New project rising from fire’s ashes

Posted with permission from the Telegram and Gazette from April 22, 2011:
New project rising from fire’s ashes
 Clive McFarlane

 On Tuesday, local business, community and elected officials will gather at 23 Hollis St. in Main South to celebrate a collaborative effort to build affordable and energy-efficient homes in that neighborhood.

The event will probably not garner much interest outside the circle of dignitaries and others associated with the project, but it should because the collaboration is one of the many ways in which hope is being kept alive in Main South.

It has been more than a month now since a four-alarm fire destroyed a home under construction at 20 Charlton St.

Some believe the fire was set by an arsonist, but the Fire Department said the cause is still undetermined, partly because there is “not enough evidence to take to court.”

It was even more tragic that the three-family dwelling was being renovated by young people in the city’s YouthBuild Program.

YouthBuild, operated by Training Resources of America Inc. in collaboration with the Main South Community Development Corp., provides low-income and unemployed young people with construction skills, GED training and leadership development.

Much was riding on the 20 Charlton St. project, part of a $500,000 commitment by Saint-Gobain to help young people in the Worcester YouthBuild program and in similar programs in three other communities around the country, learn green building techniques.

But the $100,000 set aside for the Worcester YouthBuild green project appeared to be in jeopardy when the 20 Charlton St. property, substantially renovated by the young people at the time, burned down.

The Main South CDC, which had been rehabbing a home at 23 Hollis St., quickly arranged for that site to become the new classroom for the YouthBuild green project, ensuring the project stays on schedule and that the young people involved get the chance to finish what they started.

“It is a reflection of how resilient this community is,” Dina Pokedoff, a spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain said of the project’s resumption.

“These kids were working diligently to transform themselves and their community, and then the fire hit. However, they quickly pulled themselves together and got back on track.”

This resiliency is not uncommon in the community, according to Steve Teasdale, executive director of the Main South CDC.

The Charlton Street fire, which he calls arson, is just another example of the many challenges the Main South community faces in its long journey toward a more stable, vibrant and strong cultural and economic life, Mr. Teasdale said.

As the recent housing crisis deepened, he noted, the Main South CDC increased its efforts to acquire and improve properties as a means of staving off the destabilizing threat of the accompanying foreclosures.

The 20 Charlton St. site, as well as 23 Hollis St., for example, were two of 11 properties the CDC bought during this period with the help of funding obtained through the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp. and the federal government economic recovery act.

“The people who work in this neighborhood know it is not easy to turn around a decline of 50 years,” Mr. Teasdale said.

“We know it doesn’t happen overnight; that it takes strategic planning and time.

“The type of efforts in which we are involved — integrating new construction, saving buildings, having kids invested in rebuilding the community — provide a blend of approaches that will help us achieve maximum benefits.”

The coming years might present a tougher battle for Mr. Teasdale and his Main South collaborators.

There are some in Washington, for example, calling for a substantial reduction, or even the elimination of the federal government Community Development Block Grants, which have been so crucial to the revitalization efforts in communities like Main South.

Yes, we all know how easy it is to cut and run when things are not going our way, fleeing our children’s school when it struggles academically, or abandoning our neighborhood when it becomes economically depressed.

I suppose it is the survival instinct in all of us, but in a democratic society like ours, cutting and running from our challenges is akin to running away from ourselves.

It can’t be done.

The collaboration among Main South CDC, YouthBuild and Saint-Gobain on this green project shows that some people get it.

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