Originally created 03/09/99

Group looks to rebuild old neighborhood



SAVANNAH -- Her once white face has grown gray from years of neglect.

Boards cover her once-shiny glass eyes. Her mouth stands agape, allowing glimpses of her faded interior. Her once emerald skirt is now a tattered patchwork of weeds and debris.

Today, the house at 706 E. 34th St. in Savannah looks old, haggard and in desperate need of a face lift.

But Edward Chisolm and his associates at the Neighborhood Improvement Association see this forlorn residence as the first step on their yellow brick road in returning inner-city Savannah to its former grandeur.

Actually, the street could feel at home anywhere in Savannah's struggling Area C community.

Some houses face the world through boarded-up windows, their structures sagging in disrepair and neglect.

But next door, neighbors may include an empty lot or homes whose countenance could fit in a suburban setting.

"We have to change the nature of these communities," said Mr. Chisolm. "It has to be more comprehensive."

For Mr. Chisolm, the house is not just a house, but the starting point for community building or "transformation," as he prefers to call it.

The house represents the first of at least six homes NIA hopes to buy, renovate and resell.

"It is one part of a strategic plan for Area C," he said. "We will not do just a house, but improve an entire neighborhood."

It will take a continuing partnership of NIA, its sister organizations, neighborhood residents and partners in Area C, Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority, city of Savannah and Wachovia Bank, to revive the area.

Community building has its roots in such neighborhoods -- minority, low-income with myriad social issues. It is described as a reaction to the failed governmental policies dating from the Great Society -- throwing money at a social problem without giving a stake to the affected groups.

Unlike the top-down policies of the past, community building relies on a series of initiatives based on the message of, "Let the neighborhood decide."

The single-family home project is one of several moves at NIA.

First is the use of a Rockefeller Foundation grant for $50,000. Because NIA does not have a track record, the money was given to the Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority in partnership with NIA.

NIA's plan also calls for a partnership with the city of Savannah.

Leron Mitchum, city of Savannah Housing Department project coordinator, said the city is helping NIA to buy the house and renovate it.

"It's a NIA program," he said. "We're cutting our teeth on this one."

Once NIA officials get their bearings, the city will disengage from the project, he said.

"The city never owns the property. NIA purchases it directly from the property owner," Mr. Mitchum said. "It's NIA property from Day 1."

Closing on the purchase is expected in April and final details are not completed. Mr. Mitchum declined to identify a purchase price for the property.

Wachovia Bank is providing the financing.

Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority is also a partner in the project.

"What I want to have by July is a blueprint for action by the community for short-term and long-term projects so that we can go to work right away on short-term work," said Gaye Smith, interim executive director of the Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority.