Caroline Whitson knows a lot of people drive through North Columbia with their car doors locked and their eyes straight ahead.
The president of Columbia College has heard it before — the fear not so much expressed as implied. She thinks that’s a shame.
“I know there are people in Columbia who equate poverty with danger, very wrongly,” she said. “It’s amazing to me. When I lived here (on campus) for five years, people that I would invite out were very nervous about coming out here.”
Those who do journey past their fears and prejudices often are surprised to find leafy neighborhoods with distinctive Arts and Crafts houses and an energetic community spirit that hearkens back to a more relaxed era.
The community — black and white, old and young — has refused to give up on this sprawling, diverse network of 40 neighborhoods, even though there are sections pockmarked by retched poverty, and crime and neglect remain stubborn impediments in some areas.
It is a walking neighborhood, so it is not unusual to see people like the Rev. Marcus Miller, president of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, making his daily rounds. A veteran urbanite, Miller reminds his students to be street-smart, not scared, of the urban environment around the seminary’s pastoral campus on North Main Street.
Here, there are few cookie-cutter housing tracts, no gated communities that wall off the well-to-do.
“Columbia is one of those interesting cities where it has to take a person who hasn’t lived in Columbia to see the potential that Columbia has,” said David Barry, co-owner of Celtic Works Inc., a construction company that has built eight houses in the area.
Barry and his partner, John Strevens, both from Ireland, have worked to build affordable Craftsman-style homes that blend in with the architecture of the area and increase its appeal.
“There is a tipping point where you get enough people in these neighborhoods where they are watching out for each other, then it gets a different feel,” Barry said. “The work we are doing is seeing what’s missing on a road, what’s missing on a block, and make something that fits in a neighborhood.”
A LABORATORY FOR DEMOCRACY
North Columbia has been a laboratory for grass-roots democracy for years.
First, it was a place unto itself, a town that stood alone. Now, its network of neighborhoods, having survived cycles of boom and bust, are joined in a collective battle for more than passing recognition by the city.
Our time is now, they say.
In 2000, Eau Claire was selected as one of 12 communities around the country “where people are coming together to make their small piece of the world a better place to live.”
The 12 became part of “Indivisible: Stories of American Community,” a project of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. It was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
To look at the book or explore its Web site — Indivisible.org — is to recognize the same faces and challenges, and witness the same persistent clamor for change.
Since she arrived at Columbia College in 2001, Whitson has worked with longtime area civic leaders and Columbia City Council to focus attention on North Columbia’s possibilities and pitfalls.
“One of the things we say to students about the neighborhood is that if you want a laboratory for learning how to live in the America of the future, Columbia College is a great place to do it,” Whitson said. “We’re in a diverse neighborhood; you’re going to be in a diverse workplace.
“You want a place to learn to make a difference in the world? Come to Eau Claire, where diverse people learn to live together.”
‘YOUNG PEOPLE ARE COMING’
The college is putting its money where her mouth is, preparing to embark on a retail-and-residential project at the corner of North Main Street and Columbia College Drive that should be completed in 2009.
Already, urban pioneers have discovered the charming homes and rolling landscapes of the area just beyond Elmwood Avenue. It is known as a place chock-full of real estate bargains with a short commute to downtown. Cottontown and Elmwood Park already have undergone transformations.
“Young people are coming,” said Henry Hopkins, a longtime community advocate and executive director of the Eau Claire Community Council.
But he wonders if they will stay.
North Columbia, its nucleus once the independent town of Eau Claire, has been dogged by three intractable problems that have yet to be resolved:
Crime. The fatal shootings in and near the Gable Oaks apartments crystallized a problem that has been lingering for years. Area leaders think more community policing, cleaning up abandoned and derelict housings, and targeting drug dealers and other criminals would make the area safer and more livable.
“A lot of it is code enforcement,” said Gail Baker, president of the Hyatt Park/Keenan Terrace Homeowners Association. “The abandoned houses; a lot of the landlords who just let the houses go and put any kind of tenants in them. There is no follow-up.”
Poorly performing schools. Five of North Columbia’s schools — Eau Claire High School, C.A. Johnson Preparatory Academy and Gibbes, Alcorn and W.A. Perry middle schools — have been placed on a watch list by the State Department of Education because of the chronic failure of their students to meet minimum education standards.
“The elephant in the room is the public schools,” said the Rev. Wiley Cooper, who retired this month from College Place United Methodist Church. “At least now within another year, we will have really, really good physical plants at all the public schools. That excuse is gone.”
Few retail and business opportunities. North Columbia represents a third of Columbia’s land area, yet there are no significant industries to anchor the area.
In the past that might have been related to racist or exclusionary city politics, but no more, said attorney Alvin Hinkle, past president of the Eau Claire Community Council.
“The difference now is that sometimes we get heard because the door is open, while in the past it was closed,” he said. “The question though, is whether enough citizens will get engaged and stay engaged to get beyond just getting heard, but getting action. That has yet to be seen.”
THE NEW URBAN PIONEERS
Real estate agent Rhett Anders shows lots of houses to young urban pioneers who relish the prospect of interesting, affordable housing and being close to downtown. But he leavens his pitch with the realities of North Columbia life, including the possibility of thefts and break-ins.
“By and large, the people who renovate old houses are young, white people,” he said. “We haven’t had young African-Americans coming back to renovate.”
Much of the black middle class — once the heart of Eau Claire — has decamped to Clemson Road and other Northeast Richland environs, where the schools are thriving.
“You have the poor who can’t move, young yuppie people who can fix up houses, and then older residents who have been here through white waves and black waves,” he said.
For Anders and others, that mix is what makes North Columbia so vibrant.
“We have this beautiful growth. We have these houses with character that are affordable,” Columbia College’s Whitson said. “People are not going to keep driving past that when they start to see some services develop.
“When they see those retail services, people will come. When those services come, it all be-comes a cycle. I think that is on the tipping point of happening. And when it does, it will happen fast.”
Reach Click at (803) 771-8386.