Southwood: A Community Reborn

Maria Torres and Travis Taylor have lived in the Southwood community outside Charlottesville, Va. their entire lives. As the only home either of them has ever known, Southwood will always be a tapestry of memories, stitched with threads of hardship and hope.

For Maria, Southwood was a community of people who shared her language and cultural background. But its dilapidated homes were also a source of embarrassment for her. Meanwhile, for Travis, what was once a sanctuary following the loss of his father became, over time, a place where he questioned his safety.

By 2007, years of wear and tear on the community’s infrastructure since the 1950s had left residents like Maria and Travis concerned for the area’s future. But when Habitat for Humanity stepped in and brought along partners like Sentara to help fuel redevelopment of the area, a beacon of hope began to flicker.

But when change didn’t happen overnight, that hope mixed with uncertainty over whether the project would come to fruition. However, painstaking as the process may have been, Habitat and its partners made the choice to be intentionally methodical in gaining feedback from residents before clearing any land or pouring any foundations.

Funding from Sentara helped support the removal of unsafe septic systems, deteriorating oil tanks, asbestos water lines, and other barriers to construction. This important work helped pave the way for redevelopment while greatly reducing the long-term health risks for residents.

Angela Guzman of Habitat for Humanity explained that they are hoping to build a national model for neighborhood-driven redevelopment. “Habitat is partnering with residents to design their own community and their own future. We want to meet the vision of the community and improve the quality of life for all its residents,” she says.

For families like Maria’s, being included in the planning process, and knowing that the voices of the community’s Spanish-speaking populations were being heard, helped fuel her excitement. And now, as the neighborhood continues to take shape around her, she realizes the project is about more than houses and community features.

“It’s about creating homes, safe havens for families regardless of their financial situation,” she says. “The attention to detail, the painstaking construction — it’s humbling.”

In addition to helping plot out the neighborhood, residents like Taylor have also had the opportunity to join in the construction and contribute their sweat as well as their good ideas. And while he admits the work can be repetitive, he says he knows he’s contributing to his future with every stroke of paint and sheet of drywall he helps set in place.

For residents like Maria and Travis, seeing their personal contributions to the neighborhood’s transformation allows them to be authors in rewriting not only their community’s story but
their own.

“It’s a stepping stone to a better future,” says Travis.
And when asked to consider how she would describe that future to her younger self back in 2007 — the one who wondered whether it would even happen — Maria says:

“I’d tell myself to be patient, promise her that Southwood will become a haven, a place we can
be proud of.”