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Covering redevelopment projects as health stories

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In 2011, a young man was gunned down and stripped of his belongings -- the shooters even wrenched the dental gold out of his mouth -- in a public housing complex across the street from an elementary school in a poor neighborhood in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

That same year, the police held a community public safety forum in a wealthy neighborhood in Spartanburg to allay fears of criminal activity happening in parks and places where it wouldn’t be expected.

The Northside neighborhood, where the shooting happened, was a place where crime was the norm. Driving by the public housing complex one afternoon, I saw a young girl happily playing with a plastic, toy shotgun out in the street where the young man had been murdered.

What we had in Spartanburg was a one-square-mile patch of endemic poverty, joblessness, crime and struggling schools, a no-go zone for the middle-class and wealthy who lived in nearby downtown or went to the nearby private liberal arts college or county hospital.

The housing crisis had merely exacerbated existing problems brought on by the collapse of the region’s mill economy, and vacant homes provided convenient warrens for prostitution, drug use and other crime.

Now, a group of reformers is leveraging federal grants and public-private partnerships backed by Warren Buffett in hopes that they can radically transform the predominantly black neighborhood into a mixed-income, mixed-use housing development centered around the area’s new medical school.

All this plays out within the sometimes caustic milieu of race relations in the South, class and perceptions of class, politics and policy priorities of local governments, education reform and social policy, housing affordability and family poverty, and perhaps a half dozen more indicators that, together, scream holistic community development.

Or, in other words, the need for a healthy community.

One of the public health trends these days appears to be a focus on the built environment. In a time of shrinking or flat government appropriations, HUD officials are talking about inter-agency partnerships to pool redevelopment resources.

The early phases of neighborhood transformation efforts in Spartanburg, South Carolina parallel this trend.

Many cities are just embarking on this type of redevelopment, giving reporters and journalists ample time to explore these issues over the next couple of years as these efforts play out nationwide. As is the case in Spartanburg, many of these projects parallel efforts to revitalize traditional neighborhoods and have at least a tangential relationship to “smart growth” policy.

My series took several months of on-the-ground reporting and in-the-office research to complete. It’s not a perfect approach, and I would’ve changed a few things given a chance to do it all over again, but it’s a type of story that any reporter can do when looking at an area of concentrated, urban poverty:

Pound the pavement: What helped most was to get out on the street. I had a one square mile area to cover, so it wasn’t difficult to get to know the area on a block-by-block basis. Community organizers, religious leaders, redevelopment and local government authorities, neighborhood association members and social workers all helped me find the neighbors whose lives would change the most under the redevelopment project. I’d canvass the neighborhood, take note of meetings, and just show up. For this reason, my best interviews often happened during evenings and on weekends.

After researching demographic and socioeconomic stats --all of which should be available at Census Tract level -- education and crime data -- which I found via state and local databases with a few special reports made for me by the city police -- I found it very useful to tour the neighborhood with community police officers, public health officials, school officials and the city councilwoman who represented the neighborhood.

It was akin to taking the same photograph with several camera filters: a different perspective each time. I wish I’d done thorough research first. This would’ve helped me ask better questions of my guides and interviewees.

Think spatially and think chronologically: The series presented a challenge because its premise centered around the idea that everything is connected. The reporting and narrative could’ve snowballed, ultimately making it an unreadable mess of statistics, policy notes and expansive theories. On advice from my editor and adviser, I tried to develop a sense of time and place that could string together otherwise disparate concepts.

Although the neighborhood had its problems, it also had its champions, its heroes, its pride and rich history. Living room chats with neighbors who had lived in the area for decades were invaluable in informing my reporting. The easy sources were the demographers, health officials, academics, HUD officials, and redevelopment boosters -- in other words, the brainy folks. But every neighborhood has a heart, and talking to the residents about their experiences over time and place is where I found the pulse of the neighborhood.  

That said, after taking so many field notes, it would have been very useful to have typed, dated and filed my notes shortly after taking them by hand. Instead, I had months worth of notebooks to sort through when it finally came to writing the series.

The value of chunks: There have been numerous stories over the past few years about the correlation between zip code and life expectancy. These stories touch the surface of health inequities. When taking a deeper dive into place-based health inequities, I tried to independently look at the areas of the neighborhood that touched these inequities.

I wrote stories about high-poverty neighborhood schools; teen pregnancy and higher education opportunities; complete streets, parks, and neighborhood businesses; and housing. At the urging of my editor and adviser, I also looked at other communities that had gone through similar redevelopment efforts. What was their experience? How did that translate to Spartanburg?

I was fortunate to have a project editor for this series who helped guide and inform the reporting as it played out. I also had a designer and photographer assigned to the series. This team approach was very valuable, and I would guess that it would have been more effective if it had been organized earlier. The only tension I did have was coordinating photos during off-hours. The project photographer was not always available for evening neighborhood walkabouts or weekend BBQs and meetings.

Engage the community with a blog, social media, speaking engagements: Although the former mayor was leading the charge in the Northside redevelopment effort, the project remained an unknown to much of the city, perhaps in part because of its general disconnect with the neighborhood. I started a blog very late in the process of reporting my series; it never attracted a large audience but it did attract a number of key followers, including the former mayor, redevelopment authorities, and nonprofit directors. I should have started this blog earlier; it would have let me analyze and digest my reporting in a thorough, methodical manner.

My departure from the newspaper for another job also hurt the series. I should have and could have done more outreach following publication if not for my move out of the community.

Given the number of constituencies and the topics involved here, I imagine I could’ve arranged for speaking engagements, guest blog posts, newsletter mentions or other forms of outreach with local health nonprofits, faith-based communities, neighborhood associations, developers, city council, universities, a local arts organization, and a local private high school. The beauty of these stories about the nexus between health and the built environment is that so many groups have a potential stake or interest in the story.

The series may not have gotten the page views that a murder story or an SEC football game recap story would have received, but the targeted outreach to interested parties could’ve reached the people who may have actually acted on the information presented in the series.

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