Housing renewal should be Jamestown’s next project

By Union Democrat staff January 17, 2011 03:44 am
    The contrast is stark, even haunting.
    Jamestown’s Main Street, target of more than a half million dollars in beautification funds over the past decade, is a showplace. New sidewalks, planter boxes, improved building facades and brick-trimmed intersections are all part of an attractive downtown package.
    Locomotive No. 3, gleaming after a million-dollar overhaul, awaits visitors at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. At Jamestown’s old jail, reclaimed from a Lodi-area theme park and refurbished with funds raised in a communitywide campaign, is a Rocca Park highlight.
        Yet no more than three blocks off Main Street are some of Tuolumne County’s most run- down and desperate neighborhoods.
    Democrat reporter Walt Cook, in a tract not far from Jamestown School, found potholes, feral cats, foraging dogs, broken-down homes and piles of uncollected garbage. On Ninth Avenue, he reported, was an abandoned trailer surrounded by trash, circled by stray cats and perforated by broken windows. Its roof leaked and it was without effective heating or ventilation, putting tenants at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.
    What’s worse, the trailer blended in: The neighborhood is a rundown, unkempt part of Jamestown known to some as “the ghetto.” Life there is marginal, with tenants bearing life in sometimes abominable conditions because they know the alternative is homelessness.
    Jamestown’s dichotomy is stark, and the questions it raises are urgent.
    How did the community’s downtown find help and prosperity, while residential areas only a stone’s throw away plunged into squalor?
    More importantly, what, if anything, can be done now to help Jamestown blighted residential areas and others around the county?
    Jamestown’s Main Street renaissance was the product of merchants and community activists who wanted to improve the then-drab, but very public face of Jamestown. Because the community is the gateway to Tuolumne County, the cause found support, and the lengthy renovation process began.
    Now, with improvements in place, Main Street is populated by businesses whose owners share a pride in their the downtown area.
    Can such a transformation come to residential areas on Jamestown’s mean streets?
    “With private property, it’s more difficult,” said Tuolumne County Supervisor Dick Pland, whose district includes Jamestown.
    Short of the time-consuming condemnation process, the county has few tools to force property owners or landlords to make improvements. Aggravating the situation is the moribund economy, the looming threat of foreclosure and the grinding inertia created among residents of a dead-end neighborhood.
    That said, there are answers.
    Pland said community development block grants could be used for neighborhood improvement. County incentives for first-time homebuyers and another program that helps property owners make needed repairs could make a difference.
    Beetle Barbour, housing coordinator for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, and Sheila Shanahan, head of Tuolumne County’s affordable housing program, said there may be grant funds available to help build clean, energy-efficient and economical homes.
    But the most encouraging development is Mother Lode Property Management’s ongoing work on a run-down 16-unit duplex project on 10th avenue. Not only are the units being overhauled top to bottom, said a company spokeswoman, but rents will stay low.
    Such private-sector projects — especially if they are done with concern for existing tenants who may be displaced — have the potential to engender both pride in the home and pride in the neighborhood.
    As the transformation of Jamestown’s Main Street proves, such pride is a contagious and essential ingredient to community improvement, and should be encouraged at every turn.