Kingswood Community Center has been the heart of the Riverside Community of Northeast Wilmington for over 70 years. Now, it is poised to become the heart of an even bigger movement. But just three-and-a-half years ago, prospects for Kingswood Community Center were bleak, to the point where its directors feared that they would have to shutter the institution.
The name Kingswood comes from Kingswood Methodist Episcopal Church where the community center started 72 years ago in 1946. Ten years later, the community center moved into its own building. The current structure, located at 2300 Bowers Street, is a long eye-brow of a building that sits on the front end of a 12-acre parcel and looks out to surrounding row homes and a church-run thrift store. I can only imagine the changes that this structure has seen in the neighborhood it serves. It has outlasted the church from which it has sprung; that building has been demolished. The Kingswood Community Center’s building shows its age, but a stunning new mural and two recently added shipping containers hint that Kingswood is preparing for a revival.
I visited the center and talked to Jade Thomas, Program and Events Coordinator, and Logan Herring, executive director about their programming and what is in store for the future of the community. I arrived at a lull in the afternoon--after the seniors have gone home, while the pre-schoolers are napping, and before the rush of afterschool kids--but the energy is palpable in every person I meet.
I talked to Thomas first. She delivered an impressive resume of services, and truly, that’s why I thought I had come--to document the community garden and the upcoming bus trip the seniors are taking to the theater and the casino. I was impressed by the staff who work with the early education component and Thomas’s own enthusiasm when she talks about the teen programs. I could see what a boon the center is to those who live nearby.
Then Logan Herring arrived, suited up with his business card at the ready, and from the gleam in Thomas’s eye, I could tell she is waiting for him to tell the juicy part of the story. Logan Herring came to Kingswood Community Center as a board member three and half years ago when future prospects were most in doubt. Kingswood was failing financially, teens in the neighborhood were facing escalating violence, and the families the center was serving were experiencing poverty rates way above the state and county levels and needed services more than ever. In this climate, the board chose Herring to lead Kingswood as an interim Executive Director—a position that was only supposed to last for six months. The prospects seemed daunting, but Herring was a man with a vision. Many visions. And a plan of action. He talked to me in rapid fire succession about his projects, which are many and intermeshed. I wished for a whiteboard and a spider diagram to keep it all straight.
Here is the gist: even with all the strikes against it, Kingwood Community Center had two major assets when Herring took the job as executive director. First, the people who made up the staff were doing their jobs for all the right reasons. “The Key to Community is Caring” is not an empty slogan. I talked to staff members, and they shared personal stories of why they choose to do what they do in the face of other opportunities. They spoke of connections—a spider diagram made up of people. The other asset was the 12-acre parcel of land on which the center was located. Logan Herring saw a way to leverage those two assets when he approached the city of Wilmington. The 12-acre plot became a centerpiece for a bigger ask of an additional 25 acres. His idea would not only save the Kingwood Community Center, current band-aid of social ills, but has the potential to reshape the despair of an entire community into a thriving culture.
Just a few weeks ago, Mayor Mike Purzycki and Governor John Carney led the announcement that the Riverside Neighborhood had been named as the 19th Purpose Built Community in the United States. Purpose Built Communities is a non-profit organization founded by Tom Cousins, Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson whose objective is to help other communities around the country replicate the success of the rehabilitation of East Lake, GA under Mayor Tom Cousins. Using that city as a model of holistic community redevelopment, Purpose Built Communities, in conjunction with a “quarterback” organization on the ground in the selected community, pools resources to plan and implement revitalization. To accomplish that aim, REACH Riverside, a 501c3 nonprofit, was created to be that quarterback organization. Logan Herring has been transitioning some of his responsibilities at Kingswood as he takes the reins for REACH Riverside. According to their Facebook page, REACH Riverside “will work in partnership with community members and other partners to develop and implement strategies for a career to college and career pipeline, mixed-income housing, and a community health and wellness initiative.” The people of Riverside were wary. They have been burned before by nodding politicians and good intentions. This time they have a seat at the table with two Riverside community members on the REACH Riverside board.
Jade Thomas smiles now. Here is the kicker: she hails from East Lake, GA , the first Purpose Built Community, and can bear witness to the transformation. I can see how excited she is to see this process come to fruition in Wilmington.
These aren’t the only initiatives that Logan Herring is championing—and by championing, I mean getting the job done. A year ago, Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation announced the top ideas from its “2017 Reinventing Delaware” dinner. Among them was The Warehouse, another Herring brainchild. The Warehouse is a collaborative physical space where 40+ local nonprofit and community organizations that serve teens could have a presence under one roof and essentially provide one-stop shopping where teens could explore passions and develop skills. In addition, teens will also dream up their own programming--a “for teens, by teens” center. According to a September 2017 article in USA Today, analysis of Gun Violence Archive data (over a 3.5 year period through June 2017) showed that “Wilmington far and away leads the country in its rate of shootings among young people under 18.” With so much at stake, teen engagement is a goal that can have significant consequences for the health of a neighborhood.
Originally, Herring had his sights on a nearby, vacant warehouse for this project (hence the name), but he quickly came to see that they would require more space. They anticipate a donation of a two-story building at the corner of 12th and Thatcher streets by Capital One Bank by the end of 2018, a building that once housed the now defunct Prestige Charter School. Adding to that asset is an $800,000 award from the Longwood Foundation. Last summer, with state aid, Herring hired 30 students to develop ideas for the programming. Initial results were more than promising. The evidence? The teens organized an evening program at which 400 youths attended to find out more.
All these programs are coming together under the umbrella of Purpose Built Communities. Riverside can look to examples of what worked in other places and receive mentoring from communities that are in different stages of the revitalization process. But it isn’t just a one-way street. Riverside has also been able to share their model of The Warehouse Project at the Purpose Built Communities Conference. In essence, Wilmington now has 18 sister cities in its circle of sharing. Imagine that diagram on a white board. Within that, Wilmington’s Riverside community has its own circle containing The Warehouse Project, REACH Riverside, East Side Charter School (the educational component of the plan), the Wilmington Housing Authority, and-- at the heart of it all—Kingswood Community Center.