Just a few years ago, children rarely played in North Baton Rouge’s Saia Park because many parents felt it unsafe to send their kids outside.
The same playground is now packed with youngsters most days — something Carol Thornton points to as a positive sign of a healing neighborhood.
Thornton, head of Baton Rouge Choice, a new civic group representing the area’s residents, led more than 60 residents and volunteers who gathered on the once vacant playground Saturday for a resource fair to brainstorm ways to continue the improvement.
“This was a broken community that’s now beginning to make strides,” said Thornton, whose group represents the Ardenwood Village, Smiley Heights and Melrose East neighborhoods.
In 2013, the city of Baton Rouge landed a $500,000 revitalization grant for the neighborhoods from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
To find how to best use the funding, Baton Rouge Choice and members of the LSU Sociology Department conducted a survey last fall of 114 area residents on issues ranging from satisfaction with the neighborhood to their level of community involvement.
Undergraduate and graduate students paired with a neighborhood resident to go door-to-door for interviews that lasted between 30 and 45 minutes, said Mary Ellen Brown, a research associate with the LSU Office of Social Service Research & Development.
The No. 1 concern within the neighborhood, the survey found, was crime and violence on the streets, followed by poor street lighting. About 72 percent of residents surveyed said if they could live in another Baton Rouge neighborhood, they would.
Evelyn Stewart, a retired East Baton Rouge Parish School System employee, has lived in Smiley Heights for 52 years. She joined the research team to help pinpoint her community’s greatest needs, she said.
“With me being a member of the neighborhood, I could tell when they were lying and when they weren’t,” she said. “We wanted to get at the truth of what was needed.”
Stewart said it helped build trust within the neighborhoods to sit down and speak with people in the community, many of whom she had never met.
“We all just want things to move on and get better,” she said.
Catherine Moses, 58, a Melrose East resident for eight years, began interacting with area apartment managers several years ago to increase tenant standards.
“We want to make it clear to them that it shouldn’t just be about who has the most money, but also about who has the cleanest criminal history,” she said.
Moses also began approaching suspected drug dealers and addicts in the neighborhood about changing their ways.
“Drugs in the neighborhood means lower education rates, a smaller workforce and more homelessness. We’re working to fix that,” she said.
One of the ways Baton Rouge Choice hopes to do so is through monthly community meetings on topics ranging from jobs, safety and housing.
On Saturday, a man from the neighborhood threw a cigarette butt on the ground as he passed Thornton on the playground. After she gave him a friendly scolding, he smiled and threw it in a nearby trash can.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Thornton said. “But we’re getting there.”
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17