Waterville’s South End gets a makeover

Located along the Messalonskee Stream, Waterville’s South End boasts a vibrant past, and members of the South End Neighborhood Association (SENA) are working towards a bright future. For the past 13 years, a number of Waterville citizens have worked tirelessly to revitalize the neighborhood, which plays an integral role in the city’s history.

In the years following 1873, marked by the construction of the Lockwood Company’s expansive cotton mill, Waterville saw an influx of workers—predominantly Canadian farming families emigrating from Québec—that sparked a local industrial revolution.

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, over 1,300 people were employed at Lockwood. With high employment and newfound opportunity, the South End—then known as the “Plains”—emerged as a cultural hub with scores of businesses, a bilingual parochial school and a theater.

“Historically this was a proud, working-class neighborhood,” Co-Chair of SENA Jackie Dupont ’04 said. “Over the decades, the neighborhood has fallen into disrepair and a stereotype and stigma have overshadowed a rich and vibrant community. That stigma prevents growth on many levels.” Dupont was initially prompted to attend SENA meetings while working for AmeriCorps VISTA following her graduation from the College. During that time, she worked with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP) as Co-Director of the South End Teen Center (SETC).

With numerous projects and a tight-knit relationship with KVCAP, SENA’s mission is to work as a group of neighbors and supporters with an equal voice to revitalize and energize the South End neighborhood. “My long term hope for the South End is a change in the narrative about [the neighborhood],” Dupont added. As Co-Chair of SENA, Dupont has high hopes for the South End and has dedicated countless hours of legislative and ground-level work to see this vision through.

Every spring, SENA holds a neighborhood cleanup and a bike repair and swap, and it initiates planning for an annual festival held each August in partnership with the Waterville Police Department. The South End National Night Out Festival features free barbeque, games, police and fire demonstrations and an opportunity for young people to give back to their community through efforts led by the SETC.

SENA has had an active week. On Tuesday, the group   coordinated a public meeting to discuss city fund allocation to revitalize the Green Street park. Dupont and her associates also look forward to the upcoming bike swap scheduled for May 2.

“It’s an incredible group of people,” Mayor of Waterville Nick Isgro said. “They have a common goal that they’re working toward, and since I’ve been in office, I’ve noticed a really tangible effort to, as Jackie says, ‘change the narrative.’” Isgro, who has lived in the Waterville-Oakland area his entire life, shared that his mother grew up in the Plains after her grandparents moved to the United States from Canada.

“For people who aren’t as familiar with the South End, there’s often a mental image of what goes on there. If there’s a drug bust in the neighborhood, you can be sure it’s going to say ‘South End,’ in the headline,” Isgro said. However, Isgro noted that this perception is grounded more in stigma than reality. “During my campaign, the South End was one of the most welcoming neighborhoods. They were excited that somebody showed up—that somebody shared the same vested interest in the community.”

“I am often presented with a hesitancy to invest resources in the South End, citing vandalism, drug use, and a fear that programs would be taken advantage of, but that mindset will not create change or encourage growth because it is steeped in what ‘can’t work’ instead of what can work and be built upon and what does work,” Dupont said.

Dupont attested to the necessity for cooperation in SENA’s mission. She cited a South End Capital Improvement Fund held by the city to beautify and revitalize the neighborhood, as well as city-led code enforcement. “Dense and dilapidated housing that attracts a number of safety concerns is also directly connected to code enforcement which is under the umbrella of the City,” Dupont said. “We are fortunate to have had excellent people representing the South End for both Ward 6 and 7 advocating for investing in the South End.”

Isgro added that this outreach on the part of South End constituents to design and implement the housing codes within their wards reflect the active role citizens can and do play in defining their community identity.  The city is currently moving forward to add an additional code enforcement officer to the South End, a development that Isgro attributed to SENA’s insistence on enforcement of abandoned property and code violations. In addition to the city legislature, SENA maintains ongoing collaboration between SENA and organizations including the KVCAP, SETC, and the Colby Volunteer Center (CVC).

As the neighborhood seeks to enhance its identity, the work is constant and multifarious. “It was important that local stakeholders [develop] the ideas rather than an outside group dictating,” Dupont said in reference to SENA’s Green Street Park meetings. “It think [that approach] sums up a lot of our events. We are addressing day-to-day issues with short and long term solutions that come from the ground up.”

“Given the work of citizens and our bolstered relationship with the College, there’s a newfound air of positivity,” Isgro said. “While times have been tough, citizens are starting to see that good things are coming our way. Once you have the initial spark that groups like the South End Neighborhood Association have created, people feel that. it’s amazing how there’s a huge paradigm shift once you get past some of the bias and take the steps to move forward.”

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