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SALISBURY — Randy Stevens focuses these days on hanging new sheet rock, refinishing floors, painting walls and installing appliances.

With the way it looked before, few people would have tackled this house at 814 S. Jackson St. But Stevens, 51, says he saw the 1900 house’s “good bones” and hopes it can be a place where he can live the rest of his life.

Stevens also is taking a chance on Chestnut Hill, the sometimes forgotten area of Salisbury between the West Square Historic District and Fulton Heights.

In width, Chestnut Hill extends from South Main to Fulton streets; in length, from Thomas Street south to include one of the city’s greatest assets, the park-like Chestnut Hill Cemetery.

For much of the 20th century, Chestnut Hill stood as an important working-class neighborhood in Salisbury.

Now it’s an area targeted for revitalization. It faces challenges such as absentee landlords and neglected properties, transient residents, changing demographics, increasing crime and withering church memberships.

Why worry about the congregational numbers? For much of their histories, St. Paul’s Episcopal, Stallings Memorial Baptist, Haven Lutheran and Coburn Memorial United Methodist had always been the institutional stalwarts and social anchors of Chestnut Hill.

But times have changed, and church officials are openly asking themselves how they should change with them and what role they can play in Chestnut Hill’s comeback.

Over the past year, a quiet movement has started, aimed at reversing Chestnut Hill’s decline. It started with Historic Salisbury Foundation’s taking options on three neglected houses on South Jackson Street.

Residents and church officials followed up by chartering a Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association, which already has a board and 72 members.

The neighborhood group has filed for incorporation and also has applied for nonprofit status, President Phillip Carlton says.

Some of the association’s goals include saving and rehabilitating Chestnut Hill’s historic houses; returning homes to single-family, owner-occupied status; making the neighborhood safer, cleaner and more attractive; gaining official recognition of Chestnut’s Hill historic importance (possibly a National Register nomination); and finding ways to bring residents together regularly and make them feel like stakeholders again.

Street signs are being designed and created to designate the Chestnut Hill boundaries and promote the neighborhood’s identity.

Planning has started on forming a neighborhood watch group.

And people such as Stevens, and his next door neighbors, Timothy and Elysia Demers, are approaching their new stake in Chestnut Hill as one room, one house and one block at a time.

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Stevens bought his South Jackson Street home from Historic Salisbury Foundation for $12,000 — the price of a good used car.

He liked the high ceilings, hardwood floors, old bathroom tiles, ornate woodwork, the front porch and a garage that’s big enough to hold his classic 1965 LeMans convertible and still leave room for a workshop.

“I had that view,” Stevens says. “I could see all the potential in the house. And I’ve loved old houses, always.”

Much of his first four months has been spent tearing out things, such as closets that hid mantels or replacing wood damaged by water coming in through broken windows.

Stevens considers 80 percent of the work cosmetic. He has a full-time job as a handyman, but he spends two hours every morning working on the house before going to his regular job. He returns in the evenings and on weekends to keep working — he can handle all the plumbing, wiring and carpentry himself.

The walls were painted in neon pinks, oranges, greens and yellows, and previous tenants and vandals seemed to damage parts of the house just for the sake of tearing them up.

“It was a real big mess,” Stevens says.

He expects to be living in the house within four weeks. It will cost him less than what he was paying in rent.

Stevens consciously spends time talking to his neighbors. He likes the mix of people in Chestnut Hill — white, black, Latino, old and young, he says.

“You get to know your neighbors, and they look out for you,” Stevens says.

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Of three houses on South Jackson Street that Historic Salisbury Foundation took options on, two have been sold. Susan Sides, a local historian and past president of the foundation, says the organization is looking at options on a couple of other properties.

“One home at a time,” she says. “… This neighborhood offers new opportunities for home ownership.”

Sides says Chestnut Hill, back in its heyday, was a neighborhood filled with people who made Salisbury what it is.

Residents worked at places such as Spencer Shops, Salisbury Cotton Mill (Cone Mills), Goodman Millwork, Proctor Chemical, Salisbury Lumber and Taylor Mattress.

Sides says the neighborhood also produced plumbers, granite cutters, barbers and merchants. Old-timers speak of places such as Rabon’s bakery, Doc Peeler’s drugstore and Tom Earnhardt’s grocery store.

Plenty of Salisburians still have fond memories of the gold fish pond at Chestnut Hill Cemetery.

And there were — and still are — the churches, whose membership once filled the pews and educational buildings. Jack Kepley recalls as a boy Coburn Memorial’s membership being 600 to 700 people, and the church didn’t even have a parking lot — evidence it was serving mainly residents of the neighborhood.

Each church has been supportive of the recent revitalization effort, offering facilities where the residents can meet regularly.

The churches know membership will never return to what it used to be, and their congregations must realize they won’t be going back to the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, says Father Rick Williams of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

The churches don’t have to change their doctrines, Williams says, but they must change their styles, if they are going to survive and serve the neighborhood around them.

The churches also know they have to look past denominations and not necessarily be interested in raising new Episcopalians or Lutherans, but in raising new Christians, Williams says.

“We’ve got to change and work as a coalition, not as competitors,” he adds. “… It’s out-of-the-box thinking, some of the things we’ve been talking about.”

As Christians, all church members can work together to bring new light and hope into a community that has been neglected and ignored, Williams says.

As a gesture toward showing its commitment to a revitalized neighborhood, St. Paul’s will officially be changing its name to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill.

“We’re not going anywhere, we’re staying,” Williams says.

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Kepley says Coburn Memorial also is staying — and changing. The congregation is getting ready to repair the roof of its educational building and upgrade the heating system.

But beyond that, “what we’re interested in is building the community,” Kepley says.

Lots of the churches now have empty spaces the community could use. Kepley, for one, thinks a children’s day care center would do well in one of those spaces.

Church officials say they can be a part of making Chestnut Hill a full-service community. If God has blessed them with these buildings, and they are empty, Williams says, the churches should fill them with ministries to help people.

About two years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina conducted a demographic study within a one-mile radius of St. Paul’s.

Williams says it showed family structure in the community to be “extremely non-traditional.” Education levels were low. Stress conditions were high, and residents expressed a high religious preference.

Latinos represented the biggest growing population, but they often keep a lower profile, Williams says. “They’re here, we just don’t see them,” he adds.

Over recent years, the Chestnut Hill churches continually have made some efforts to reach out to the Latino population, but never with overwhelming success.

Williams says it may take changes in the styles of worship, because right now there are distinct groups of people separated by language and culture.

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Carlton, the neighborhood association president, has lived on Chestnut Street for 40 years. He says absentee ownership of many of Chestnut Hill’s solid inventory of homes is one of the neighborhood’s biggest challenges.

“We have too much rental property,” he says.

Several properties have become nuisances and eyesores. Carlton describes, for example, a house close to him that is burned out and eaten up with termites. Chestnut Hill streets reveal several other boarded-up homes.

Sides stresses demolition isn’t necessarily the answer and she supports a city moratorium both on demolition or using dilapidated houses in Chestnut Hill for fire training.

“The city fathers know we are working in this neighborhood,” Sides says. “It won’t be fast.”

Vickie Bannister, a member of the association board, says the rundown houses scattered throughout Chestnut Hill are a shame. She has worked to transform her own house on Johnson Street with a new roof, new heating system and a complete refurbishing on the inside.

Judy Page, a Johnson Street neighbor, also has spent the past 13 years making improvements to her house. Relatives who have come to visit say it looks like a new home.

“It’s a work in progress,” Page says, “just like the community.”

Page says residents in the six little houses on Johnson Street are a close-knit group, and she can see how that spirit could be repeated in each block throughout Chestnut Hill.

“We speak every day,” she says. “We have our own community watch.”

Carlton gives Salisbury Police credit for having a presence in the neighborhood and responding when called.

“The police are glad to come out — they want to know,” Stevens agrees. “They’re fully aware of what’s going on.”

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With all of its challenges, today’s Chestnut Hill has many assets to build on such as many locally owned and viable businesses, a good stock of older homes, the long established churches and the city-maintained Chestnut Hill Cemetery.

Timothy Demers and his wife, Elysia, recently bought the two-story Victorian house next to Stevens on South Jackson Street.

As with Stevens, they are tackling their restoration of the house room by room. Timothy Demers says concentrating on each task daily has been highly therapeutic in his continuing recovery from a brain injury.

The couple bought the house through Historic Salisbury Foundation for $17,500.

“We’re pretty proud of it,” Demers says, though he acknowledges the home, which once served as a duplex, was in horrible shape and still presents many challenges ahead.

The couple are doing much of the renovations themselves. As for Chestnut Hill, “we all have a goal to live in a nice, clean neighborhood,” Timothy says. “I want people to feel safe walking through the neighborhood.”

Demers says nobody, in a long time, has loved their new house like they do.

“We’ve had the opportunity to come in and do the job, and we’re the people for it,” Timothy says. “I feel like we’re in the right place.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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