Pointing out one of many abandoned houses in the Jeter area as the one he was born in, Oscar Penn can list the names of all the families who lived on the street, across the street and around the corner without missing a beat.
Penn said he’s noticed over the years that when the children of Jeter residents from his generation grow up and move away, and when their parents pass away and their property is left alone, no one comes back to take care of it.
As a result, there’s a surplus of abandoned houses in the area —some of which were used for things that were “contrary to what we were trying to do in the community,” Penn added.
To get the homes removed, in 2013 he and some other residents in the neighborhood started a petition to have some of them torn down. Ten of the 17 abandoned homes were demolished.
To see what could be done with the neighborhood’s newfound surplus of green space, Penn said the community presented a decree to the mayor and City Council to invite developers, public and private, into the area.
Ideally, he explained, what they wanted to bring new housing options into the area and inspire a homeownership mentality among younger residents.
“With the way the economy is now, the young people working and making money can come in and purchase a home, and within a 15-, 25-year span have something of their own,” Penn said. “Plus, it would build up the self-esteem in our community and bring back that wholesomeness and love that a community is supposed to have.”
There are currently a handful of homes in the neighborhood in varying stages of construction, their sturdy and architecturally modern exteriors a sharp contrast from the older homes right next to them. Some were built by the East Alabama Medical Center’s MEND organization for families who lost their homes during the early March tornadoes and others by Habitat for Humanity.
One lot of green space in particular, which was originally home to Greater Peace Missionary Baptist Church’s congregation, now includes three homes nearing completion. Penn thinks of the land they were built on as “holy ground,” because after Greater Peace’s old sanctuary was demolished and cleared away, he walked the land and prayed over it.
“I claimed it for what it’s being used for now, but I didn’t know when it was going to happen,” he said. “I didn’t even know if I was going to be here to live to see it; but by the grace of God, what is happening now has always been my prayer.”
Penn is confident that the neighborhood can thrive on its own, especially with the excitement behind building new homes and assistance from prominent figures in the community like District 83 Rep. Jeremy Gray.
Gray is also native to the area. The two have known each other since Gray was a child, with Penn being a close friend of his family.
“In this neighborhood everybody, at one point, went to the same church or they grew up together,” Gray said. “So this was at one time a big village.”
After graduating from Opelika High School, playing professional football for a few years and starting his own health and wellness business, Gray returned to Opelika with the intention of giving back to his community.
Just a few blocks down from the new homes on Greater Peace’s old land, Gray’s vision for the Curtis House is steadily coming to fruition.
On the land originally belonging to Gray’s great-grandfather, Lonnie B. Curtis, Gray had Curtis’ deteriorating 800 square foot home demolished and the land cleared with the intention of turning it into a safe haven for the community.
Gray partnered with Third Lands Ministry and Auburn University’s Building Science department; so far the land has a pavilion, garden, chicken coop and construction for a modern, 1,400 square foot replica of the old home near completion.
Gray believes that the sense of community is still present, but slowly fading with the passing of the residents who originally helped build it up and younger residents moving away.
With the Curtis House, he hopes to bridge the gap between generations and have the older generation share their wisdom with the children and young adults in the area.
“It does give you a sense of self-esteem and pride when you start seeing nice homes. You don’t want to litter, you feel better about your community,” Gray said. “And then, you start taking the initiative to do things that you’ve never done because you value your community. And when you value your community, people start to value each other.”
Gray explained that his great-grandfather was embraced as a father figure in the neighborhood. He taught other residents how to drive, showed them how to fix cars in his car shed and even gave away the vegetables grown in his “Garden of Eden” to his neighbors.
Gray hopes the Curtis House can make the Jeter community more self-sustainable by following his grandfather’s example. There will be programs for workforce development, arts and crafts, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and events focused on things like mental health held on the pavilion. Residents will also learn how to grow their own food in the garden and care for livestock with the chicken coop.
“You have to think about it,” Gray said. “At one point all of these houses were new. This community was thriving with successful people who were principals, teachers, doctors and lawyers.”
In helping the neighborhood become self-sustainable, Gray hopes that residents will begin to take an active interest in their community by attending city council meetings and holding representatives accountable.
“If the plans are set and people know what to expect, all of this that’s going on — the development, Curtis House — this will be a bright spot,” Gray said. “It could be seen as an eyesore, but can be a bright spot.”