What makes a community

Nov 11, 2011

This week: a look at a community group in Columbia and a Sonic ID from the Benton Stephens neighborhood.

Unlike other small-towns in the Midwest, along downtown Columbia’s busy streets it’s a rarity to see an empty storefront window. You’re more likely to find something under construction: a future space for meeting friends, studying or catching a quick bite to eat. Downtown Columbia is not lacking in places to pass the time. Though, that’s not the story for the whole city--just northwest of this area is a place where it’s hard to find a meeting space.

Columbia’s Douglass neighborhood has a fascinating history, but also has its challenges. This is where many of Columbia’s black community live, and it’s also home to the city’s affordable housing units, or section 8. It’s so close to the hustle and bustle of downtown Columbia, but there aren’t many places to get together, places that are there for people who live in this neighborhood.

But, maybe I was missing something, so I walked around the neighborhood one night this week with a question, where do you hang out?

Larry Wallace doesn’t go anywhere.

“The only place I know a lot of peoples I know be down is at Douglass Park. The other place is Again Park,” he said.

What about when the temperature drops?

“Well I don’t know where they hang out if it’s cold out,” he said.

Another woman, Bobby, also says Douglass Park is pretty much it.

"Is there any other place for other people to go," I asked.

"Nah, for real baby there ain’t, that’s all I got to say, there really ain’t,” Bobby said.

This was the answer given to me by most people that night. And these are young people with friends, family, sources of support. But, for older citizens, it’s not as easy. This population in general has a harder time getting out—they may not have family or friends close by and health problems can keep them inside. So, in a community that lacks resources, this can be doubly hard.

Lula Williams is slight of build. She wears clean white sneakers but has a hard time getting around so uses a walker. Until recently, the retired beautician sat at home watching TV, that is until her family urged her to do something.

Now, Williams is part of a group of about 20 women from the Douglass neighborhood that meets every Tuesday afternoon in the basement of Columbia’s old Armory, now the Rec Center. The white building was actually built under the Works Progress Administration, and it bears the Art Deco style of that time. The group, which began last month, started with only four women. In a few weeks it’s more than quadrupled.

Williams said the group has given her something to do and gets her out of the house. She called it interesting.

“When you walk in the door everybody is speaking, laughing and going on so that’s my favorite part is coming and seeing my friends,” she said.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, folding chairs have been set up in a large room in the basement of the Rec center. Music’s playing and snacks, cake and punch have been laid out on a table. Today the group is getting together to celebrate their co-leader Wynna Faye Elbert’s 67th birthday.

As a local activist and community leader Elbert’s been involved in raising awareness about the African American history in Columbia—from helping found the Blind Boone Home to hosting a local radio show. She said the group, which is funded by the city, was conceived as a place for women in the neighborhood to connect: get together as friends, catch up and discuss issues.

“Whatever’s going on it gives us the opportunity to talk about it and get involved in it if we need to be."

Barbra Horrell seems to know everyone and flutters between groups of women. Horrell said the group came about when the women in the neighborhood decided to come together. She describes it this way:

“Girlfriends getting together just talk about our children, grandchildren. Do you remember this, do you remember that. The old days. And that’s what we do. ”

The group has also gone on trips to see parts of Columbia that the women might not otherwise have had the opportunity to visit.

“One day we’ll go this side of Columbia and next time maybe we’ll take another look at maybe where they’re maybe building a new school," said Elbert. "And folks are surprised at the way Columbia’s built up around them. You don’t realize that people don’t go the other side of town. ”

So far they’ve visited the Columbia graveyard to see the headstone of James T. Scott, a black man who was lynched in 1923 and drove to Jennings Premium Meats in New Franklin—one of the last meat markets around.

Although its open to men, so far the group is made up of women and most of them have known each other for decades—many of them even went to high school together.

Horrell said she’s fortunate her spouse is still around and that she still gets out of the house on a regular basis. This isn’t the case for everyone.

Rosa Burton is 82 and gets a ride from someone from the group. She said she likes how the group lets her socialize with other women from her neighborhood.

“It keeps me alive sometimes you know cause I’m by myself so I just deal with that. I’m glad to be around them, you know we have fun”

Currently the group meets on Tuesday afternoons. The activity schedule is decided after a group vote, but Elbert expressed hope that in the coming months they’ll work in educating Douglas High School students about Columbia’s black history.

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And a Sonic ID from Benton Stephens. Julia Wisniewski has an unusual pet who she takes on regular walks around the Columbia neighborhood.