“I was coming back from the [Full Belly Project] shop and there was a group of teenagers on bicycles, grouped around the old A&P store. Immediately, I thought Oh, no … it’s after dark. They’re up to no good. Then, I realized they were looking at the art and taking pictures of it,” Jock said with a chuckle, as he walked toward the kitchen for a beer.
Unwittingly he had just demonstrated the power of the art installation starting to wrap around the old A&P building at the corner of 11th and Princess Street. Approximately 3-feet tall black-and-white photos of residents of the neighborhood are displayed on the side of the building. To say it is eye-catching is the understatement of the year. One could point to its excitement beginning when the flyers went up last month announcing that CFCC photography students were going to take portraits of neighborhood residents. Like most things in life, there has been a lot of planning and effort to get it intsalled.
If you have had breakfast at the Princess Street Folks Café in the last two and half years, there is a chance you have heard Bill Farris discuss his dreamed-of community photography project. Farris is quick to give credit to Alan Swart for turning him on to the a TED Talk by French graffiti artist JR—who espouses a very similar project. Farris points to help received from Rhonda Bellamy at the Arts Council and Frankie Roberts of LINC, as well as Jennifer Mace’s class at Cape Fear Community College. For Farris, this has been a passion project.
“For this neighborhood, it would be a great idea to change focus to the human infraustrue and start some conversations we talked about,” Ferris explained. “We just never could get together because the price tag was pretty big (the printing was $5,000). Then, Jennifer Mace at the community college got a small grant.”
Ferris grinned and explained that Rhonda Bellamy suggested this project as a way to spend the grant. Farris already knew Jennifer from auditing her black-and-white photography class, and it just came together at the perfect time. We were standing across the street and looking at the art installation when he told me this.
“Good morning!” Melvina, proprietress of the Azalea Laundry (which we were standing in front of), greeted us.
“Good morning, Melvina,” I responded. “We’re talking about the art installation.”
“Isn’t it fun? Are you up there?” she asked.
“No, but Jock is.”
“Oh, I see!” She pointed to his picture. “Yeah, I missed it, too. I wish it would stay there forever.”
“We told the building owner it would be two weeks,” Farris responded. He then pointed out a gentleman who has passed away since his picture was taken.
“Oh, that’s sad. You should put up a sign,” Melvina commented.
She left to start her day and Ferris made the point that what just happened is exactly the purpose of this project: To create conversations among the inhabitants of our neighborhood and to ask questions, like, “What do you like about the neighborhood?” or “What would you like to see change?”
Now is an especially interesting time for our neighborhood to have these conversations. Situated between the prosperous historic district of downtown and the gentrified, now-desirable historic district overlay (the “12th and Chestnut Neighborhood”), as Ferris described it in the project proposal, it seems to have fallen into the cracks. From the proposal:
“According to the 2010 Census, the project area has a population of about 800 people. Forty-four percent are minorities. Only 11 percent of the population includes older people, which is lower than the city as a whole. The median household income for the 12th/Chestnut neighborhood is $17,700, which is only 36 percent of the county median. The neighborhood is in a census tract where people are very poor: 44 percent have incomes below the poverty level, and 52 percent are near poor with incomes at or below 125 percent of the poverty level. At the time of the census, 28 percent of the neighborhood workers were unemployed and an additional 20 percent worked less than 26 weeks in the prior 12 months. Education is an issue. The census estimates that 33 percent of the population of the census tract does not have a high-school diploma—1 in 3.”
I would say that right now our neighborhood is on the cusp, and this project and the conversations it creates are essential to getting us to the next step. Next door to Melvina’s laundromat, a new music recording studio has moved into the neighborhood, and a couple doors over, Raquell’s Hair Salon is thriving. I ran into Raquell on the street last week (which happens pretty often when I walk home). Raquell is one of those really smart, really competent women who doesn’t talk about herself very much. You have to ask really pointed questions, otherwise, she is far too polite to sing her own praises. “Actually, I’m expanding,” she said in her quiet but proud voice, with a big smile.
March 1 was the one-year anniversary of signing the lease and starting to upgrade the space. She and her business have been a wonderful asset to our neighborhood, with a calm, steady hand at the tiller, bringing positive focus to moving forward. It is so great to have her around. To hear that she is doing well enough to expand was the best news of the week.
Along those lines, Tidal Creek Co-Op has announced in several local media outlets they are beginning to look at a possible relocation downtown. Given their target market, the move should be a no-brainer, but these things do happen slowly. Our neighborhood has been actively campaigning (including a petition) to get them to move into a space on Princess Street. To have a viable grocery store that serves both real groceries and the more esoteric wants of the bohemian set would put more people working and spending in our part of town than we have had in years. More so, think of how many people you see that you stop and talk with when you go grocery shopping. If you want to get to know your neighbors, you should shop for food in your neighborhood. Until recently, our neighborhood’s only real food sources were three corner stores: on 17th and Market, on 10th and Chestnut, and on 12th and Chestnut. With convenience-store prices and selections, they don’t really meet the needs of a family of four on a tight budget. The store on 12th and Chestnut, which has long been a source of much controversy within our neighborhood (including the fatal shooting of at least one young man in the last two years), was shuttered last fall. It left many people without that option for groceries and other services.
For those of us who have lived here for any length of time, we didn’t hold our breath in hopes that any real, permanent change was coming to that blighted corner. Then, on a perfectly normal and chilly Friday afternoon in February, the gentleman who owned the property of the shuttered convenience store walked into the Full Belly Project office (11th and Chestnut) to hand a singed, notarized copy of the deed of the property to Full Belly. Full disclosure: I have a long and intimate relationship with the founder of Full Belly Project, Jock Brandis, that makes me a very biased information source—so biased, in fact, that I went out to dinner and drinks with Jock to celebrate this unexpected largess.
Jock and Full Belly’s executive director, Daniel, spent the next week scrambling to get the utilities turned back on to the building for the tenants. They began formulating a game plan for what to do next. Between informal meetings with the City of Wilmington planners and the rotating group of neighbors dropping by to discuss the news, Jock and Daniel realized the affordable housing on the second floor was really important to residents in the area. Many of the houses nearby have been subdivided and turned into Section 8 rentals. After the crash of 2008, suddenly, the area was filled with “For Sale” signs. Clearly, absentee landlords were over-extended and trying to get out. Thus, there are plans to upgrade the apartments. In the meantime, the two men are taking an informal straw poll from the neighborhood about its long-term uses. Several people have pointed out the need for a job-training and placement center or an outreach medical clinic. In the short term, there is a plan to put people to work restoring the building to its original historic façade as the Justice Grocery Store.
With all this brewing, it feels like our neighborhood might be nearing a new era of stability and maybe even prosperity. Farris, former town manager for Leland and former city manager for Wilmington, points out that this kind of change, the direction and the action, needs to come from the community. City Hall is interested in what we are doing and is in the process of making resources readily available to us. But we the people—the faces on that wall—need to talk with each other and work together to make our neighborhood a place for people to thrive.