Can Washington Park community come together? Agencies not so sure

“Love thy neighbor” is something Washington Park resident May Lizzie Jennings takes to heart within her impoverished East Bradenton neighborhood.

But if her neighbors aren’t willing to get together to know more about one another and become a community willing to better their neighborhood, that love isn’t being returned in a way Jennings hopes it will be.

Since Jennings’ efforts to clean up and revitalize the Washington Park community captured the attention of Habitat for Humanity’s Didi Boyd Hager this past summer, efforts have been underway to make it a community-wide investment. But few in the neighborhood have come forward to make that happen.

Washington Park struggles map
The Washington Park neighborhood in east Bradenton is shown in red. It is one of two neighborhoods that make up the Central Community Redevelopment Agency. A small group is fighting for revitalization but struggling to get the community to help themselves. Provided photo

Monthly meetings in the community to try to determine what the neighborhood needs to spur progress have seen a coalition of various agencies wanting to help far outnumber the residents who attend. Coalition members include Bradenton police officers, Habitat for Humanity, Manatee County Veteran Services, Manatee County Neighborhood Services, West Bradenton Crime Watch and more.

Iris Gonzalez, senior manager of state government affairs for Charter Communications and Spectrum, also was on hand to give away free home safety kits. Gonzalez said Spectrum heard of the efforts underway in Washington Park, “and wanted to team up with Habitat. I’m excited to be here to have an opportunity to give the safety kits to the community.”

But only a handful of children and their older brother attended. The old adage of you can’t help those who are unwilling to help themselves isn’t stopping a coalition determined to make a difference. But a new strategy is needed.

“We know what doesn’t work, so we need to try something else,” Jennings said.

Hager said a good coalition is in place, “So how do we get the homeowners involved with the coalition? You can’t complain about what’s wrong in your neighborhood if you aren’t willing to come out and do something about it.”

Washington Park struggles MY 1
The University of Florida’s Lisa Hickey, urban horticulture/master gardener coordinator, teaches a handful of Washington Park residents about the extension office’s “plant in a pale” program well suited for the urban gardener. Mark Young myoung@bradenton.com

Bradenton Police Capt. John Affolter said he is “shocked” to see the lack of involvement, “in a neighborhood screaming for help,” and suggested the coalition get back to the basics. Affolter said neighborhoods aren’t like they used to be where everyone knows each other and suggested creating events to bring the neighborhood together rather than trying to attract people to meetings.

The coalition will plan a community-wide scavenger hunt, perhaps on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that will encourage participants to host scavenger items and get neighbors knocking on neighbors’ doors.

“That’s where it starts,” Hager said. “It starts with getting to know your neighbors and hopefully we can pick up and start fresh in January.”