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Redevelopment plan scatters Preston Taylor residents
By ANITA WADHWANI Staff Writer
Monday, 07/09/01

For 15 years, Perry McGowan ran the youth recreational program at Preston Taylor Homes, Nashville's second-largest public housing development. He led the Boys and Girls Clubs. He scrutinized report cards.

Bad grades meant push-ups and hitting the books. A's and B's meant a trip to the wave pool.

Now, plans to raze and replace the crime-plagued public housing complex mean that the 200 children in McGowan's programs are scattered throughout the city out of reach of his guidance. Residents and service providers say that an unintended consequence of the revitalization effort is that some residents have been separated from the services they have come to rely on.

''I hate to drop them like a hot biscuit,'' McGowan said. ''Some of them really count on me.''

For McGowan, the demolition plan has meant many phone calls each week to children who now live in all parts of the city. Another after-school program has seen its best and most at-risk students leave midway through the program. In one case, a high school student with good grades dropped out because he couldn't find steady transportation from his new home to his old school.

Vicki Wharton has been losing students from her after-school tutoring program since December. One by one, families have moved out as buildings have been demolished.

Wharton sat in the cinder-block apartment that houses the One Room Drop In School. It will be demolished soon. She pointed a thumb across the street to new construction already under way.

''The kids who most need help have parents who may not make it back here,'' she said. ''I worry that kids who move with parents to apartments may not even make it to school and won't have me or their neighbors to watch out for them.''

The redevelopment plan, which is costing about $90 million in federal, local and private money, schedules Preston Taylor's 2,000 residents to leave 550 rundown apartments by the end of the month. In the same space will rise a sparkling new neighborhood with single-family homes, town houses and a community center. Most residents have already packed and gone.

It is, perhaps, the largest mass move ever of some of the city's poorest residents, part of an ambitious $4 billion federal initiative to replace the nation's most troubled housing hot spots. The start-from-scratch plan may be ahead for more of the city's residents. The Metro Development and Housing Agency has already replaced the Vine Hill public housing development in south Nashville with a mixed-income development and is considering razing a 480-family development in east Nashville.

Nationwide, proponents of the demolition efforts say dense public housing has been a failure that has led to violence, drugs and other problems. Others say such developments made it easier to provide services a kind of one-stop shopping where residents lacking transportation could access job training, counseling and after-school programs just outside their front doors. That access will no longer exist for many Preston Taylor residents.

For Wharton, who for several years has tutored adults taking the GED exam and hundreds of high school students in danger of dropping out, there are short-term and long-term concerns. Although her program will reopen in the new development at the end of next year, she said that two years in the lives of at-risk youth can mean the difference between success and trouble.

''Some of these kids only have one stable adult in their lives, and it's me.''

Wharton is also worried that the stringent requirements for residents to return to the development, such as passing criminal and credit checks, will prevent many from returning. At Vine Hill, for example, about a third of those who wanted to move into the newly built development were rejected because they didn't qualify or because there was no space available, according to Mike Clinard of MDHA, which oversees public housing in Metro.

''We realize that those situations are going to arise. You're moving people away from their support systems in some cases, from their church and school districts and services. I think the agency realizes and tries to deal with as best as we can that we are changing folks' lives.''

Tony Seats said the move changed his life for the worse, although by his own admission he could have tried harder. The 17-year-old moved with his mother to their new home in east Nashville earlier this year. A few months later, Seats dropped out of Pearl-Cohn High School. His ride was unreliable, he said, and he had no money for a public bus.

''I miss it over here,'' Seats said on a visit back to Preston Taylor last month to help McGowan, his former Boy Scout leader, pack up the recreation center. ''Perry's like a father, but he's tough. He always made sure I got good grades. I know I could've tried harder to stay in school, and I know Perry would've made me if he knew.''

McGowan said he tries to make a weekly call to all of the Preston Taylor kids who were in his programs but he doesn't have phone numbers for most. He said he wants them to know that he will continue to help and advise them.

MDHA, along with a team of social-service providers, also has tried to keep in touch with residents. About 60% have moved into other public housing residences where counselors continue to visit them, according to Pamela Bradley Smith, coordinator of community and support services. Other residents, who have scattered to homes of their own or moved in with family and friends throughout the city, are harder to track.

''The other 40% are just as important and in many ways more so,'' Smith said. ''When they are scattered, it's more of a challenge, but we try to make sure families are not adversely impacted. When we talk about rebuilding public housing, the whole essence of it is helping people to rebuild their lives, and that's the commitment of those of us in community and supportive services.''

Anita Wadhwani covers Nashville communities. Contact her at 259-8821 or awadhwani@tennessean.com.