“Sonny Street has a bad reputation, but it’s not bad,” Quiet Town resident Barbara Spencer says, peering out from under a floral bucket hat. It’s July. The street is sticky. She’s lived on Sonny since 1980, back when Quiet Town, tucked in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of I-10 and Evangeline Thruway, was as advertised.
Spencer says the place has been a mess. The boarded-up houses had all kinds of “nonsense” going on inside. Summers were all noise and cussing and police. There are now three little blue houses with nice wooden fences in the area. A handful of other homes are getting redone. Sheriff’s deputies have been more active in the area.
“I have to say this summer has been very quiet,” she says, smiling.
Quiet Town is starting to get quiet again because a woman named Alzina Dural is making noise. The Franklin native, tired of watching the neighborhood decline, took it upon herself to fight for her adopted home five years ago. A Project Front Yard commercial beamed into her home like divine providence. She joined up, launched her own nonprofit and threw herself into board service with Keep Lafayette Beautiful. Just this fall she won a Project Front Yard award for her work evangelizing the initiative in New Iberia and Franklin.
But the real fruit of that labor is set to blossom next week. Pending council approval on Nov. 5, Dural will create the Quiet Town Coterie, a culminating moment she believes could be the beginning of the neighborhood’s revival.
“Even though my neighborhood don’t look like yours, I’m proud of it and it will look good,” she says, soft-spoken, squinting kindly through a pair of plastic-rimmed glasses. Her tidy sedan crawls around the block as she shakes her head at litter and tall grass.
Most Fridays, Dural and a dispatch of parish inmates, escorted by sheriff’s deputies, pick up the tires, cigarette cartons and shopping bags that get tangled in ditches and overbrush. She mows the knotty lawns of vacated properties all over Quiet Town, an uphill battle in the summertime. The sweat equity will put her and her nonprofit, Seasons the Green Leaf, in line to get the orphaned, tax delinquent lands donated to her through LCG’s process for disposing adjudicated property.
Unsightly, unkempt and unoccupied housing in Quiet Town is a major sore spot for Dural. Twenty-seven of the 560 parcels in the neighborhood boundary are adjudicated — essentially, a legal limbo where a property locked up with tax debt is left unclaimed. Lack of funding and understaffing make code enforcement tricky. The city boards up troublesome houses — which, to be clear, aren’t always adjudicated — but drugs and other criminal activity nevertheless find their way in.
“They’ve got more business than the stores. They hate when I come around with the sheriff’s department,” she says, glancing at a sunken-roofed house with a clothesline out front. Dural says no one lives in there, but a light indicates there’s still power connected. She worked in customer service and billing at LUS for 15 years; she knows the ins and outs.
Dural is fed up with the city’s glacial pace of action. It can take years to dispose of orphaned plots and homes from the moment tax-delinquent properties become adjudicated. The city allows neighbors to make claims on the abandoned plots, but only after a minimum of three years have passed since adjudication and no claim on the property comes forward, a provision governed by state law that heavily favors property rights. Some lawns she’s mowed for almost eight years.
Forming a coterie will give her a louder, more formalized voice in conversations with city-parish government, particularly the council, which operates as the sole authority to move the land.
“You made the rule, you can change the rule,” she says. Dural is a frequent presence at council meetings.
Dural and her husband moved into Quiet Town 18 years ago, the fresh-faced young family on the block. They found a peaceful place to raise their kids, buying a cozy brick house on Darrel Street. Over the years, revolving renters moved into homes now presided over by absent landlords. Houses crumbled into high-rising stalks of uncut grass, and homeownership evaporated where once it was the norm in an integrated neighborhood.
It used to be a “real community,” the sort of place where neighbors walked to nearby shops to get the day’s business done, says Dural’s daughter, Marinthia Alexander. That community disintegrated as violence became more commonplace and job opportunities scattered. Alexandria now lives in Fightinville, where she and her husband run a successful T-shirt design and print shop called ShirtMayne out of their house, churning out custom designs from a sublimation printer. Memorial requests aren’t uncommon these days.
“I make RIP T-shirts all the time,” Alexander says. The 34-year-old now joins her mother at Pizza Village for preliminary coterie meetings over wine and pizza. She’s hopeful and inspired by her mother’s dedication. One day she wants to bring that spark to her own block.
Dural’s vision for a coterie was inspired by the bootstrapping underway in McComb-Veazey, another Northside neighborhood that’s seen address-by-address improvement after a decade of concerted neighborhood organizing. McComb-Veazey’s work has led to grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from national foundations and, through a hand-in-hand partnership with Habitat For Humanity, some breakthroughs in putting adjudicated properties back into productive use.
There are 1,500 adjudicated properties in Lafayette Parish. Since consolidated government created its disposition process in 2015, only 27 properties have made it into the redevelopment queue. Twelve of them are in McComb-Veazey.
The most visible of McComb’s recent successes is its new community house, which opened earlier this fall. In August, Habitat applied to take over 10 properties; once formally donated by the city, the tranche patch together a new pocket neighborhood of owner-occupied homes. Slowly, homeownership is making a comeback in McComb. Tina Shelvin Bingham, Dural’s counterpart in McComb, believes Dural has the spark to make a difference in Quiet Town.
“She’s so passionate,” Bingham says. “I really admire her power and will to keep it going for her community.”
Quick to give thanks to those around her, Dural has taken the task of fixing Quiet Town upon herself. Since watching that fateful Project Front Yard commercial, she launched an annual block party to rekindle community connections fractured by generational departures. This year’s block party, her fifth, turned out dozens; Dural says she gave out 150 chicken burgers from Kirk’s Uneedabutcher in McComb. When she’s not organizing events, she cooks red beans and smothered chicken in a crock pot for the inmate cleanup crews and attending deputies.
She plans to bring fellow organizer Josh Edmond to repaint houses for eldery Quiet Town residents on fixed incomes, working to brighten the neighborhood’s curb appeal through his nonprofit All For One Foundation. Whatever formal authority the coterie designation confers, it’s really Dural’s tenacity that will drive Quiet Town’s turnaround.
“Other people might be scared and distrustful of government types,” Project Front Yard coordinator Skyra Rideaux says. “They’ll respond to someone like Alzina. It’s empowering them in a way that I don’t think we’ve done a good job of in the past.”
Figures like Dural, in other words, can be an antidote to disinvestment, a term that, among Northside residents, points as much to a lack of effort or attention on the part of city government as it does to a lack of spending. Dural fills a void with care.
Dural stops her car in a dim corner near the back of Quiet Town. There’s a house boarded up underneath a thick canopy of trees that block out the street lights at night. It could make a great women’s shelter one day, she says buoyantly; it’s tucked back from the street, private and quiet.
“I’ve got to be hopeful,” she says. “If not me, then who?”