It only takes a hug from East Bradenton resident May Lizzie Jennings, the unofficial mayor of her impoverished community in Washington Park, to know you are loved. The 71-year-old exudes faith in God and takes the Biblical command of “Love thy neighbor” to a whole new level.
“Everybody says they love the Lord, but don’t love the people around you,” Jennings said. “How do you say you love the Lord and don’t love His people?”
Jennings is on a mission to spread that love throughout her neighborhood, and it’s a mission noticed by Habitat for Humanity’s program manager, Didi Boyd Hager. Habitat is partnering with Jennings to form a new coalition to identify Washington Park assets, enhance them and determine what the community needs. Habitat is focusing on specific areas of the neighborhood and identifying vacant lots for potential purchase.
“We are looking at the whole community, but targeting this area for new construction,” Hager said. “This is just the beginning of activity. We are looking for other people to get involved in this grassroots effort to help this neighborhood, and hopefully build a coalition behind that. Habitat can only be a spoke in the wheel. We can’t be the whole wheel.”
Jennings takes it upon herself, along with family and a small group of volunteers, to make a dent in some of the neighborhood blight. Whether it’s mowing someone’s lawn, cleaning up trash, washing someone’s windows or delivering food to her neighbors, she refuses to live in a run-down neighborhood, which is bordered on the north by Ninth Avenue East, on the east by Ninth Street East, on the south by 13th Avenue West and the west by First Street.
According to a 2013 city of Bradenton housing stock assessment, the overall condition of Washington Park homes ranges from average to good, but most homes did fail at least one criteria of the study.
“There is a strong need for various repairs throughout the neighborhood,” the report states.
The city funds housing rehab projects through federal Community Development Block Grant dollars and Florida’s State Housing Initiative Partnership program, but those funds have dwindled over the years. Jennings says the city does a very good job servicing the neighborhood, but she isn’t looking to rely on government.
“People expect officials to do it for them, but it’s not officials’ responsibilities,” she said. “It’s neighbors helping neighbors. We go in and check the properties and see what needs to be done, knock on doors and see how we can help. People may drive by a house and see it run-down, but you don’t know the story of what’s going inside the home without knocking on the door.”
Jennings often finds someone elderly on disability or a working family struggling to make ends meet, “so we come and do it for them. Those who are able to help, do what little they can. I can’t give up. It’s your neighbor and you have to do something about it. You have to reach out and touch their lives.”
According to 2010 U.S. Census, the neighborhood has transformed from elderly in the 1990s to a younger and more diverse population. The average age range in the community is 45- 54 years old, with 23.6 percent identifying as white, 56.3 percent identifying as black and 36.8 percent identifying as Hispanic.
Market value for homes in Washington Park has risen, but more than 40 percent of the neighborhood’s homes are valued under $100,000. The median household income is about $35,000.
While Washington Park has had reputation issues pertaining to crime, it’s no more than usual, according to Bradenton Police Department Assistant Chief Josh Cramer. He said the bulk of the criminal activity typically occurs on the district’s fringes along the main traffic corridors and not necessarily within the residential areas of the district.
Jennings said there are too many people in her community who have lost hope. But she goes “street by street to show people there is hope if we work together. Everybody wants to blame the government, but oh no, it’s the people and we are God’s people. You have more people paying attention to the president instead of paying attention to God and don’t want to embrace one another.”
On a recent weekday, Jennings walked the neighborhood looking to see what needed to be cleaned up. She found a group of men standing around so she gave them trash bags and six rakes, and put them to work.
“They grumble, but they do it,” she said. “I take them water and soda and tell them it will be McDonald’s for lunch at noon. We have fun doing it. Sometimes we run head-to-head with people, but we work it out.”
Tropicana is chipping in for the effort, donating money for lawn equipment and picnic tables that Jennings hopes to use for Bible study classes for the neighborhood children. The small coalition recently met for the first time with only four people attending.
“It’s a challenge to get people involved,” Hager said. “As with anything, it takes time to build trust. We have a small knitted group of women already working together, and my goal is to take that group and expand it and hopefully it takes seed and grows. There is just a lot of potential here and a lot of good people in this neighborhood. If we can tap into those resources and the assets that are here, then we can expand on that.”
The community meetings are designed to bring the residents together to identify what will make their community better. They want to work with outside individuals and agencies that can then bring expertise to resolve those needs. And Jennings hopes to see the young community get involved, as well.
“We need people with a vision,” she said. “God gave everyone a gift, so let’s put those gifts to work. It’s a blessing to help somebody. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about planting a seed and that’s something we have strayed so far away from.”
Beginning July11, the coalition will meet the second Tuesday of each month. Hager’s goal is to listen to the residents and not try to determine or guess what they may need. That can include a wide array of things, she says, from housing, to playgrounds to safety.