Beginning the Dream: New complex first step toward neighborhood buildup

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 13, 2003

The empty plot of land on Marie Foster Avenue, just a few blocks away from the intersection of Highland Avenue, does not look like much.

Empty pits are filled with mud and water from the recent rain. Gravel’s strewn around so deep it’s hard to walk through.

But the 50 men and women out in that gravel and mud on Friday afternoon didn’t mind. For them, it was a dream that was finally becoming reality.

By the end of the summer, a 48-unit apartment complex called Magnolia Gardens will replace today’s mud and gravel. It’s for working families who are not ready to purchase their own homes, but here will learn how to do so.

For people like Alabama State Rep. Yusuf Salaam (D.-Selma), it’s the latest in a long series of steps that began in 1993 in an effort to clean up East Selma.

For others, such as Joyce Kendrick of the Jonathan Daniels Community Development Corporation, it was seeing something come alive that everyone had been wishing and praying for.

A budding project

Salaam is instantly recognizable wherever he goes. He served two terms on the Selma City Council as the representative from Ward Eight. In the past year, he defeated LaTosha Brown in the courtroom and Mark Story in the ballot box to become the District 67 state representative.

Even though he was getting ready to host a reception Friday night at the St. James Hotel, he took time to explain the significance of the Magnolia Gardens groundbreaking and the history behind it.

When Salaam was elected back in 1993, he selected a deputy council that governed the ward. It held community cleanups and gave out clothing to families needing it.

By 1995, prior to the current Weed and Seed program, more than $65,000 had been raised from the private sector to help fix some of the problems in East Selma.

The area, Salaam said, had become much like a jungle. Overgrowth and bushes filled the ward, along with broken-down and crumbling buildings.

The jungle aspect not only applied to the physical condition of East Selma, but also to the activities going on inside as well.

This, followed by a series of rapes, spurred community leaders to take matters into their own hands and to clear out the jungle. And this, Salaam emphasized, was very important.

After the clearing, community leaders met with Don Foster, the attorney general serving the area at that time. They expressed interest in the nationwide Weed and Seed program.

Planting the seed

Weed and Seed, which began during the administration of George Bush Sr. is not a grant program, says its Web site, but rather a strategy. It aims to prevent, control and reduce violent crime in high-crime neighborhoods throughout the country &045;&045; a mission that starts at the group’s Web site: www.weedandseeddatacenter.org/.

Weed and Seed is a two-pronged approach: to &uot;weed&uot; out criminals and crime activity in the area and &uot;seeding&uot; other elements such as drug prevention and treatment programs, revitalizing neighborhoods and an overall uplifting of the area.

Once Foster saw Ward Eight, Salaam explained, he made a commitment on the spot to support the community’s efforts to become part of the Weed and Seed program.

Salaam then traveled to Washington D.C., where he met Steve Ricks, who back then was executive director of the Weed and Seed program. Ricks came to Selma in 1997, where more than 400 people turned out to welcome him.

The area now under Weed and Seed designation stretches from Franklin Street and Water Avenue to the end of the city limits. The area is bordered by Jeff Davis Avenue to the north and the Alabama River to the south.

As of 2001, 2,218 people lived in this area. The median household income is barely above $13,000 a year. Of the 1,249 adults living in the area, 64 percent do not have a high school diploma.

While the Weed and Seed program provided enough money to &uot;weed&uot; out some of the problems in East Selma, it wasn’t enough to begin the &uot;seeding&uot; process. This was when Salaam ran across a company called the Enterprise Foundation

The foundation, which has more than 2,400 network members, works to help low-income families with housing, jobs and access to child care. In 1999, according to the group, it became the first non-profit organization to build more than

100,000 homes for low-income families.

After meeting with the foundation, Rey Ramsey,

Enterprise Foundation came to Selma. On Bloody Sunday in 2000, he announced the funding of two grants &045;&045; one to the Selma Police Department for $5,000 to start a community police biking program and the second to the Jonathan Daniels CDC for $35,000.

Growing toward reality

The Jonathan Daniels CDC was incorporated in 1999 as a non-profit corporation dedicated to rebuilding the neighborhoods in Selma.

Joyce Kendrick, a former member of the Ward Eight Deputy Council, was named the executive director.

Named for a slain civil rights activist, the Jonathan Daniels CDC’s objectives are to help develop a diverse economy with jobs that offer a livable wage, help educate Selma’s labor force, and to develop safe, low-cost housing for low and moderate-income families.

That last objective became a reality with the groundbreaking on Magnolia Gardens.

With the assistance of Olympia Construction out of Albertville, the CDC was able to move forward with that part of the mission, Kendrick said. A tax grant awarded in 2002 by the Alabama Housing Finance Authority also helped to finance the project.

One of the features of the complex is a learning center, where classes in finance and home-buying will be taught by Kendrick, a certified teacher in these areas.

Although the apartment project is one of the first of the center’s larger projects, center workers have been toiling quietly in other ways &045;&045; offering computer classes and helping people in places like East Selma to bridge the &uot;digital divide,&uot; provide training and technical assistance in community planning and development &045;&045; and continue the work begun 10 years ago by the men and women wanting to take back their neighborhood.