Weld’s “Neighborhood Voices” series features interviews with the presidents of each of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhood associations about the strengths and challenges facing their communities. If you are a neighborhood leader and would like your neighborhood to be included, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graymont lies on the west side of Birmingham, bordered by Eighth Avenue West to the north and Valley Creek to the south; it extends from Arkadelphia Road on the west to Center Street on the east. The neighborhood contains Legion Field, which serves as a monthly meeting place for the Graymont Neighborhood Association. According to the Birmingham Housing Study, the neighborhood has a population of 1,178 residents; the neighborhood is split between City Council District 5 (represented by Johnathan Austin), and District 6 (represented by Sheila Tyson).
Recently, Willine Body, Graymont’s neighborhood association president, spoke to Weld about her neighborhood’s struggle against community apathy and urban blight.
Weld: Why did you decide to become your neighborhood’s president?
Willine Body: [Laughs] Well, it’s one of my passions. I moved to Elyton [Village, a public housing project in Graymont] in the ‘80s, and I got involved in the neighborhood right after I moved there. I eventually became the vice president and then, later, the president.
Weld: How would you characterize the community involvement within members of your neighborhood?
Body: Light. The participation is very light. We are slowly growing. [It’s because of] apathy. That’s about the main word, apathy. And then we have a changeover with the residents in the neighborhood. Some of the older people have died out, and younger people have moved into the neighborhood. But I would say apathy is really the keyword.
For years, the public housing that is a part of the neighborhood has not really been involved. I think I’m the only one — in times past there might have been one or two other residents of Elyton that got involved with the neighborhood.
For years, the attitude was that public housing was a separate entity from the homeowners. So it’s taken a minute to break those walls down to have them understand, “You’re a part of the neighborhood.” And I have problems sharing that with the homeowners, because they think they’re an entity all by themselves, but that’s not true.
I also have struggled with [the neighborhood association] connecting with the people that live in Graymont. The idea is to get people to understand that all of us are in a neighborhood. That’s a challenge.
I think we’ve moved up to 10 [regular attendees at neighborhood meetings]. At one point we had eight; now we’ve moved up to 10 or 11. It’s a slow process, and I’ve just been determined to make sure that we meet, and to make sure that when there are activities that are going on in the neighborhood, that [residents] are informed about it — to let them know, “It’s your neighborhood, and you’re welcome to come.”
Weld: What are the biggest problems facing your neighborhood?
Body: The biggest problem facing our neighborhood would be the abandoned properties and the empty lots. We’re much better in that area [than we used to be] because the city started cleaning up and doing things in the neighborhood. That put some hope in the situation.
My vision is to see the neighborhood be rebuilt. It’s an established neighborhood, but due to neglect, it really needs to be rebuilt — especially the abandoned properties. Like I said, it’s come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. I think my neighborhood has a strong character.
[There is also] a little bit of crime [and] some drug problems. The crime in the neighborhood is, I would say, under control. We have a good relationship with the city of Birmingham and the police department. In fact, it’s to the point where, if there’s a problem, and I notice it, I’m in contact with who I need to be in contact with to get it handled.
Weld: What are some ways in which you would like to see your neighborhood improve?
Body: I definitely would like to see the meetings grow.
I’d like to see the abandoned properties and the empty lots cleaned more than just the time that the city of Birmingham does it. They do it once a year, which is more than we had. I had a resident say, during the time I was campaigning, we haven’t had that kind of attention in 20 years. It was really a dead zone, and it took us getting in there and connecting or reconnecting with our resources from the city of Birmingham to serve [Graymont], like the streets being cleaned, abandoned properties being cleaned. And then, my vision is to get grants to keep that going on.
Weld: In what ways do you think the Birmingham city government could help your neighborhood improve and flourish?
Body: I would just like to see stronger relationships between the whole council and the mayor.
Weld: What do you want Birmingham citizens outside of your neighborhood to know about your neighborhood?
Body: I would like them to know that, if they’re here for the wrong reasons, they’re not welcome. We are part of the Smithfield Community, and we organized a board which is called SCAT, and that’s the word right there that we say to crime. We say, “Scat. You’re not welcome here.”