The Heart of a Neighborhood

The inflatable bouncy house shook with the pounding footsteps of unseen children within its walls, the youngsters’ delighted laughter spoke to their excitement.  Other children chased each other across the grass while another group of youngsters watched as a clown twisted balloons into puffy crowns and dogs.  

A few adolescents chatted as recorded music swept across the small park.  Both inside and outside the small building on Acorn Street, dozens of adults exchanged greetings and talked about the weather or neighborhood news .

For Janet, who’s lived in Jacksonville’s 32209 ZIP code area since 1997, the image is a sweet memory.  That special spot, the Mitchell Center and Park, was a place that attracted children and adults, acting as the beating heart of an involved community.  She remembers taking her two children to many activities there.

“It was a vibrant place back then,” she says, enumerating the events that went on – after-school programs offering sports, dance, art and even field trips.  “They would put on different shows.  They’d do stuff for Mother’s Day.  They’d do stuff for Father’s Day.  The center would be open until 9 o-clock at night and the kids would be so busy they didn’t have time to get in trouble.”

The center was staffed for much of the day and Janet says residents knew they could drop in to ask questions about how to access city services or how to get in touch with nonprofits.  Residents of the community would actively volunteer to ensure the center ran smoothly.

“People would come out to take part in things there.  It was active.  They made us feel like we were a part of the community,” she remembers.

Today that’s all changed.  The once-vibrant community center – and the neighborhood surrounding it – is a ghost of its previous self.  Today it serves only as an after-school program for children from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

And, Janet’s neighborhood, while always consisting of many families living at or below the poverty line, is no longer a welcoming place to be, she says.  

“We used to be sociable,” she says.  “Now, I drive up to my house and have to look over my shoulder.  My house doesn’t even feel like a home.”

Janet says that when she gets home from work, she flips on her lights and alarm system – as do her neighbors.  There are no longer hearty hellos to neighbors.  No one sits on their front porches anymore.

These days, she describes the gang activity that keeps neighbors inside and invades the abandoned buildings that surround Janet’s home.  She fears reporting any disturbances to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office as the gangs will contact any residents seen talking with police.

“Those drug boys they don’t go and knock on people’s doors themselves but they send their girls.  (After one incident) they knocked on my neighbors’ doors all up and down the street. Every place the police had went, those guys had somebody go to those doors.  That is scary and we have to live like that.”

Because of their fear and the lack of neighborhood unity, neighbors are unlikely to stand up to the gangs, Janet says.  But she fervently believes that if a sense of community once again bloomed in her neighborhood, residents might get the courage to confront the gangs en masse.

Until then, Janet, just dreams of escaping.

“My goal in my mind is I’m not going to stay here.  This is not who I am.  This is not my purpose.  This is not me.  I don’t like living over here.  I want out.  I want out.”


Successful neighborhoods are ones in which residents have a feeling of belonging to a community where a network of support fosters trust between neighbors.1 Within these areas, people’s ties to one another serve to protect them all from such factors as isolation and potential risks to personal safety, creating a community-wide sense of well-being.

Dysfunctional neighborhoods, on the other hand, are those within which the personal links between residents have been shattered, rupturing the social lifelines that can provide support. Here, researchers find residents experience poorer health outcomes, higher levels of poverty, and increased street crime and violence.2

The neighborhoods categorized in Jacksonville as violence-affected are prime examples of the latter. They are communities where residents often suffer from low income, unemployment, poor mental and physical health, a lack of economic opportunities, inadequate housing, a lack of public safety, and a lack of community cohesion.3

They’re also neighborhoods in which public transportation is often lacking and access to services is difficult.  Even essential services such as fresh food, healthcare, and affordable childcare may be either absent (as in Jacksonville’s many food deserts) or extremely limited.

A prime example of one of these communities is the 32209 ZIP code area, which for years has seen the highest number of murders in Jacksonville. In this location, the Moncrief/Grand Park area that includes New Town, which saw, as of the date of this publication, 24 of Jacksonville’s 144 murders.4

Here also, poverty is just as ubiquitous as violence.  According to 2019 U.S. Census Data on the 32209 ZIP code area, the median household income here was just $25,499, well below the $56,975 median for Jacksonville. Thirty-seven percent of residents living in 32209 live below the poverty level as compared to 12.8 for all residents in Jacksonville.5

Difficulties accessing public transportation, inaccessibility of services, absence of fresh food markets, and lack of community safe spaces have made 32209 a difficult place in which to live. These deficiencies combined with poverty can only fuel anger and violence within a neighborhood.

In fact, the American Psychological Association6 notes that factors such as poverty, lack of employment, decreased levels of community participation and economic opportunity, and a lack of access to services are significantly correlated with increased violence. All of those factors reside within 32209.

But this ZIP code is not the only area within Jacksonville in which residents encounter so many difficulties and so much crime.  As in previous years, the violence was concentrated, “More than half of the homicides were in four ZIP codes, the most concentration we’ve seen in at least the last 15 years, with 32209, 32208, 32210, and 32218 all hitting record high homicides.” 

Those same ZIP code areas also received high scores on the Socioeconomic Need index.8  This index was developed by the Conduent Healthy Communities Institute to incorporate six social and economic factors that impact access to services such as healthcare.  

The correlation seems clear.  Neighborhoods in which violence abounds are also those in which there is more difficulty in meeting residents’ basic needs.

The question is – what can we do about this?

A Nexus for Services

The skeleton for a system that could improve services for people within these neighborhoods already exists within Jacksonville.  What is needed is a restructuring of the existing  network to take advantage of the opportunities offered.

That system involves the community centers operated by Jacksonville’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.  Among these are some 20 centers situated in or near  violence-affected areas.

A few of these centers exist only to be rented out for events and by organizations, but most function marginally to serve the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods.  The vast majority of them host after-school programming for a few short hours in the afternoon.  Otherwise their rooms and halls stand nearly empty. Prior to the pandemic, there were a few more activities located in these centers but, in general, they’ve been underutilized for years.

If these neighborhood-based centers were revitalized to offer a broad array of services, they could alleviate many of the difficulties faced by residents.  And, by virtue of existing within the violence-affected neighborhoods, the centers would be more readily accessible to residents.  Such a network of centers would be within walkable proximity to a vast majority of affected residents, eliminating the need to locate and pay for transportation.  

 As newly vibrant entities, the centers could offer a rotating smorgasbord of multi-generational services for residents.  Additional or expanded after-school programs and various other activities could be provided in the hours after children are released from school.  During the day, the centers could offer parenting classes, seniors-oriented events, job skills classes, physical and mental healthcare outreach, and a wealth of other services. 

In addition, an increased number of residents walking to and from the center and participating in center activities and services would invigorate the neighborhoods themselves.  Many JustJax respondents living within these affected neighborhoods told us the social cohesion within their communities was lacking or nonexistent.  Neighbors did not socialize or even know one another.  There were few shared common goals among neighbors and neither were there shared values or trust. 

“Something needs to be created within the communities to re-institute community ties,” one respondent told JustJax.  “Adults today have little contact with other community members. There’s nothing (in these neighborhoods) to get them talking with other neighbors and involved in community activism (that could make the streets safer).” 

That makes sense.  The personal connectivity of residents within neighborhoods has consistently been correlated with the ability to lower crime rates.9 Neighbors meeting one another and establishing social ties forms the glue that holds a community together. It helps form a sort of “collective efficacy” in which neighbors coalesce to provide a sense of safety, and to intervene if something problematic happens. 

“Intervening can include things like calling the police, asking questions of strangers, notifying parents if their children are misbehaving, forming community groups to address problems, or at a higher level, attending city council meetings to request assistance from government.”10

While the revitalizing of Jacksonville’s community centers is not a panacea to solve all of a neighborhood’s problems, revitalized centers could provide neighborhoods with a holistic approach to service provision. Paramount to this concept would be a city-nonprofit partnership in which the scores of service-providers already existing in the city could mount periodic programs in centers to meet residents’ needs.

District 10 Council Member Terrance Freeman had just such a plan in mind when he petitioned fellow council members to create a new community center near the intersection of Moncrief and Old Kings roads. The ribbon will be cut to open the 1,600-square-foot 100 Stars Teen Center in April.

The center will offer after-school academic and recreational activities for teens.  Although the building was constructed with city funds, it will be run by two nonprofit organizations – 100 Black Men and the I’m a Star Foundation. It’s a promising example of a city-nonprofit partnership. 

The center will focus on teens initially, but Freeman said he would eventually like to expand its services to include other demographics. He considers the revitalization of Jacksonville’s community centers an important community-wide goal.

 “It would create a known safe space for people to gather. I would love to see these opportunities being taken to communities where access is the problem. I consider these literally beacons of light in these communities. And the more we can shine this light, the less people will hide in the shadows and do bad things.

“I’m interested in opening up all the underused facilities in the city.  All I need are the partners.”

Certainly, the possibilities for partnerships are immense in Jacksonville. 

A trio of examples

There are certainly many examples of successful community centers that could be called upon as prototypes for a series of Jacksonville centers.  They range from large full-service centers to smaller, more focused facilities.

The Sierra Community House11 in the North Tahoe-Truckee region of California and Nevada is an example of a full-service center located in a rural community. The area surrounding this center shares similarities with potential Jacksonville sites in that many residents in its catchment area live below the poverty line and have trouble accessing services because of transportation difficulties.  

The center began in 2019 when four nonprofit organizations partnered to create a single program that would provide family services, help for individuals suffering from domestic abuse, crisis intervention, immigration aid, legal counseling, and hunger relief.

The previous four separate headquarters of the partners were transformed to offer a full panoply of their combined services.  The collaboration also allowed the four partners to share staff and increase efficiency.  Paul Bancroft, the current director of Sierra Community House, told a local newspaper about the merger.12

“We’re taking the strength of every organization and bringing those together into one strong robust social services provider.  Someone can come to the organization and only have to tell their story one time; and they’re going to have better access to services.”

The partnership was so successful that the four executive directors of the partnering nonprofits received an award the following year for the project.  

A much smaller community center is the Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center in Denver.13  Located within one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Sun Valley provides after-school and tutoring programming, a low-cost grocery program, cooking classes for children, arts programming, a scholarship fund for local youth, and a meeting space open to the community.

It does all this through a large network of unique partners that include the Denver Urban Gardens, Denver Food Rescue, an innovative interactive art institution, Johnson and Wales University, a food co-op, and several minority youth organizations.

Glenn Harper, the founder of the Denver center, explained that his nonprofit was unique in that his group had purchased the building in the early 2010s so “we had the luxury of taking our time discovering what the community really needed.”   In addition, the building had once housed a grocery and so had historically been a central part of the neighborhood.

“It’s very advantageous to have a space the community knows and trusts,” he said.

Early in its life, Harper’s nonprofit survived mainly on grant funding but in 2018 it opened a restaurant at the facility in addition to its other programs.  The mission was to hire and train people from the neighborhood to work in the restaurant industry while supporting part of its programming through restaurant revenue.

Although the restaurant has closed during COVID-19, Harper expects it will open again.  Currently, the nonprofit is running vaccination clinics and has amped up its grocery and feeding programs in response to increased need during the pandemic.

But it’s the final example that provides perhaps the best prototype for Jacksonville.  While the two above examples show the innovations –  both through partnerships and unique financial arrangements –  that can be created to support a successful community center, this last example is a reimagining of a situation not unlike that confronted by Jacksonville.

This exemplar is provided by the city of San Jose, CA, which had historically owned and operated a network of community centers, overseen by the city’s parks and recreation department.  During the recession of 2007 to 2009, the city found itself faced with underutilized community centers, many located within its most endangered neighborhoods that were impacted by poverty, violence, and a lack of services.  San Jose budgetary managers realized the city would be unable to even minimally staff or upkeep the centers so embarked upon a novel plan to continue providing needed services and a sense of community within these neighborhoods.

In 2008, the San Jose City Council enacted the the Reuse Program (Appendix D) that allowed nonprofit organizations –   traditional service providers, neighborhood associations, school districts, and other government agencies –  to use some 28 neighborhood centers (usually at no cost and with subsidized utilities and maintenance) in exchange for providing services.  The nonprofits would be contractually obligated to provide a prioritized list of services for a specific number of hours a week at a particular center.  They, in turn, could partner with other nonprofits to provide the needed services they could not.

The prioritized list of services needed in each neighborhood was assessed via separate surveys prior to the letting of a proposal asking nonprofits to apply.  In each community, residents were asked what services they found it difficult or impossible to access.  The needs expressed were then grouped into service priorities and a grid listing the needs of the neighborhood surrounding each center as well as the center’s size and room availability were released along with the initial RFP (Appendix E).  The four service priorities were:

  • Education & Digital Literacy – Offer high quality childcare for infants and toddlers and/or preschool, after-school services to neighborhood children, promote school readiness and digital inclusion for parents, families, and older adults.
  • Economic & Stabilization Opportunities Offer training, services and support for skills development, business creation, and networking opportunities to secure and advance job placement and economic self-sufficiency. Provide a system of care services and support to the unhoused population.
  • Safe & Welcoming Neighborhoods – Offer opportunities to connect residents, immigrants, refugees to each other, and empower residents through community engagement activities to increase trust and unity with intentional focus on residents who live near Neighborhood Centers.
  • Health & Wellness – Offer culturally relevant services promoting health and wellness, including visual and performing arts, physical activities, food security opportunities, and healing and mindfulness.

The contracts were initially let for a multi-year period.  As anticipated, a new RFP was released in 2021 (a year late due to the pandemic) with some changes, including a rebranding of the program as the Neighborhood Center Partners Program (Appendix F).  Most significant among those changes, however, were contract accountability measures that will allow the city to measure how well each center with its individual contracted nonprofit has fulfilled its service requirements and obligations.

According to Molly Vasquez, contracts analyst for the program, “This has been a successful program and it’s definitely met expectations. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from our community members and our council persons because they’re the spokesperson for their constituents.  It’s allowed us to continue services and meet the needs of our communities where we weren’t able to before. So these partnerships have really strengthened the work we’ve been able to deliver to these communities.”

While none of these programs is perhaps the perfect prototype for Jacksonville’s community centers, what they do provide is a sampling of the vast array of possibilities. In fact, this variety –  and especially the approach taken in San Jose –  could be easily transferable to Jacksonville. As seen in San Jose, it’s not necessary that each community center be a replica of the others, only that they provide a range of services tailored to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.

Perhaps, most significantly, they all illustrate the importance of partnerships in providing services. Residents benefit when the services provided are diversified. The goal should be to create a center that meets the needs specifically designated by the community as missing and necessary.  Care should also be taken to ensure that these centers serve all the diverse populations within a neighborhood, including the youth, the elderly, and the unhoused.

Finally, strong, coordinated leadership is the key to the success of all three of these endeavors.  Not only is the commitment and leadership provided by partners essential, the commitment of leadership to such a project by the city is absolutely crucial. In the San Jose case, four full-time city staffers are dedicated to maintaining the project along with the occasional help of other city staff members.

Our recommendation

Our Recommendation for this section is that the nonprofit community initiate partnerships with the City of Jacksonville to revitalize its system of community centers within violence-affected neighborhoods. The goal should be to create a network of vibrant centers that offer needed services for community residents.

Importantly, this type of community development project should not be initiated without enlisting the active partnership of neighborhood residents themselves. Residents must be given a stake in the process of creating change within their neighborhoods in what the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis calls an “‘inside-out’ community-based approach.”14

The Build Healthy Places Network agrees on the importance of sharing ownership in local projects with local residents. More specifically, it argues that such an initiative must focus on the priorities identified by residents, amplify residents’ voices, develop neighborhood leadership, and create a completely transparent process to avoid conflict.15

Although there are many ways to approach such community development, the five principles outlined by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis can provide guidance prior to initiating such a project.  

  • Community Engagement:  The needs of neighborhood residents must be included from the outset.  Data should be collected to identify unmet needs and the active contribution of residents must be sought throughout the project.
  • Leadership:  As illustrated by the three examples of successful projects provided, strong leadership is critical.  One or more leaders must be tapped to champion the initiative continually, providing constant oversight and organization.
  • Collaboration:  Not only is the buy-in of community residents essential, so is the buy-in of other partners, particularly those within the nonprofit community.  Care should be taken to match the needs of the community with nonprofit services provided by partners to ensure the best fit.
  • Evaluation:  From the project’s inception, plans should be put in place to measure performance variables. How well does the project meet its intended goals and outcomes? This type of data will be essential to measure its impact and ensure continuity.
  • Adaptability: As can be seen from all too many now-defunct but well-intended projects in Jacksonville, continuity can be difficult in an environment of funding inconsistency.  An important question, therefore, is how can this initiative be sustained financially when success may be measured best in decades and not months. How can the resiliency of this initiative be ensured?

Technical support for such a project is available and can be accessed through institutions and organizations such as the Kounkuey Design Initiative, the Build Healthy Places Network, the Urban Institute, and the Bloomberg CityLab. These agencies, along with others, can provide both hands-on help as well as various examples of how successful initiatives were designed.

Importantly, Jacksonville’s community centers need not be cookie-cutter replicas of one another. Different community needs exist in the city’s diverse neighborhoods.  

What is essential is that these centers become vibrant neighborhood bases that residents of all ages can visit to receive help and services.  Only then can they also begin to provide the kind of stability and cohesion that communities need to stand firm against things such as violence.


1Jensen, J.  (2010).  “Defining and Measuring Social Cohesion.”  Commonwealth Secretariat and United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from$file/Jenson%20ebook.pdf

2Graif, C., Lungeanu, A.I., & Yetter, A.M.  (2018, Oct. 1).  “Neighborhood Isolation in Chicago:  Violent Crime Effects on Structural Isolation and Homophily in Inter-Neighborhood Commuting Networks, 2002-2013.  Social Networks.  (51, 40-59).

3UF Health Jacksonville. (2019). “UF Health Jacksonville Community Health Needs Assessment.” Retrieved March 23, 2021, from

4Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. (n.d.) Homicide tracker. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

5U.S. Census Bureau (2019). Select characteristics of the total and native populations in the United States. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from

6Violence & socioeconomic status. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

7Pantazi, A. (2021, Jan. 4). 2020 in numbers, a brief review. The Tributary: Jacksonville’s Journalism Collective

8Jacksonville Nonprofit Hospital Partnership. (2019). “Community Health Needs Assessment”. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from

9Hirschfield, A., & Bowers, K.J. (1997). The Effect of Social Cohesion on Levels of Recorded Crime in disadvantaged Areas. Urban Studies, 34(8), 1275-1295.

10Uchida, C.D., Swatt, M.L., Solomon, S.E., &  Varano, S.  (2014, March).  Neighborhoods and Crime: Collective Efficacy and Social Cohesion in Miami-Dade County, Executive Summary.  U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.) Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

12Jones, H. (2019, July 5). Tahoe Truckee nonprofits merge into Sierra Community House. Sierra Sun. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from 

14“Five Principles for Launching a Successful Community Development Initiative”.  (n.d.) Community Development Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from