Charleston Park gets a bad rap. The small neighborhood that takes up under 80 acres in northwest Lee County has had a reputation of being a haven for drugs and crime, riddled with a water crisis from their unkempt wells. The water is poor, but an epicenter for drugs and crime? Not so much.
The oral history of Charleston Park goes like this- In the early 1900s, the agricultural labor force was predominantly made up of black farm workers. Facing segregation and racism in other parts of the county, they found solace and safety in Charleston Park- the only area, at the time, where black workers were permitted to buy property. Then, the reputation of Charleston Park reached far beyond the neighborhood limits. Families from as far as Alabama came down looking for a place to call home.
“It was nothing out here, but dirt roads,” one Charleston Park resident tells us at the community center on a rainy day in October. As she leaves the center to drop off clothing donations, she continues her story: her family’s lived there since the 1940s, and moved there looking for a safe place. She was eventually born in the 1950s and has lived in Charleston Park ever since. Unfortunately for us, we don’t get her name.
It was nothing out here, but dirt roads,
Charleston Park still boasts a slowed and quaint community lifestyle of yesteryear. Everyone knows each other or at least knows of each other. Stories from the good ol’ days can be heard at the bi-monthly senior breakfasts. Younger families enjoy raising their children away from the hustle and bustle [and peer pressure, as we were told] of the ever-growing areas that hug the coastline. Men wrench their work trucks in their front yards on a cloudy afternoon. Women sit in the community center organizing clothing donations and gabbing.
Like the woman we met, many of the people who live in Charleston Park grew up there and are children and the children’s children of those early 20th-century farm workers. This, in turn, makes them some of the oldest residents and families native to Lee County, something that is sometimes hard to come by in SWFL, where droves of people relocate here from other, colder parts of the country or continent, even.
The role of Charleston Park in Lee County’s social history isn’t what the area is known for, however. “People think it’s all crime and drugs out here, but it’s not,” Lashay Russ, the resident coordinator tells us. Though, she admits, it used to be. That is, until Alice Washington, the former resident coordinator cleaned it up. Alice bled Charleston Park pride and made it her job to turn the neighborhood around. Cleaning it up through programs like Down with Dope, Up with Hope, is just a small part of the legacy she left behind when she passed away in 2015. “Alice would’ve known that,” is often the response when residents are asked about Charleston Park’s history.
Lashay started in the position this year. She grew up in the area and pastors at a local church with her husband. Though she lives in Lehigh Acres, she still returns to the six-block neighborhood to continue Alice’s legacy, but also build her own and address the obstacles residents face today.
“Transportation, housing, getting to stores that have healthier choices,” Lashay says is what plagues the area now… and of course, the water, she mentions. The most apparent of the issues is transportation. The closest grocery store to the neighborhood is almost nine miles away, making it just a mile shy of receiving a USDA food desert designation, a title given to areas that lack the availability of fresh foods. With that kind of distance between the residents and nutritiously dense foods, the mind begins to wonder, how far the doctor’s office might be, or a shop to buy clothes.
“The problem becomes access. It’s not just about whether the food is there but how people are getting to it,” says Dr. Thomas Felke, Florida Gulf Coast University’s Interim Chair of Social Work.
Dr. Felke shares that the difficulties Charleston Park faces aren’t only present there but in much of SWFL. “A lot of these issues are what we call ‘invisibility of social issues,'” he explains. “It’s easy to look at SWFL and get caught up in the beauty of it.”
Back in Charleston Park, Lashay continues to work hard to find solutions to “invisible issues.” As she clicks around on her computer, she shares an anecdote about just one of her many attempts to secure transportation for the residents in the community. “I won’t name the company, but they told me they didn’t want to make it available to us because of how far we are,” she laments. When asked if it was overwhelming, Lashay without pause says “Yeah.” But she continues, “I take that feeling, and I push hard.”
If you’d like to help Lashay find solutions for Charleston Park, you can contact her at the Charleston Park Community Center at 239-728-8895.