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The neighborhood that time forgot

Seven months after mayor vowed cleanup, Prichard’s Cotton Mill Village remains haven for dumping
Updated: Dec. 10, 2021 at 6:34 PM CST
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PRICHARD, Ala. (WALA) - In May, Mayor Jimmie Gardner showed up to the historic Cotton Mill Village community with trucks and vowed to clean up a decaying neighborhood that had become a haven for illegal dumping.

But seven months later, garbage still lines the pothole-marred streets, and the few remaining residents say they have seen little improvement.

Gardner made bold pronouncements that day in May.

“I want to make it clear, too, that if we find you in here and you violate it, we will seize your property – your car, your truck, your trailer – whatever those things are, along with fining you $1,000 the first time,” he said. “And you will be arrested, the first time.”

The mayor said then that the city was installing cameras to deter and catch such activity. And, he said a redevelopment program was in the works to build 300 to 400 new homes in the community.

But there is no sign of redevelopment anytime soon, and a drive through the streets is like taking a trip to the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. Most of the houses are abandoned and crumbling. The roads and yards are filled with mattresses, tires, furniture, cardboard and other trash – sometimes right underneath “No Dumping” signs and in plain view of the cameras.

For the few residents who have remained, it is disheartening. Fannie Dale said she has lived on Barton Street for 15 years and has watched the neighborhood deteriorate. She said she has heard promises before.

“The mayor has said that so many times,” she said. “They come out and they do a little bit. You don’t see him anymore. And then, you know, about the cameras, I really don’t think they have them because they’re still dumping. And it’s really – it’s a disgrace.”

Dale said it has gotten even worse since the Head Start center near her house closed down.

“It’s like a ghost town and night,” she said.

The once-thriving neighborhood of modest homes, which gets its name from a cotton mill that once operated in the city during the early 20th century, has dwindled to just a few residents who own their homes. Most of the rest of the people who used to live in the 50 or so houses were renters who have moved out.

What remains are abandoned buildings with broken glass, rotting wood and open doors. Neighbors told FOX10 News that the houses attract homeless people.

“We don’t know who’s living in these houses,” said Kwandara Braggs, who has lived on Maudine Avenue for about 30 years. “You see people coming in and out of them.”

As tough as it is for a senior citizen like Dale, living in the neighborhood can be even more difficult for a child. Braggs has two of them.

“They can’t even come outside and play,” she told FOX10 News.

Braggs said she has to drive her children to and from school.

“No school buses. … Postman don’t want to come back here,” she said. “Delivery men don’t want to come back here. We don’t get no kind of service back up in here.”

In 2016, Whistler-based Calvin Gill Construction bought most of the properties with plans to redevelop the neighborhood. But the company ended up filing for bankruptcy protection, and a limited liability partnership based in Boca Raton, Florida, called Precious Estates – which had financed the purchase – foreclosed on the properties.

Norman Weinstein, one of the partnership’s managers, told FOX10 News that Precious Estates had wanted to build low-income housing. He said the idea was for about 200 two- and three-story garden-style houses. But he said the Prichard Housing Authority was unable to provide certificates under the government’s Section 8 program that subsidizes low-income rentals. Without those certificates, he said, it is impossible to get financing for new construction.

Weinstein said his company spent about $30,000 cleaning up the trash and debris. But he said the city failed to follow through on its commitments, which he said included promises to close off the streets and beef up police presence in the area.

“We spent a lot of money cleaning up the site. … The city was supposed to assist us with some things, which they were never able to do,” he said.

Weinstein said at this point, Precious Estates is looking to unload the 23-acre site. But he added that he believes it still has potential.

“If we could get some cooperation from the city, we could turn this neighborhood around,” he said. “It’s a really nice location, and it should be developed. “It’s very disappointing, frankly.”

Jessie Cooley, who has lived on Neese Avenue for 15 years, said he has seen some improvement since the mayor came in May – but not nearly enough.

“It still would be nice if, you know, if it was cleaned up right here,” he said. “It would make the neighborhood a little more better.”