Tag Archives: Christian Gray

Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification

March 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As revitalization has come to diverse and densely packed Park Avenue, a tale of two neighborhoods has emerged. The north end—near 30th and Leavenworth streets and Midtown Crossing—finds a millennial haven of developer-renovated historic properties and shiny new projects on once-vacant lots. The south end—bordering Hanscom Park—is plagued by remnants of drug activity and prostitution. In place of chic urban digs are public housing towers. Amid this transience, reinvestment lags.

Meanwhile, nonprofit InCommon Community Development bridges unchecked development and vulnerable immigrant and refugee populations. Its proactive, grassroots approach to alleviate poverty invests in residents. As a gentrification buffer, InCommon has purchased two apartment buildings with below-market rents to maintain affordable housing options to preserve a mixed-income neighborhood.

“It’s crucial to really involve people in their own work of transformation,” Executive Director Christian Gray says. “We have a very specific assets-based community development process for doing that.

It’s a methodology or mindset that says we’re not going to do for others, and residents themselves are the experts.

“It’s slower, patient, but sustainable work because then you have people with buy-in and trust collaborating together for that change. The iron rule is never do for others what they can do for themselves. We made a commitment when we moved in the neighborhood to set the right first impression. We said, ‘We’re not here to save you or to give away stuff for free. We’re here to listen—to get to know you. We want to hear your ideas about change and be the facilitators of that.’ I think that’s made the difference.”

The faith-based organization “starts with the idea people want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” he says. “We help them build their own capacity and then start building relationships. Then comes leadership development. As we get to know people, we identify their talents and gifts. We talk about how they can apply those into developing and strengthening the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is neighborhood transformation. We want them to see themselves as the neighborhood change agents.”   

A hub for InCommon’s work is the Park Ave Commons community center, which opened in 2013. It hosts GED, ESL, literacy, citizenship, job readiness, and financial education classes, first-time home-buying workshops, community health programs, and Zumba.

“If someone walks out of there with their GED, better English proficiency, or better able to provide for their family, we’re pleased,” Gray says.

The center is also where InCommon hosts neighborhood meetings and an after-school drop-in space, conducts listening sessions, identifies neighborhood concerns and interests, and activates residents’ civic engagement.

“One of our shining examples is Arturo Mejia,” Gray says. “He’s super passionate about the neighborhood. He started getting involved with the organization and eventually became a staff member. He leads our ESL and GED programming. He also does community organizing.”

Arturo Mejia, leader of ESL and GED programming

Mejia, a Mexican immigrant, says what he’s found with InCommon mirrors other residents’ experiences.

“InCommon has invested in me in many ways,” he says. “It’s helped me to use my full potential in my work for the Latino community of this neighborhood. InCommon has found the goodness this neighborhood has. When shown the assets, instead of the negatives, residents find encouragement and empowerment enough to keep reaching their goals.”

The community center resulted from feedback gathered from residents like Mejia. The Zumba class was initiated by a woman living there.

“Adults come through the workforce channel. Kids come through the after-school channel,” Gray says.

At an InCommon community visioning process last fall, a group of young men shared the need for a new neighborhood soccer field and, with InCommon’s guidance, they’re working with the city on getting one. InCommon’s gala last fall recognized area superheroes like them and Mejia.

Besides the center, InCommon’s imprints include a pocket park, a community garden, and artist Watie White’s mural of neighborhood leaders.

The first wave of redevelopment there, Gray says, saw “empty buildings activated and populated, and it actually brought an infusion of new people, energy, and resources—the positive elements of gentrification.”

“It’s certainly cleaned up,” he says. “But a lot of the problems remain here, they’re just beneath the surface now.”

As more development occurs, the concern is the people InCommon serves “will be displaced.” That’s where the low-income housing comes in. The Bristol, fully occupied and awaiting renovation, features 64 studio apartments. The Georgia Row, currently closed and undergoing repairs, will feature 10 or 11 multifamily units.

InCommon is investing $10 million in refurbishments. Local and state historic tax credits and tax increment financing, plus expected low-income housing tax credits, are making it possible.

“As a landlord, we’re not only able to preserve affordable housing, but we can integrate individual capacity building services directly on-site with residents,” Gray says.

He looks to solidify InCommon’s work in this and other “opportunity neighborhoods” poised for redevelopment.

“Right now, redevelopment is like a tidal wave people get drowned in,” he says. “We are interested in getting people to withstand and actually surf that wave and leverage it. People have to have some wherewithal to be able to make their own decisions and not be co-opted into other people’s plans. We’ve started looking at how do we get residents more involved in directing how they want their neighborhoods to grow, so none of this happens in ad hoc form. In this more thoughtful approach to creating neighborhoods, there’d be a vision for what residents want Park Avenue or Walnut Hill to look like.

“The goal isn’t to come up with a plan for them, it’s to facilitate the process so neighbors and stakeholders come up with the plan together.”

Visit incommoncd.org for more information.

Christian Gray, executive director of InCommon Community Development

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

COMMONgood

February 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Helmets fastened, Leslie Wells and Chase King climb on their bikes and take off for a brisk ride through downtown Omaha on a crisp afternoon. For these avid cyclists though, today’s ride isn’t about recreation. It’s about recycling.

Earlier in the day, the two men collected hundreds of glass and plastic bottles, cups, containers, cardboard, cans, and other items from an Old Market coffee shop and a downtown restaurant. They loaded and secured each trash bag, box, and bin stuffed with recyclables onto a pull-behind bicycle trailer hitched to a Surly Pugsley bike with big, fat tires.

On today’s route, King rides the bike pulling the trailer, while Wells follows on his own bicycle. After pedaling their way to a recycling dumpster in a parking lot near Heartland of America Park, they unload the nearly 300-pound haul. Everything but the glass, which is biked to a collection site at 26th and Douglas streets, gets tossed into the giant bin.

Two days later, they’ll be it again—putting the cycle in recycle. Their efforts are part of COMMONgood Recycling, one of several programs operated by local nonprofit group inCOMMON Community Development.

Wells, program director at inCOMMON and a longtime cycling enthusiast, created and coordinates the pedal-powered service, which is offered Monday and Saturday to business owners in the downtown and midtown areas. Its primary goals are to assist small businesses, employ residents seeking entry-level work, and help protect the environment.

The idea came about after Wells noticed two of his friends, who own Omaha Bicycle Co. in Benson, using their bikes to recycle. It inspired him to take a similar approach to recycling at Aromas Coffeehouse in the Old Market, where he worked at the time.

At first, he used a handmade wooden cart attached to his bike to haul recyclables from Aromas but later switched to a solid aluminum trailer because it was stronger and could handle heavier loads. Over time, Wells thought other downtown businesses might be interested in his method of recycling. And if he could get enough customers to sign up and pay a small fee for the service, it could create job opportunities for low-income residents served by inCOMMON, where Wells volunteered.

His plan got a boost in May when inCOMMON was awarded a $25,000 grant from State Farm to help develop the program. Wells joined inCOMMON’s staff full time to expand and oversee the effort.

What started with one client has now grown to more than a dozen participating businesses, including Flatiron Cafe, Block 16, Aromas Coffeehouse, Kaneko, Table Grace Cafe, Elevate, Greengo Coffee & Deli, Bench, Davis Companies, CO2 Apartments, and others. Businesses sign up and pay a monthly fee of $40 for weekly pickup. Other pricing options, including one-time service, are also available.

Previously, many of those businesses were simply discarding recyclable materials in the trash. “A service like this is important because it allows small businesses to start doing the right thing by recycling and still afford to hit their bottom line by reducing their waste fee,” Wells says.

For riders, who are either unemployed or underemployed, COMMONgood Recycling allows them to make money, Wells says, and it gives those who want to transition back into the workforce an opportunity to acquire job experience, training, and multiple skills to include on their résumés.

Christian Gray, executive director of inCOMMON Community Development, says the recycling project fits in nicely with the organization’s overall mission to strengthen struggling neighborhoods and alleviate poverty at its root.

The nonprofit group, which in October celebrated the grand opening of its Park Ave Commons community center at 1340 Park Ave., provides a variety of services for neighborhood residents, including GED instruction, preventative and emergency services, community building, English language lessons, job readiness, and other resources.

King is among the riders employed by COMMONgood Recycling as an independent contractor.

Since June, he’s helped collect, sort, and haul recyclables to drop-off sites around town. He sees the service as a way to help promote a greener community and reduce the amount of trash that goes into landfills.

“Landfills are full enough already,” King says.

In the coming year, Wells hopes to add more riders, bikes, and customers, while continuing to raise recycling awareness. He also wants to expand the service to include other areas of the city, including Benson.

Christian Gray

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As director of inCOMMON, a nonprofit organization located at 13th and William streets, Christian Gray thrives on building relationships in the Omaha community. Growing up in the affluent suburbs of Orange County, Calif., Gray was rarely exposed to the hardships many Americans face, but somehow he got the message that material wealth is not what life is about.

“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me,” Gray admits. “It began to make me uneasy about what life is, and I began asking questions like ‘What is the purpose of life? Is it to be comfortable? Successful?’ I began to challenge a lot of those notions that I think were just part of the culture growing up.”

After graduating from the University of Arizona, where he met his wife, Sonya, Gray began seeking out places where he could help. His passion for helping the poor has taken him from Romania to India to South Africa and back to the U.S. During the process, he had time to really self-reflect on the bigger picture.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think the purpose of life is to live wholly and richly,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you have a ton of stuff or even a ton of success. It means you’re an authentic person, and you care about other people, and you’re part of a greater global community and humanity. I think that’s the answer. I think the way we go about that all looks differently. Locations can change and reflect how we can live that out. I think that’s the purpose of life, to really be a part of enriching the global community.”20130321_bs_8688

Once settled in Omaha, Gray got to work on inCOMMON, which specializes in uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods. He spearheads many subsidiary programs, such as The Listening Project and Neighbors United.

inCOMMON incorporates Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) practices into its work. ABCD is a best-practice that dates back to the 1970s. “We try to build upon a neighborhood’s pre-existing strengths,” he explains. “We have the Listening Project, where we train volunteers to go into the community and hear from its residents and try to build solutions to their problems.”

As a result of information gathered from The Listening Project around the Park Avenue neighborhood, inCOMMON is preparing to open a community center in June called Park Avenue Commons. Located on the corner of Park Avenue and Woolworth Street, the dilapidated Acme Rug and Carpet Cleaning building is getting a new life as a part of Gray’s vision.

“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me.”

“I had a growing compassion for the condition of people that are poor, and I wanted to be a part of creating better futures for our communities in that way,” Gray says. “Park Avenue Commons will provide easier access to social services, emergency and preventative services, and a place to come together as a community.”

Gray has many dedicated volunteers that share the same passion for helping the less fortunate. For example, Omaha resident Leslie Wells is gearing up for a recycling program, in which he provides bikes for the homeless to collect recyclables from downtown businesses. Gray emphasizes it’s about building those relationships in order to cultivate community development and empowerment.

“‘The single greatest cause for sustained poverty is isolation,’” he says, quoting Dr. Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries. “If we look at poverty, at least in an urban context, as people living in an isolated community that are cut off from opportunities, then relationships are key because they allow people to bridge outside their limited ranges to a greater opportunity. Strong neighborhoods require that people know each other and people are cooperative with one another and working to solve problems together. The key to overcoming poverty is to have residents that know each other and work together.”