood was plagued by drug dealers who would come in to push their products to Kennett Square residents and out-of-towners who knew that drugs were available in the community.
“Drugs became a problem there,” Zunino explained. “It was an area that was well-known for the drug trade. We would get a lot of out-of-towners come in and hang out there, and you get some of those issues—drugs, drinking, noise—that come with that. The people from the neighborhood were law-abiding, but some of them were afraid to call the police because of the fear of retaliation.”
Zunino said that the police regularly sent extra patrols to the area, but they needed the help of the local residents to combat the drug activity.
A group of residents realized that a coordinated effort was needed to improve the neighborhood. Myers, who was studying psychology and business management at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, would assist whenever she could, helping her mother set agendas for the regular meetings and encourage people in the community to take part in the activities that were being planned to build community spirit.
“I started out just in support of my mother,” Myers explained.
Those early conversations between neighbors quickly grew into something more—a cohesive plan to change the course that the East Linden neighborhood was on. The Historic East Linden Project was born in 2004, with the goal of building a neighborhood that would offer a high quality of life for residents. They started a number of different programs focusing on the 100 or so households located in the five square blocks centered around East Linden Street. This neighborhood has a long legacy in town—in the years before the Civil War, Quakers invited those escaping slavery to stay and build lives in Kennett Square area. It has always been a diverse community filled with people who care, and the Historic East Linden Project tapped into that.
From the very beginning of the effort, an emphasis has been placed on supporting children in the community. They started a Study Buddies after-school program, and built a computer lab for students. They offered summer camp scholarships to families and gave lunches to children during the summer. During the school year, dinners were provided to youngsters in the all-important after-school hours when, statistics show, children are most likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol and other dangerous behaviors.
Volunteers involved with the Historic East Linden Project handed out holiday baskets to families and distributed children's coats and clothing, book bags, school supplies, and more to local children. They also organized special events for children, including a Black History Month celebration, a back-to-school barbecue, a holiday party, and trips to places like the Brandywine River Museum. To improve the cleanliness and appearance of the neighborhood, they started a spring cleanup, worked together to build a rain garden, and organized cleanup days for the streets and the area around Anson B. Nixon Park. In an effort to boost community pride, volunteers planned a health & resource fair, a community gala, a block party, and National Night Out.
This last event strengthened the bonds between the community and the police department. Zunino explained that it’s natural for young children to be afraid of police officers, so it’s important for the officers to establish a rapport with youngsters in the community so that when they grow up they view the local police in a positive light and will trust them.
Myers said that she could see changes taking place in her neighborhood while she was still in college. The community events were particularly important, according to Myers, because when people feel connected to their community and get to know each other the crime rates inevitably fall. For a time, Myers planned to go on to medical school, but she instead focused on public health, in part because of the needs she was seeing in the historic East Linden community. She went on to earn a master's degree in public health and worked as the community outreach coordinator for a non-profit that helped provide services to residents with high risks of medical issues. Myers made Kennett Square her home and started digging in to do the hard work that was needed to improve her community. She joined a small but devoted core group of volunteers who were leading the Historic East Linden Project initiative.
“My mom always said that volunteering and giving back is not a chore—it should be a part of your life,” Myers explained. “And watching my mom affect change was definitely inspiring.”
Ethan Cramer moved to Kennett Square in 2007, and when he learned about the efforts to help children in the community he knew that he wanted to get involved. He signed up to volunteer his time as a tutor in the Study Buddies program.
“The stories you hear from the children can be heartbreaking,” he explained. “A lot of the kids are living in deep poverty.”
Cramer was already a veteran of community organizing—he had spent years working to improve Wilmington, Del. neighborhoods that were burdened by crime, drugs, and poverty. As a response, Cramer helped establish the Community Bridges organization. He also worked on beautification efforts and started vacant lot gardens in Wilmington.
“Vacant lot gardens are not really about gardens,” Cramer explained. He knew from his experiences in Wilmington that progress on improving a neighborhood can be very slow, and that it takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to make changes. Cramer was impressed with the work that was being done through the Historic East Linden Project, and he was soon very involved, helping to set up an accounting system and handle other tasks that a professional organization needs to continue operating. He was especially impressed that so many people were involved with the effort—and that they focused so much on helping young people in the community.
“The whole neighborhood gets involved with providing support to those kids,” he explained. “When they feel supported, and when they have each other’s backs, then they function as one unit. All the things we do is to build a community.”
Myers is the executive director of the organization but, like Cramer, she volunteers her time for the betterment of the community. In her professional career, she runs three public health programs in Philadelphia, including one that serves women in a county correctional facility. There is a lot of overlap with what Myers does professionally and the work that takes place to improve the neighborhood around her in Kennett Square.
“I really use a lot of my skills from my profession in the neighborhood, helping people,” she explained. “We want people to understand that they can live well, even if they don’t have a lot of money.”
Myers is still inspired by her mother’s work in the community. In many ways, Bass was perfectly suited to lead the efforts to turn the East Linden neighborhood around.
“She had lived here since she was eight or nine years old,” Myers explained. “So the neighbors were receptive to her because she had always been such a nice, respectful child when she was growing up here. People were willing to share with her, and trust in her, and trust in the community. They felt like the community had a true voice.”
In Myers, the community has another voice—and a tireless advocate. She finds herself helping out in small, but important ways.
One illustration: Myers answered a desperate call from a student who was distraught because, on one exam, she fell a few points short of qualifying for sixth grade honors classes. Myers could see that it not only disappointed the girl, it also hurt her self-esteem that she didn't qualify for the honors classes.
“She had the talent,” Myers explained. “She had straight A's in fifth grade. I told her, 'you are good enough, and there are options out there for you.’”
Myers went to talk to school district officials to see what could be done. They were able to pay for a tutor, who turned out to be a teacher at the Kennett Middle School, and the girl was able to earn a spot in the honors classes by putting in the extra work.
“This put the child on a different track,” Myers explained. “She's in seventh grade now and she does really well.”
It’s success stories like this that can make a real difference in the community.
Cramer said that Bass remains extraordinarily dedicated to the cause, and will field calls from her neighbors throughout the day. If a student misses the bus, Bass has been known to just drive them to school. She helps organize the community events and is always willing to help her neighbors whenever possible.
“The number of hours that she puts in is incredible,” Cramer said.
He marvels at Bass's ability to find solutions to issues.
“She will think about it, talk about it, and then all of a sudden, she will find the solution,” he explained. “Without Theresa, there really isn’t [a Carter CDC].”
Cramer said that Bass had the insight into the community to understand that they needed to make a push on many different fronts, and not just focus on any one area.
“One of the reasons that we’ve been successful is that we didn’t prioritize,” Cramer explained. “We have an emphasis on children. We do the academic stuff, we have the bonds with the police. We do the computer stuff, too. But we don’t focus on just one thing.”
While the core group of volunteers does a lot of the work, the effort has now been underway for more than twelve years and has garnered support from many different sources. There are maybe one hundred different people who volunteer for various activities. The board of directors includes teachers, a police chief, an attorney, a banker, and other leaders in the Kennett Square community.
“Our board is extraordinary,” Cramer said. “This has never been the neighborhood alone. This has always been a lot of people helping out. It’s a shared success. It's a success for Kennett Square. It’s hard to imagine that State Street would be doing as well as it is if this neighborhood wouldn’t be doing what it’s doing.”
One of the major accomplishments of the initiative was achieved when drug dealers no longer openly roamed the neighborhood. With that mission achieved, the volunteers were able to shift their focus a little bit. The organization was renamed the Carter CDC to coincide with its changing goals. The “Carter” name is in honor of Joseph and Sarah Carter, who were the first African-Americans to own their own home in this neighborhood. The Carter CDC initiatives have earned tremendous respect in the Kennett Square community.
Zunino said that he has seen a real improvement in the neighborhood since the coordinated efforts began more than 12 years ago.
“We’ve seen the results of the police and the neighbors working together. The residents feel safe now, and the problems haven’t come back,” Zunino said. “And this happened with the cooperation of the residents. Without this cooperation, it never would have worked. We’re really grateful to the residents.”
According to Myers, the work of the police department has been invaluable, and the residents appreciate their efforts.
“Chief Zunino says that the police couldn't have done this without us, but we couldn't have done it without them,” Myers said.
Dan Maffei, the president of Kennett Square Borough Council, said that the Carter CDC is an illustration of what residents can do when they make a commitment to solving a problem.
“Carter CDC is an excellent example of citizens taking responsibility for solving a problem,” Maffei said. “In their case, it was drug dealing and neglected houses, but it could just as easily have been sidewalk conditions, the lack of street trees or scoffing at traffic laws. Neighbors can organize themselves for the betterment of their quality of life, and work cooperatively with police, public works, and other agencies to achieve an outcome.”
Maffei added, “Some may say that solving these problems is the borough’s job, but we can be much more effective when citizens report what they see and work with us to find a solution. Carter CDC has created a road map to how this works that other neighborhoods in the borough can follow.”
While much has already been accomplished, the work of revitalizing a neighborhood never really ends.
Myers explained, “Once an area has been an open air drug market, that image doesn't go away. You always have to keep monitoring. This is not something that you win, and since you've won, it's now over. It's never over. You have to keep working at it.”
Cramer agreed. “The drug dealing would return if the Carter CDC did not exist,” he said.
Myers said that everyone involved with the effort is now focusing on implementing programs that will lead to what she called cycle-breaking changes.
“We want to make it better than what it is,” she explained. “We want to hire a full-time teacher that can work with each family to develop a plan for each child.”
Another goal is to work on affordable housing, which is critically important to the residents in the neighborhood.
Cramer said in order to continue creating success stories like the ones that have been produced, and for Carter CDC to continue to evolve, they want to hire the full-time education director that Myers talked about. “We are at a point where we have to start to employ people,” Cramer said. “The work is being done, but the infrastructure that an agency needs is not all there yet.”
He explained that having staff will allow the organization to acquire the funding that will be necessary to sustain its efforts. Carter CDC recently secured a grant from the Longwood Foundation, but overall funding has been hard to come by and insufficient to meet the needs in the neighborhood. There are still plenty of needs, so there is still plenty of work to be done.
“We need to make sure that each child in the community has a plan forward,” Cramer explained.
Cramer, the experienced community organizer, is impressed with all the work that Historic East Linden residents have done to improve their own neighborhood.
“The neighborhood would still be an open-air drug market, but instead it’s a magical place,” he explained. “A lot of people have made the effort to make it a place where children do well, where families do well.”