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Momentum builds as Washington Park residents engage with coalition

May Lizzie Jennings hugs those who attended the community’s first Washington Park meeting in July as a growing group of residents and outside partners join forces in an effort to clean up and make safe the East Bradenton neighborhood.
May Lizzie Jennings hugs those who attended the community’s first Washington Park meeting in July as a growing group of residents and outside partners join forces in an effort to clean up and make safe the East Bradenton neighborhood. Herald file photo

Sometimes the most difficult task to complete when invoking change is first to get others involved. If that is true, a coalition spearheaded by Habitat for Humanity looking to bring change to East Bradenton’s Washington Park community is off to a good start.

The Bradenton Police Department hosted the second community meeting at its Sixth Street Court East police substation, and it was standing room only as attendance more than doubled from a meeting held last month. That first meeting drew more people representing agencies outside the neighborhood seeking to help than it did residents.

On Tuesday, concerned residents far outnumbered those agency representatives and though space was tight, Habitat’s Programs Manager Didi Boyd Hager said “this is a good problem to have.”

Coalition building began in early June between Hager and May Lizzie Jennings in her Washington Park home and the effort is blossoming quickly.

“Our mission is to help this community come together,” Hager said. “The people here are part of a coalition building to listen, to give their input, their direction, their talents to what this community needs, but we need to hear from you.”

Residents reiterated some of the issues the community faces, which includes better lighting, sidewalks, safe places and routes for children to get to nearby parks and bus stops, and a general cleanup of the neighborhood, which residents proclaimed as “filthy.”

Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan attended the meeting to address concerns from residents and was pleased with the turnout.

“It’s always important when trying to do all we can for the neighborhood that the neighborhood comes out,” Bevan said. “At the end of the day, we can’t do anything as a city or as a police department unless you are involved. Neighborhoods are about families so if there are things you would like to see from the police department, things you need help with, house issues, code issues or if someone in your neighborhood is bringing you down, you need to let us know. We are here to do all we can.”

Residents said they would like to get know the officers better to establish more trust but acknowledged Bevan’s implementation last year of her Walkin’ the Beat program has been effective. Officers are required to get out of their vehicles from time to time to engage with the community. Others were concerned that the current effort would simply disappear as time goes on, but Hager said that isn’t going to happen.

“This is a village,” she said. “I can’t do this by myself and I don’t want to. We want to get to know you and what you want in the community so there is trust built to have this community sustain itself and be an up-and-coming neighborhood. Unless I’m in the hospital on my death bed, I’m going to keep my word, but I can’t do without you all.”

Residents expressed frustration about the lack of caring in their own neighborhood, particularly about the dumping of trash. Several of those attending say they are involved in organizational and church cleanup efforts, but that few, if any of their neighbors, participate.

“I’m 71 years old, and if I can pick up trash then by God everyone can,” Jennings said. “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed of the way the neighborhood looks. We can do better.”

Monthly community meetings will continue. Hager is the point person for the growing coalition, and can be reached at dhager@manateehabitat.org or call 941-748-9100, ext. 102.

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