NASHUA - In the Tree Streets, it’s about the small steps.
As perceptions are cast aside and positive changes embraced within the oft-ridiculed Nashua neighborhood, community groups and those living within the 30-block radius continue to see slow, yet steady, progress despite the high turnover in its housing stock.
“Last year I went to a meeting and there were eight or nine residents, and then the next month half of them had moved,” said Erica Rivera, community building specialist with NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire.
“It’s tough in that neighborhood to have some consistency, but it’s certainly possible. There’s enough people there who care, you just have to find the right people,” she said.
The downtown neighborhood, which received its endearing sobriquet from the high number of roadways named after - not surprisingly - different varieties of trees, has developed a bad reputation over time given its high percentage of low-income households and transient population. Property crime, gang violence and the occasional shooting have been concerns in this working-class region that remains more racially diverse and has a younger median age than other areas in the city.
And yet, optimism has been growing, according to NeighborWorks.
From longtime homeowners on Mulberry Street committed to remaining on their block to the at-risk children who take advantage of the activities offered at the Nashua PAL (Police Athletic League) community center and safe haven on Ash Street.
Even simple tasks of fixing long-busted streetlights - the small steps, as Rivera calls them - are being completed.
“The whole Tree Streets label is generally derogatory when it really shouldn’t be,” said Tom Lopez, a Nashua resident who will represent the neighborhood as the Ward 4 alderman beginning in January.
Nashua teams who went through community leadership seminars have built marketing campaigns to change the attitude in the Tree Streets by promoting community pride. Special “I Heart the Tree Streets” stickers were handed out to neighbors. Postcards asking residents to tell the story of their stomping grounds were returned with a handful of negative comments, but largely trending toward an encouraging future.
Organizers expect to raise banners with the postcard comments around the neighborhood sometime in 2016.
“It’s been great for NeighborWorks to come in, but we’re an outside agency so it’s good to empower the residents who are actually living there to want to take pride in their community,” Rivera said. “Yes, we can help, but the end goal is to give them the tools to be able to do it on their own.”
A community survey completed last autumn found 55 percent of the 105 participants expressed some satisfaction with their living environment and, more positively, found 40 percent believe the Tree Streets will significantly improve in the next three years.
Lopez said 55 percent is a benchmark worth touting.
“You don’t have that level of satisfaction in bad places where bad things are continually in the media about them where they are stigmatized,” he said. “There’s a lot that has happened in that community that hasn’t happened in other communities.”
And while 55 percent may not represent a mandate, it’s affirmation those living in the Tree Streets they have made headway here.
“It’s that broken window theory - if one resident fixes up their broken windows then it has a positive impact on the next neighbor,” said Robert Tourigny, the bow-tied, bespectacled executive director of NeighborWorks. “And that’s the same with two houses as it is with a block as it is with an entire city.”
NeighborWorks has worked in Manchester for two decades. The nonprofit has developed a solid track record in revitalizing rundown areas and, upon launching their Nashua initiative, was drawn to the Tree Streets because of its persistent socioeconomic stressors.
When NeighborWorks conducted its survey last fall, they hoped it would serve as a road map for what is needed. They went door-to-door on weekends and after work to speak with several hundred residents, hearing concerns from outside the neighborhood about its perception, and that initial negativity carried into the Tree Streets.
“I think the first go-around, we say the negatives and so we were really concerned that we weren’t going to be able to find that spirit,” Tourigny said. “Once we started to encounter people who had lived in the neighborhood for many, many years, we started getting a better mix of comments.”
The goal, according to neighborhood development manager Jennifer Vadney, is to work with residents to help guide the process toward what they want to see in the community.
History of the Tree Streets
The Tree Streets began to take shape in the 1800s when workers in the local textile mills along on the Nashua and Merrimack rivers moved into the region. Waves of immigrants came from Ireland, French-speaking Canada and later Greece to settle and build the neighborhood.
Hispanic families have relocated here over the last 40 years, bringing in a variety of new retail stores, restaurants and barber shops, although the overall population remains roughly 75 percent white.
Building a community
Lopez, the alderman-elect, said there is a growing interest in community-building and more residents are stepping forward to help, particularly with seemingly mundane items like helping neighbors utilize city services.
“What I hope to bring (to the city’s Board of Aldermen) is my constituents. My entire purpose for running for alderman and wanting to represent the people in the community is to get them involved, tell them what’s going on and city events that affect them,” Lopez said.
Nashua PAL coordinator and city police officer Phillip Belmont said the organization, which focuses on fostering a positive relationship between youth and law enforcement, has connected with multiple churches in the neighborhood and community groups through a series of projects and sit-down conversations. The concentrated outreach attempts have led to less tension between residents and law enforcement, police say.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re trending in the right direction,” Belmont said. “It’s brick-by-brick; it’s street corner to street corner - that’s kind of the model.”
Creating a sense of place
A city-led analysis in September 2012 found numerous historic homes and old mill buildings remain intact and structurally adequate, yet the vacant and rundown properties did not provide a welcoming sense of place.
Only 15 percent of the housing units are owner-occupied, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Such a low figure leads to wildly differing conditions for tenants and absentee landlords unwilling to properly manage their investments.
The NeighborWorks study also found almost 80 percent of residents had lived in the neighborhood for less than five years, indicating a high turnover rate that in turn leads to a lacking of engagement within the community.
“When you have that kind of transient rate, neighbors don’t know each other; people don’t have any time to get acquainted,” Tourigny said. “To have resources like PAL in the neighborhood and putting on a block party to just try and get people outside and interacting with each other in a positive way.”
Former Nashua Community Development Director Katherine Hersh said, in reviewing the recommendations from the 2012 report, it is rewarding to see a number of the ideas have been implemented.
“For example, the neighborhood has community gardens both by PAL and by the Gate City Community Gardens organization. The skateboard park improvements were implemented. Overnight parking was implemented,” she said.
Some efforts have mixed results - evening dinners were a flop and more than 50 percent of those surveyed expressed serious concern about personal safety at night here, but NeighborWorks and other groups continue to develop plans to fit into the Tree Streets, such as smaller apartment complexes owned and operated by the tenants and a vigilant neighborhood watch.
Agencies remain steadfast in finding the financial resources to help rehabilitate deteriorating properties. NeighborWorks currently is working with local Habitat for Humanity volunteers on financing options on two properties here, although admittedly the organization has found most of the money targeted for urban revitalization has dried up following the recession.
“Short of having $5 million drop into our lap for a program, it’s slow and steady. One building at a time, one property at a time,” Tourigny said.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at 594-6465, email@example.com or @Telegraph_Chris.
This aticle originally appeared in the December 7, 2015 edition of the Nashua Telegraph. The original can be viewed at http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/news/1074498-469/slow-steady-progress-for-tree-streets.html