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Breaking the cycles of poverty: The Little City that Could

Lewiston's Tree Street neighborhood will see major redevelopment through a $30M federal grant to improve housing, address lead poisoning

LEWISTON, Maine — “When you walk down the street and you walk by a building that's falling apart, it's really easy to say, 'That's Lewiston,'” Lynnea Hawkins said.

Hawking lives in the densely populated Lewiston neighborhood known as the Tree Streets. Rundown houses and businesses fill the blocks, but the condition of the buildings is only one problem. Another is the age of the paint on them.

"The housing at this point is severely distressed," said Misty Parker, economic development manager for the city of Lewiston. "This neighborhood, while it's got a lot of historic buildings, has some very poor housing, full of lead paint." 

Lewiston has the highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in the state, Parker said. Many of the homes and apartments filling the Tree Streets were built more than 100 years ago, primarily as workforce housing for those employed at Lewiston mills.

Back then, lead paint was common. Researchers hadn't yet figured out what it was doing to children.

According to the state of Maine, “Lead is a toxin that can be especially harmful to children under the age of 6. Older houses often still have old lead paint. Lead dust from old paint is the most common way children get lead poisoning.”

Lead poisoning can lead to:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavioral problems
  • Hearing damage
  • Language and speech delays
  • Lower intelligence

Fixing the lead paint issue is not cheap. Fixing the dilapidated buildings isn’t cheap either. But if Lewiston can’t start there, city leaders know the struggle to overcome the poverty and health issues staring this city in the face might never be won.

So Lewiston did something that seemed impossible: It entered a contest to win enough grant money to make a serious change ... enough money to change the course of the young lives currently relegated to breathing in lead paint dust.

That contest pitted Lewiston against cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Just entering the contest cost the city $1.3 million.

But Lewiston found those funds from another grant and used them to research and build a 300-page presentation to enter the contest.

City leaders called it the "Growing our Tree Streets" plan -- an action plan to revitalize the Tree Streets neighborhood that Lynnea Hawkins and so many others call home.

The Lewiston Housing Authority submitted the plan to the Choice Neighborhood Grant program, run through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. The city asked for $30 million.

Previous Choice Neighborhood Grants have been awarded to major metropolitan cities across the country. A smaller city like Lewiston had never won.

Lynnea Hawkins didn’t have any reason to believe Lewiston would win, but that didn’t stop her from hoping.

"Don't count Lewiston out,” she said. “We're on a comeback.”

The hope Hawkins has for her community of more than 20 years can be felt throughout the city. For years, residents and city staff have worked together to try and address the challenges facing the Tree Streets neighborhood.

But this year will be different because, in late May, city leaders got the news that changed everything: Lewiston had received the Choice Neighborhood Grant. The little city that could beat out Detroit, Cleveland, and Camden, New Jersey.

“With our population size and our scale, we have the chance to make a huge transformation and actually see it, as opposed to being lost in a very large city," Parker said.

The city of Lewiston, the Lewiston Housing Authority, Community Concepts Inc., and the Healthy Neighborhood Planning Council worked with community members to build the plan that won. Now they will work together to bring it to fruition. Everyone wants the Tree Streets community healthier and safer.

“They want to see more supports for youth, especially outside of school," Parker said. "They want to see improved housing conditions and not just about lead but also just healthy affordable housing."

Today, Lewiston residents are preparing to see major changes in the city's most impoverished area. The $30 million will be used to build three lead-free housing developments, one in the area of 40 Pine St., across from Kennedy Park;  another in the area of the Pine, Pierce, and Bartlett streets; and the third on Ash Street, in front of Blake Street Towers.

“If you don't have proper housing, it's really hard for you to thrive. It's hard for you to focus,” said Ashley Medina, the president of Healthy Neighborhoods, a community organization that worked with the city and other community organizations to secure the grant and create a transformation plan for the city.

Medina, who also lives in the Tree Streets neighborhood, said this step towards revitalization can be transformative.

“It's not going to happen overnight, but in generations to come it's going to be so crucial for them," she said. "So they can stay and feel like they're a part of the community and want to make it better."

The grant will be used to fulfill the city’s commitment to making the community lead-free by 2043. Approximately 15 percent of the funding will go towards supporting those that live in the Tree Streets through improved access to childcare, health care, and job training.

“You can't really put a cap on what Lewiston can do from here,” said Joel Furrow, the executive director of the Root Cellar, a faith-based community center with a branch on Birch Street in Lewiston. Furrow and his team work closely with the community on youth mentoring, addressing problems of food insecurity, and English language learning. “If we invest in the lives of children and teens now, we're talking about something that could be exponentially great and transformative."

According to Parker, the housing at 40 Pine St. will include commercial space and a community food center through a partnership with St. Mary’s Nutrition Center.

These future changes are creating a spark in the community, too, with a hope for a reimagined Tree Streets on the horizon.

"It's not money just to come fix a problem, it's an investment in the lives of the Tree Streets residents,” said Furrow.

“It's really one of those places that you can just show up and realize something great is happening,” said Lewiston Housing Authority director Chris Kilmurry. The city also plans to invest in the neighborhood infrastructure, improving roads and sidewalks, as well as Wi-Fi access.

Parker said construction will likely begin in 2023. She hopes this will spark private developers to build in Lewiston, and continue the progress already started.

"It just means everything, and I definitely see a positive future," said Medina. "I just can't wait to see it all unfold."

This brings us back to Medina’s Tree Streets neighbor, Lynnea Hawkins, and her endless hope. A hope grounded in people.

"Lewiston is my place," she said. "Because it's my home. And the people that live here, yeah, we've got some issues. Everywhere has issues. But there's a community here that really does look out for each other.”

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