A former South Linden resident leads the discussion on communities in transition

Growing up on North Sixth Street in the 1950s — before Weinland Park and the Short North names were adopted by residents — Makeda Fatou Naeem was considered a “North End girl.” She attended the mostly white Weinland Park Elementary school, the alma mater of celebrated author Wil Haygood and noted architect Curt Moody. The next step was “surviving” Indianola Middle School.

“That's the first time I encountered blatant racism here in Columbus,” Naeem said. “So I begged to go to Linden-McKinley [High School].”

Naeem moved to South Linden, which she described as a “vibrant” neighborhood with two-parent households and businesses stretching from East 11th Avenue to East Hudson Street. Following decades of disinvestment and other effects of systemic racism, the neighborhood is currently experiencing high rates of poverty, with single female heads of households struggling to make ends meet.

After retiring from a long career in social work, in 2002 Naeem founded the Harambee Leadership Academy for Women, Inc. to assist residents with “basic life skills” and entrepreneurship.

Naeem considers the city's closure of Eagle Market, deemed a site for criminal activity on Cleveland Avenue — and other carry-outs — as the first sign of impending gentrification and a major contribution to food insecurity.

“Eagle Market was not a threat to us that live down there,” she said. “[It] had a full-fledged butcher in the back.” Naeem also emphasized the negative impact of Kroger closing in Northern Lights.

“I was eating from cans and it was affecting my health,” she said. “I had to move. I live in Westerville now, but I'm not happy. I was forced out of my community.”

In hopes of galvanizing residents around these issues, Naeem will host “Gentrification: Town Meeting” on Saturday, May 25, at the Hub Community Development Corporation, a workforce and economic development agency. The Hub's founder, Asad Z. Shabazz, and Harambee Leadership Academy board president Phil Locke, helped organize the event.

"The lack of clear leadership in the African American community — that's one reason why we're having this meeting,” said Naeem, who also hopes to generate solutions for the neighborhood's abandoned properties. “We have a lot of successful African Americans that could make a difference, but these people are transplants. They didn't come from here. They sit Downtown and they decide what is best for us. We're the last to know.”

If it were up to Shabazz, who grew up around East Livingston Avenue and Lockbourne Road, residents would have joined together to purchase property and preempt developers. “I was one of those people who stood up and warned our community [more than] 20 years ago,” he said. “[I said], ‘Let's find 10 of the largest black churches here. Let's create a real estate investment group. Let's call it God's Property.'”

And when the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority decided to demolish most of Poindexter Village, the historic housing project in King-Lincoln, Shabazz suggested residents take a different route instead of protesting.

“‘Let's buy up all this [property] around the Mount Vernon Avenue corridor,'” Shabazz said. “‘And then when they tear Poindexter down, the people will be able to move to a house … just right around the corner.'”

Shabazz's proposals fell on deaf ears.

“If we would have owned the property, then when folks decided to come back, who would they be buying and renting from?” he asked. “Black folks who would've made the decision 30 years ago.”

It's still a tactic that can be employed today, if people are educated about ownership, Shabazz added.

Naeem also shared another concern for the future. “We don't need people dumping a bunch of businesses in here,” she said. “That's going to help flood the people out, too, because they probably can't afford it. … Then you'll have everybody else coming in and building and living in a lovely home. Until the day I die, I refuse to let that happen, at least in South Linden.”

That is just a sample of the discourse expected at the town hall on Saturday. At 70 years old, Naeem is hoping to see young people step forward to take on the fight.

“We're the elders and we're here to pass the baton,” she said.