Students Help with Newnan Planning Efforts

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

For generations, the Chalk Level neighborhood in Newnan was the nexus of African-American life in Coweta County, before the Civil War and afterward. Doctors, teachers, laborers lived and thrived there. Business owners, restaurateurs, beauticians and funeral directors prospered. Today, the neighborhood is the focus of efforts to revitalize the parts that have fallen into decay.

This house, at 61 Pinson Street in the Chalk Level neighborhood of Newnan, was once the home of Dr. John Henry Jordan.“This was a very affluent neighborhood,” said Rebecca Gibson, who grew up in Chalk Level and worships at Newnan Chapel United Methodist Church. Established more than 170 years ago, it is the oldest black church in Newnan.

“It thrived through the 1960s,” Gibson said. She moved away, but came back in 1998 to work for the Coweta County School System, returning to her childhood home with her mother. “The black high school was in the area. There were teachers, principals. Because of segregation, it was a mixed-income neighborhood. Maids lived next door to teachers and doctors.”

But now many of those houses are vacant or used as rentals. Commercial properties need sprucing up. Businesses need to re-establish themselves. Newnan’s planning department is working with neighborhood residents on a redevelopment plan that will breath new life and bring more resources into the neighborhood.

This spring, University of West Georgia students helped the process. They were in the housing and community development class taught by Hee-Jung Jun, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Planning. The dozen students walked the neighborhood and photographed its streets. They organized a community meeting, prepared and analyzed a residents’ survey and offered Newnan city officials some preliminary recommendations.

“Certain parts of the neighborhood are pretty good and stable,” Jun said. “But rental rates are very high. They need to increase home ownership.”

The students learned what it takes to develop a neighborhood plan: how to collect and analyze data, and how to put together a report. They delivered to Newnan a document that can be used as a guide for the future. In the coming weeks, city officials will discuss the preliminary recommendations and decide what to do next.

The experience was invaluable. “In class they talked about the theory. But when we went on the walk, we saw the real-life conditions,” said Jared Ogle, a graduate student who worked on the maps as well as the community facilities and land use sections of the project. “They didn’t want gentrification, with old houses torn down and the neighborhood losing its identity. They wanted more activities for younger children. They wanted child-friendly amenities.”

The process was hard but enjoyable, said grad student Quinderious Roberts, who researched the neighborhood’s history, analyzed the population and studied the area’s circulation patterns.

“The best way to get accurate information about a neighborhood is to go there, meet the residents, communicate with them,” Roberts said. “You can analyze all the data you want, but you will never gain perspective unless you conduct field research.”

Among the students’ preliminary recommendations: offer tax incentives to buyers or developers to renovate older housing, or build new homes that fit in with the neighborhood; develop a community center; add sidewalks and improve the existing ones; add green space; and help older residents with the maintenance of their homes.

“Chalk Level presents the best opportunity for immediate results,” said Dana Ethredge, a city planner. Ethredge graduated from UWG in 2005 with a B.S. in political science and planning. In 2009, she received her masters in public administration. Tracy Dunnavant, Newnan’s planning and zoning director, suggested Ethredge contact her alma mater about the project.

“There are a few community-oriented programs already in existence,” Ethredge said. “In recent times [Chalk Level] has declined, but it is starting to come back.”

The neighborhood declined as owners aged and were unable to tend to their properties. In some cases when homeowners passed away their heirs had moved away and were no longer interested in the homes. But more recently, property owners have made a concerted effort to improve the neighborhood and former Chalk Level residents returned. They “want to bring the neighborhood back to what it once was,” Ethredge said.

Ethredge said the long-vacant Harold Warner building could become a community center. The former school building, named for a longtime educator who lived in Chalk Level, is in the center of the neighborhood. Broad Street and Martin Luther King Drive are Chalk Level’s north-south boundaries. Wall and Ball streets form, roughly, the west-east boundaries for the 240-acre neighborhood. Its housing stock includes brick ranches, craftsman, Queen Anne and Victorian houses. About 2,300 people live in the neighborhood, which remains largely African-American.

Newnan has made improvements to sidewalks in the neighborhood and added or improved retaining walls. “We are trying to build on those investments,” Ethredge said.

The city’s Urban Redevelopment Agency will be looking at other neighborhoods and may ask for assistance from UWG students again, she said.

The students’ efforts and their ideas are welcomed, said Gibson, who is president of the Chalk Level Association. The neighborhood is ripe for redevelopment and has a lot going for it: it is close to Ashley Park mall, Piedmont Newnan Hospital and I-85. Downtown Newnan is a short walk away.

“We recognize that there are things that needs to be changed,” said Gibson who retired as principal of Poplar Road Elementary School in 2008. She earned her B.A. in political science in 1971 and her Ed.S. in 1986 then-West Georgia College.

“I thought the university did a fantastic job,” Gibson said. “The students’ findings and recommendations were based on what the community said. I was very impressed with them.”

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Photo: This house, at 61 Pinson Street in the Chalk Level neighborhood of Newnan, was once the home of Dr. John Henry Jordan.