Residents remain united in goal to fix community

CHESTER -- A handful of East Chester residents fed up with the deteriorating condition of their neighborhood decided to do something about it a year ago.

Disgusted by blighted homes, rampant litter and drug use in streets, they set out to take back the area that just a few decades ago was a proud community.

The result of that effort has become the Ward 4 East Chester Community Group Association, residents who spent the last year fighting for the part of town they're sick of watching fall apart.

"We have an official name," said Makeda Baker, one of the group's founders and its most vocal member. "We even have a post office box. We have official stationery, too. ... Everybody's goal is the restoration of East Chester."

Thirty, 40 and 50 years ago, East Chester was a thriving community. Those who lived here then remember tidy lawns where children played, neighborhood softball games and doors that no one locked because they never needed to.

But that changed as the older residents died and a younger, more transient group moved in. The younger people have no connection to the area, longtime residents say. When members of the newer generation leave East Chester, their homes often remain vacant and fall into disrepair.

That image is what Baker and others sought to change over the past year. Since they united in August 2006, they've seen eight blighted houses torn down, speed limit and anti-littering signs go up and public trash bins installed.

"We really have come a long way in the time we've been here," said member William Mills, a lifelong East Chester resident who lives on Loomis Street.

Some corners that were once crowded with noisy loiterers have been cleared, Mills said. The group's monthly meetings have grown from five or six people to an average attendance of 15, with a crowd of various of ages and backgrounds.

The residents also have broadened their focus from picking up trash to demanding action from politicians. They frequently speak to -- and sometimes criticize -- leaders at City Council meetings. If they disagree with action or inaction by the city, they say so.

Members also invite officials to their meetings. Guests have included Mayor Mitch Foster, former Mayor Wanda Stringfellow and council members Betty Bagley, Susan Kelsey and Odell Williams.

"The biggest thing I've seen is people cleaning up their own properties," Williams said. Williams, who represents Ward 4, lives in the heart of East Chester.

"It's certainly a good group," he said. "But I want to see them care about the whole (city of) Chester."

Williams said he would like to see community groups from all wards meet together to improve the city. East Chester residents said that some people have talked to them about starting a similar group in their neighborhood.

Although they've seen success during the last year, group members say more needs to be done.

Blighted homes still are a problem, as are loiterers in certain areas. An immediate concern is the future of the S.L. Finley Center. Once the city's all-black high school, the Caldwell Street building housed the city's recreation department until it was closed in June because of mold problems.

But all of these things are part of a larger quest -- a search for a lost sense of community.

"We have got to get that back," Baker said.