Strawberry Mansion: Councilman Clarke Tackles Urban Blight

Zenobia Harris and Melvin Smith handle constituents paperwork at Councilman Clarke's City Hall office.
Zenobia Harris and Melvin Smith handle constituents' paperwork at Councilman Clarke's City Hall office.

City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke’s office, a small, plain space found on the fourth floor of City Hall, is a bustling hub of activity. Staff members and concerned constituents shuffle in and out of the tall, narrow wooden doors while Clarke sits in a meeting just a room away. Melvin Smith and Zenobia Harris, two senior staff members who have worked for Clarke for years, speak about the duties and legislation Clarke faces on a daily basis.

“In neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, housing is one of the top priorities we try to address,” Smith explains. “Several projects are underway to improve the residential conditions in the area.” Vacant lots account for nearly a quarter of the developed land in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood plagued by blight and economic decay. Houses stand like vast husks, crumbling at their foundations, and this only adds to other social issues like criminal activity. “We try to generate interest for developers to come in and revamp the area,” Smith says. “I grew up in Strawberry Mansion and truly want the neighborhood to look and feel as good as it possibly can.”

Smith and Harris also articulate how the neighborhood is attempting to draw in commercial business as well. Strawberry Square is a prime example of what improved commercial corridors can do for a community. Something as simple as a shopping center has the potential to uplift the surrounding neighborhood and draw attention from those who live elsewhere. “We’d like to see more Strawberry Squares happen up there,” Harris states. “New business raises property values and overall quality of a neighborhood.”

Strawberry Square provides a good example of a commercial corridor in Strawberry Mansion.

As the two senior staff members talk, a number of people come through the slim oak doors wishing to speak with Councilman Clarke. “City Council offices run pretty much like a clearing house,” Smith says with a smile. “We deal with everything and anything on a daily basis, hearing from people who’ve been evicted to those who wound up with a boot on their car. Sometimes we can solve their problems, other times we simply try to point them in the right direction. You need the right temperament to do this job because dealing with the public can be stressful.”

Harris, Clarke’s office supervisor, has worked in the office for 26 years and is well versed in the duties he and the staff members face each day. “The office basically acts as the middleman a lot of times,” she says. “If someone is having issues with their utility bill, we connect them with who they need to talk to.” Harris echoes Smith’s statement about the current state of Strawberry Mansion. “Years ago the value of properties in the neighborhood plummeted so there is a lot of blight. We’re trying to change that by encouraging economic development that will bring in pedestrian traffic.”

Numerous construction projects are underway to make room for new housing and businesses.

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