Revitalization of MLK’s neighborhood offers lessons for Charlottesville

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Atlanta’s oldest community development entity still in existence, according to its website, is bringing its expertise to Charlottesville.

Coretta Scott King founded the Historic District Development Corporation in 1980 with two other civil rights leaders to protect the neighborhood where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born. Once described in Fortune magazine as the “richest negro street in the world,” Sweet Auburn had experienced an economic decline since desegregation.

“What we didn’t anticipate during desegregation was the fact that it was a one-way street. Black folks took their wealth, their creativity — they took all of that to the broader white community. The white community, once desegregation occurred, did not … support African-American businesses or the African-American community in the same way,” said former HDDC President Mtamanika Youngblood.

Youngblood was drawn into HDDC as a volunteer after she moved to the district in 1985. Now in her third decade of work with the organization, she serves as the chair of the HDDC board.

“The bottom line is that we have renovated everything from a 300-square-foot shotgun house to a 225,000-square-foot warehouse that is now something called Studioplex,” Youngblood said.

Donell Woodson is a board member of HDDC and one of Youngblood’s mentees. Woodson and Youngblood were scheduled to speak together at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on Wednesday, but Youngblood caught a viral infection and plans to call into the talk.

Woodson, who grew up in Charlottesville, is visiting at a moment when community development corporations are becoming an increasingly interesting model for local organizations. New Hill Development Corporation began the recent conversation about CDCs when the Charlottesville City Council awarded them $500,000 in November to develop a small area plan for the Starr Hill neighborhood. New Hill was founded in April.

The Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents is moving in a CDC direction, as well. PHAR and the Charlottesville Redevelopment Housing Association revived the Charlottesville Development Corporation in late November, and the groups just approved a contract that makes building PHAR into a CDC part of the process for public housing redevelopment.

Woodson said that longevity and comprehensiveness will be key to the success of local CDCs.

“You’ve got to be committed for the long haul, and then you have to think comprehensively. By comprehensively, I mean every party should be present at the table, not just that you hold a seat but that your voice is heard,” Woodson said.

HDDC has built their comprehensive approach by ensuring that those living within the district are the leaders.

When Woodson and his wife decided to buy a house in Sweet Auburn, they did not initially know that the house was built by HDDC.

“We’re all sitting there, talking [when closing on the house], and then in walks this statuesque African-American woman [, Ms. Youngblood,] and everyone stands up,” Woodson said. “We get up and shake hands and at the end, she says, with her finger in my face, ‘I expect to see you involved in the neighborhood.’”

“I just said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” he said. “And then I went home and Googled her.”

Woodson and Youngblood’s talk is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Councilor Wes Bellamy also will join the presentation, which is free and open to the public.