For Rev. Dr. Thomas Keeling, improving the Eastside section of Wilmington is part of his spiritual mission.
Keeling has been at Central Baptist Church at the corner of 9th and Pine St. for about five years. His church building is in the heart of what could easily be described as a rougher part of town. The crime rate is high and a large number of residents live below the poverty level.
Wilmington’s Eastside section is located between the corporate towers of downtown district and the oldest part of the city along the Christina River where the Swedes established a colony in 1638. The numbers bear out the trouble facing the community:
Out of 2,285 housing units, only 556 are occupied by homeowners, the rest are rentals;
Nearly 550 homes are vacant;
2,300 residents live below the poverty level, out of about 5,800 residents;
Unemployment is higher than 10 percent.
As part of an effort to improve those numbers, Keeling held small group meetings with residents to get their thoughts on the problems facing the community, and to get their input on possible solutions. “One of the things I tried to do when I came here was to move the church from inside the four walls to outside the four walls into the community,” said Keeling.
“I don’t believe that the gospel is just about saving souls so that when you die you don’t go to hell. I believe that it’s about empowering people so they can get out of the hell they’re living in,” Keeling said.
Blueprint for improvement
This month, Keeling was joined by a number of community groups that make up the Eastside Blueprint Collaborative for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. The document calls for construction, remodeling or refurbishing of 125 homes in Eastside. The group hopes the newly improved homes will draw more homeowners and create work for some local residents.
Wilmington Councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz (D-4th District) grew up in the Eastside community and even attended summer camp at Central Baptist Church as a child. She hopes the physical improvements in the neighborhood will translate to an improvement of morale for those living in Eastside.
“We understand the importance of building a community,” Shabazz said. “It’s not just building brick and mortar, but it’s building the human spirit that lives here as well. So not only as we revitalize the building, but we’re revitalizing the spirit of the individuals.”
Getting residents to buy-in
One of the toughest parts of getting this improvement effort off the ground was getting residents to buy in to the idea. “This community has been abused, it’s been promised, it’s been poked, it’s been prodded, it’s been studied, it’s been taken advantage of, and people have seen it all and heard it all before,” said Keeling.
After holding months of small group meetings in the community, Keeling says organizers really had to refocus the attention on potential solutions to the problems, rather than just continually going over what the problems are. “There are some people who still have a mindset, who’ve gotten comfortable in the way things are, and it will take longer for them to come on board, but the momentum is shifting, people are starting to get excited.”
Shabazz is optimistic that a new Eastside will rise out of this effort. “It will be the beginning of a new. Not just like I said for the view, for the people coming through, from the visual point of it, but just for the spirit of the people. We know by next summer, it’s going to be a whole different vibe in the neighborhood.”