Southwest Lancaster city residents are celebrating. They have ambitious plans to invest in better housing, to clean up parks and build new ones, to encourage others to move in and buy homes.
They want to revive one of the most neglected quadrants of the city.
The tradition-rich neighborhoods, settled in the 1800s by Germans and home to a new generation of immigrants, people from Angola and Laos and Puerto Rico and the Congo, have brought new cultures, ideas and energy to Lancaster's Southwest community.
And now they’re getting some help.
A Wells Fargo foundation that funds neighborhood improvements in the U.S. is awarding $1.15 million to the Southwest over five years, money that will be used to fix up homes, lure more businesses and pay for new bike ambassadors and street lights and other amenities that add to the quality of life.
It is the largest grant ever awarded by the Philadelphia-based Wells Fargo Regional Foundation for a five-year project, and residents and city officials are thrilled.
"The community is coming to life and doing something to improve its own neighborhood, said Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray. "There's a lot of real nice areas in the Southwest, but as a whole, the neighborhood has been struggling. This gives them a chance to turn in the right direction. I think it's exciting."
Neighborhood organizers and their community partners are determined to stop the downward slide of a once thriving part of the city. They are celebrating the grant by holding a community barbecue Monday night.
They’ll also unveil the Southwest’s new name.
It wil be called SOWE, pronounced “so we.”
The road ahead
Transforming the Southwest into a vibrant, stable neighborhood is not going to be an easy task, said Ray D'Agostino, executive director of the Lancaster Housing Opportunities Partnership. "Let's not kid ourselves," he said. "It's a place with regular shootings, drugs and prostitution."
The reality of that set in soon after the partnership started rehabilitating and selling houses along West Strawberry Street on Cabbage Hill in 2014. There were 11 shootings in the first two months of the year, and most were in the Southwest.
"We quickly realized good housing is the foundation of great community, but there are other things that are challenges," D'Agostino said. "Street lighting, safety and economic opportunities are equally important."
More than a third of the families in the Southwest live below the poverty level. The poverty rate in the Southwest is 28 percent compared to 24 percent for the entire city.
Nearly 65 percent of the neighborhood's housing are rentals. The average rate for all of Lancaster city is 56 percent.
What used to be a thriving strip of mom and pop enterprises on Manor and Dorwart streets has disappeared as many of the former stores have been converted to rental units.
Those major trends are blamed for the increase in crime in the area, surveys of residents found.
Bad housing, poverty, crime
Luis Ortega, real estate agent and former Southwest resident who serves on the neighborhood’s leadership board, said he has witnessed the area’s decline.
"Over time we have seen absentee landlords who have let the properties go, by not doing quality repairs," he said. “There has been a lot of negligence. Businesses have closed, we've seen the crime rate go up.
"When you've got poverty, when you've got community members who have less opportunities, less programs for the children to be involved in, that is directly related to crime," he said.
But Ortega has noticed there has been an increase in potential buyers for properties in the Southwest since word of a possible revitalization has gotten out to the community.
"We don't just want anyone coming in here. We're looking to create stronger relationships with specific investors who will have a heart for this neighborhood and want to do the right thing with housing," he said.
Investing in a neighborhood
The Southwest, specifically the Manor Street and King Street corridors, has been the topic of Lancaster City Alliance plans for a couple of years. "We want to see it become a hub of activity," said Marshall Snively, president of the group.
The Alliance cited high traffic volume, an unfriendly pedestrian environment and unkempt rental properties along Manor Street as "negatively impacting quality of life in the corridor in recent decades."
Snively said the city now plans to install street lights along West King and Manor streets to make the corridors more attractive to businesses.
"Put that together with this plan, and you're really starting to build momentum to continue growth in that area," Snively said. "And just look at the people at the table that will be implementing this plan. You have the residents themselves and partners like LHOP. "
D'Agostino gives all the credit to the residents of the Southwest who have gotten involved in the process, something that was recognized by the Foundation who granted the money.
"The plan was very well organized by the residents and stakeholders who were really involved in the entire process," said Denise McGregor Armbrister, the executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation.
"It's one of the first ones we are supporting that show a true collaborative effort. That's why the funding for this particular grant was at a higher level," she said.
More than 200 Southwest residents took part in the 14-month planning process, which was funded with a separate $100,000 grant from the Foundation.
D'Agostino said his organization's program director, Jim Shultz, has the "dogged determination" to make the plan work.
"What he's done is fantastic," D'Agostino said. "This is life-legacy work, and Jim is all about making this succeed."
Shultz was raised in public housing in the city and his wife hails from Caroline Street in the Southwest neighborhood, he said.
His passion for the project has kept it focused and moving.
"It's about never giving up," said Shultz.
The Southwest Neighborhood Leadership Board has already formed partnerships with the Lancaster Safety Coalition, the Community Action Partnership's Lancaster Equity CDC, Boys and Girls Club, and the Lancaster City Alliance.
"Frankly this is unlike anything I've ever been involved," Shultz said. "I have not seen a community galvanized around the process like this one, who has rolled up their sleeves to implement a plan."
Shultz is convinced the best thing about the Wells Fargo grant is that it will attract other investors and more millions to make the plan a reality.
"I absolutely think it's going to work," said Shultz. "I hope it will be a model for neighborhoods within any city on how to turn things around. "