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A Neighborhood that Struggles with Poverty Has Helped Rehabilitate 50 Homes

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PBS NewsHour/Sam Weber

We often hear about urban cities, like Detroit, that are dealing with abandoned, dilapidated buildings. But some communities in West Virginia are struggling with neighborhood blight too.

The WV Hub is working with partners across West Virginia to plan a three day event in Huntington this October. The summit will help people across West Virginia who are working to fix blighted, abandoned and dilapidated properties. Civic groups in Huntington have been collaborating on this type of work and have made great strides recently.

And in Charleston, two non-profits are working to rebuild and remove dilapidated homes in their neighborhood, known as the West Side Flats.

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Credit Roxy Todd
This building was once Dr. Hopson's office

At the heart of the West Side Flats neighborhood is Mary C. Snow elementary school. This neighborhood has the second highest percentage of African American residents in West Virginia.

The school itself is named in honor of West Virginia's first female African American principal of an integrated school. Snow was not only an educator- she was also known for her civic engagement in this neighborhood. And for most community organizers here, like Reverend Matthew J. Watts, the memory of the real Mary C. Snow is a reminder of what individuals can do to help revive the West Side.

"Some people just stay here, they want to see it turn around again, and we believe that it can. Despite the vacant houses, there's still 4,000 reasons on the broader West Side, those are the kids. That is why we should fight. They deserve a chance to live a safe, wholesome, healthy place that inspires them," says Watts.

Watts is the CEO of a non-profit called HOPE Community Development Corporation. He says the dilapidation of buildings reduces home values and can become a magnet for crime.

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Credit PBS NewsHour/Sam Weber
Roxy Todd speaking with Reverend Watts on 2nd Avenue, in front of one of the homes that Bob Hardy and the Charleston Economic Development Corporation built.

"On those four blocks, there are 61 vacant structures—61. And they pose a public health threat in terms of public safety, health, etc. for the children and families. And we believe that it contributes to the overall negative feelings this neighborhood has."

But as Watts walks along 3rd Avenue and points to homes with fresh flowerbeds out front and houses that are well maintained, he says its clear that not everyone on the West Side has given up hope.

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Credit Roxy Todd
A vacant lot on 3rd Ave. that is being maintained as a green space

Many of the houses here still posses a historic charm from the days when this was an up and coming neighborhood for middle class African American families.

During segregation, this was also the cultural center of activity for the black community in Charleston, including tourists who were not allowed to stay downtown. But now, middle class families have moved away.

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Credit Roxy Todd
Vacant home along 3rd Ave.

In the last year, Reverend Watts and his organization has spent $250,000 to remove asbestos and prepare 12 vacant homes for demolition. The removal of these structures was a partnership between HOPE CDC, the city of Charleston, and the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.

Bob Hardy has been helping this neighborhood since the 1990's. Before anyone else had a vision to restore this neighborhood, Hardy was working to rehab dilapidated homes along 2nd Avenue.

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Credit Roxy Todd
Bob Hardy, standing in front of one of the 10 affordable houses that he helped build

Hardy’s father was a shop teacher, and he is a licensed contractor himself. As executive director of the Charleston Economic Community Development Corporation, he has helped build 10 new homes in the West Side flats neighborhood. He’s helped rehab about 50 houses.

Hardy grew up in the West Side Hills, which looks down into this neighborhood. His vision for restoring this area came because he believes it’s like the front yard of the entire West Side. He sees the potential here to develop affordable housing because of the neighborhood’s close proximity to downtown.

The community here has been supporting a large part of these efforts, even though  1 in 3 residents here are living in poverty.

And though he's been involved in this work for over 20 years, Hardy says he believes the neighborhood is going to turn around and the people here are going to pull themselves out of poverty.

"The race is not given to the swift or to the strong, but to those who endure until the end. My mother gave me that. Never quit."

Together, Hardy and Watts working to continue to rehab homes here on the West Side. They are each cautiously optimistic that Charleston officials can partner with them more in the future to restore the West Side flats neighborhood.

During the tour of the West Side flats neighborhood, Roxy Todd met up with a few correspondents from the PBS NewsHour who were visiting the Mary C. Snow school. Their story, "Summer slide: the year-round solution", will air on September 7 on PBS NewsHour Weekend.

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Credit PBS NewsHour/Sam Weber
Reverend Watts speaks with PBS NewsHour correspondent Alison Stewart


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