In Your Neighborhood

Why not just move? It is often not a choice

In the wake of the tragic fire that swept through three properties on Bowdoin Street in Olneyville, Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, says we need to reframe the conversation

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, at a recent event celebrating the completion of the Amherst Gardens project.

By Jennifer Hawkins
Posted 1/15/18
The recent tragic fire in Olneyville offers a chance to think about how to rebuild the properties in a way that allows the displaced victims of the fire to come home to safe, healthy, affordable housing, while at the same time welcoming new neighbors.
What is the responsibility of city inspectors to be more vigilant in correcting and improving unsafe housing situations? What role can the banks play by investing in the redevelopment of more properties in Olneyville, working in collaboration with community development groups?
In talking about what makes a neighborhood more resilient, it is often the connections between neighbors when tragedy strikes. ONE Neighborhood Builders organized an open house to help to support displaced victims of the fire. That kind of connectedness, so often celebrated in the aftermath of tragedies, needs to have a more visible presence in the news media – and not just stories that show the devastation after the fire.

PROVIDENCE – I attended a NeighborWorks America gathering recently, where I heard an impressive talk given by Tiffany Manuel, vice president of knowledge, impact and strategy at Enterprise Community Partners, concerning the intersection of race, diversity, inclusion and affordable housing development.

Last weekend a devastating fire engulfed three properties along Bowdoin Street in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, leaving one person dead and displacing nearly two-dozen residents.

In the aftermath, I thought about something that Manuel had said during her talk: Manuel offered a casual but hard-hitting aside, which I am paraphrasing: “How many times have you heard that the response to a lack of decent, affordable housing is a U-Haul?”

A common thread

These two topics may seem unrelated but I see a strong common thread: the critical need for comprehensive neighborhood revitalization.

ONE Neighborhood Builders [formerly known as Olneyville Housing Corporation] has steadfastly been working with residents and community stakeholders to strategically revitalize one of the poorest and historically disinvested neighborhoods in Providence.

This week, I heard someone say a similar thing about the Bowdoin Street housing conditions that were allegedly highly unsafe and unhealthy: “If the housing was so awful, why did they not just move?”

What choice means
Families do not choose to live in over-priced housing that is unsafe. Choice means having the opportunity to select an option that is affordable, safe and healthy for yourself and your loved ones – otherwise, it is just survival. Choice demands comprehensive neighborhood revitalization.

ONE Neighborhood Builders is one group among a growing cadre of committed people and organizations who are passionate about revitalizing neighborhoods such as Olneyville so that they become communities of choice.

Our focus is to ensure families who currently live in Olneyville will continue to do so – but enjoy greater health outcomes, safety, and economic independence; while families who are fortunate enough to have a plethora of options also choose to live here.

The tragedy on Bowdoin Street presents an opportunity to think about how best to rebuild in such a way that allows the displaced victims of the fire to come home, while at the same time welcoming new neighbors.

The knowledge and tools to accomplish this exist; let’s not wait. ONE Neighborhood Builders stands ready to work with committed partners to realize the comprehensive redevelopment of Bowdoin Street - one more street contributing to an equitable and resilient neighborhood.

Jennifer Hawkins is the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders.

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