UNNATURAL CAUSES ...is inequality making us sick?
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Stories About Health Equity - Success Stories

Safe Affordable Housing Equals Student Achievement
Deb Drysdale Elias, Yuma, AZ*

In 1992, when I started as Principal of George Washington Carver Elementary School, the neighborhood was a very different place. Gangs, graffiti, and violence defined and dominated this community. Children rarely played in the park across the street, families did not picnic there. From my office window, I witnessed drug deals taking place less than a hundred paces from the school.

Today, at the very spot where the drug deals went down, there’s a beautiful fountain. The park is filled with families and activities – it’s a safe place for the whole community.

The change is remarkable—in five years, the neighborhood went from “blighted” to delightful. In Carver Park today, you will see many new apartments and rehabilitated homes that provide safe and affordable housing for working families in Yuma. Carver School has a new building to replace the old, termite-infested structure, and the Martin Luther King Community Center provides a home for teenagers, community events, and office space for non-profits.

It took the work of every organization and family in the community to make our dream a reality. The City of Yuma, Arizona Department of Housing, HUD, the local Boys and Girls Club, the police department and private investors and financial institutions all played a vital role in addressing the multiple problems of a community where the poverty rate is almost 50 percent. We tackled crime by implementing a community policing program and investing in street lights. We worked to bring new supportive youth, family, and elderly services into the neighborhood, such as domestic violence prevention, citizenship assistance, and summer jobs and job training for young adults.

As the local school principal, neighborhood revitalization may not be part of my official job description. But I know that providing affordable housing in a safe and stable neighborhood results in better attendance and retention, less violence, and less vandalism at school. In the last five years, 98 percent of Carver’s kindergarteners have achieved grade level standards in reading and writing, even though 75 percent of incoming kindergarteners speak no English. Students now enter my school from a point of strength and confidence that is bestowed upon them from the power of the neighborhood.

I encourage everyone to embrace the little neighborhood school as you plan and design needed change in your community. And I urge you to tirelessly seek the incentives, grants, initiatives, tax credits and waivers that promote the partnerships that created the miracle of the Carver Park story.

*A longer version of this story was published in Fall 2007 Community Investments, a publication of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank (see page 19).


Reclaiming Flint, Michigan
Geoff S., Redwood City, CA

Watching your series reminds me of a story I heard on public radio a while back. Flint, Michigan has lost so many manufacturing jobs that many people have left, and abandoned buildings and lots are becoming a serious public safety problem in some neighborhoods. To deal with this, the county has started letting residents buy abandoned lots that sit next to their properties for only a dollar! The buildings, which were on their way to becoming fire hazards and drug dens, usually get torn down, and neighborhoods are starting to show signs of slight recovery as people install vegetable and flower gardens on newly annexed land next to their homes.  It sounds like this could be a key part of revitalizing declining areas around the country, and could even help provide more food security to communities.

Here’s a link to the story:


Oakland’s Chinatown Organizes to Address Pedestrian Safety
-Julia Liou, Program Planning and Development Manager, Asian Health Services

Oakland Chinatown, an international business and shopping center, is the nation’s fourth largest Chinatown. Although the historic Chinatown community is an integral social and economic component of the City of Oakland, it has experienced a continuous decline in economic development and equity despite a surge of development in neighboring areas.

As a consequence, this low-income community of immigrants and seniors, disproportionately impacted by a series of poor transportation planning measures, now experiences the highest number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities in the City of Oakland. Asian Health Services (AHS), a community health center, in conjunction with the City of Oakland and the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce (OCCC), were awarded $2.2 million by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to implement Revive Chinatown!, a community plan to make Oakland Chinatown safer, more pedestrian friendly, attractive, and economically viable.

Implementation of key recommendations from the Revive Chinatown! plan is underway, including the following changes at key locations in the Oakland Chinatown core:

  1. Traffic signal scrambling
  2. Bulb-outs (sidewalk extensions to decrease pedestrian distance)
  3. Pedestrian countdown signals
  4. High visibility crosswalks
  5. Pedestrian-scale lighting with banners
  6. Bilingual way-finding signage

Revive Chinatown! grew out of a pedestrian safety campaign that was initiated by AHS and the OCCC following the death of Mr. Hong Yee and in response to the projected exponential increase of Chinatown traffic generated by developments in neighboring Alameda. Mr. Yee, the father of an AHS board member, was killed while crossing a popular intersection in Chinatown. Since 2001, the City of Oakland, AHS, and OCCC have been working collaboratively to address these issues.

In 2003, the coalition received $250,000 from the California Transportation Department to work with the Chinatown community to create a comprehensive plan addressing the neighborhood’s economic equity and pedestrian/traffic safety issues. Since August 2003, AHS and OCCC has conducted outreach to over 1,100 residents, merchants, employees, and visitors and held numerous community and stakeholder meetings to ensure sufficient community involvement. With the assistance of an urban streetscape designer and a traffic planner, innovative solutions to address the root causes of pedestrian and traffic safety issues in Chinatown were proposed, approved by the Chinatown community and will be integrated into Revive Chinatown! in three phases.

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