With over 2,300 homes and approximately 11,000 residents, Fairmount Park is among Norfolk’s largest, most ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods.
Tree lined streets shade homes of various architectural styles, from European Romantic and Victorian farmhouses, to American Four Squares, Arts and Craft period bungalows and Norfolk Coastal cottages.
Development of Fairmount Park can be traced back as far as 1899 when it was known as Fairview, but was later divided into lots and renamed Fairmount Park. In 1923, the city annexed 24 square miles of the area and made it an official part of the City of Norfolk.
Since 2004, Fairmount Park has undergone a massive revitalization effort backed by the City of Norfolk and the Fairmount Park Civic League (FPCL), Norfolk’s second largest civic league.
The Lafayette River at Tidewater Drive. According to the Elizabeth River Project, the Lafayette should be fishable and swimmable this year. (credit: Derek Page)
The FPCL holds a yearly recycle event with Keep Norfolk Beautiful, a wetland education program and a National Night Out event with the Norfolk Police Department. It is also the model neighborhood for the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods program and boasts many awards for their community outreach and revitalization initiatives.
FPCL President Taylor Gould, a landscape architect by trade, moved there in 2006 and has been a huge force in turning the neighborhood into one of Norfolk’s most desirable places for families to live. He also sits on the city’s architectural review board and the public arts commission.
“We’ve got great people willing to come together and improve the community. It’s a revitalizing neighborhood. We’re just very active, we’re a very engaged community,” Gould said. “We get things done.”
Gould said much of his decision to move to the neighborhood was predicated on its “good bones,” the character of the homes, and the close proximity to work and shopping.
Before Gould came to Fairmount Park, it was in a state of dereliction. The neighborhood struggled with decrepit properties, pollution, blight, crime and violence. Eventually, residents had enough and decided to get active.
In 2007, the FPCL launched its Neighborhood Watch Program. What started as just a couple residents patrolling one block has grown to upwards of 45 “captains” covering more than 50 blocks in the neighborhood.
Their efforts have had obvious, positive results. According to Norfolk Police, statistics showed violent crime rates drop 52 percent between 2009 and 2011.
“Crime continues to drop, so we’re very much on top of that. We don’t really have any violent crime anymore,” Gould said. “What we now have is what most of the city has; cars being broken into, the houses are vacant too long, the air conditioning might get stolen…”
Norfolk Police Office Brian Jones, who was killed in the line of duty on May 31, 2013, just weeks after his one-year anniversary working with the FPCL, was an adamant supporter and volunteer with the civic league and the neighborhood watch program.
“If we had a problem that we couldn’t solve, he was there to solve it for us,” Gould said.
One major problem the FPCL tackled was the quality of public park space for residents to enjoy. After $900,000 and 10 years of planning what has become the centerpiece of the neighborhood, Shoop Park had a grand reopening in 2008.
The 5 acre park was completely redesigned to feature a basketball and volleyball court, a walking trail with exercise stations, lots of open space and the city’s first public splash park.
“That was a dream of the community to revitalize and rebrand the park… all the age groups get to engage and play,” Gould said. “The park has been a major catalyst for bringing residents to the neighborhood.”
That year also marked the beginning of the Codes and Beautification Committee that works with homeowners to repair properties to building code standards. 500 properties have been brought up to code by the FPCL, without city enforcement, as of 2013.
The FPCL was awarded the Civic Opportunity and Outstanding Leadership (COOL) Award in 2010 for the beautification committee’s code and ordinance education efforts, helping senior citizens and military spouses with limited income or resources with yard work, minor home repairs and cosmetic improvements, and many other community building events.
Youth engagement is also a major priority for the FPCL. In 2009, the Youth Civic League was established to get residents ages 4 to 18 active in volunteering, hosting events, fundraising and being engaged, responsible citizens of their community. They’ve also begun their own community garden, which the FPCL is working to potentially have named after Officer Jones.
Other major initiatives include the Fairmount Park Sewer and Water Improvement project, the Pope & Somme Wetland Restoration and Education Park, the Neighborhood Litter Receptacle & Litter Prevention Program, the redevelopment of Lafayette Boulevard and the planning of a new park on the Lafayette River.
In 2012, Lowes Corporation awarded the FPCL a Community Improvement Grant, which paid for new benches, trash cans, and the city’s first recycle installation.
Incidentally, there is no official city policy for recycling, something Gould found to be very “weird.” With another grant from the Neighbor’s Development Network, the civic league pressed the city to allow them to install their own litter and recycling receptacles in 2013.
“We put them in locations where we saw litter, usually in what we call ‘transition zones’ – bus stops, outside a store. What we found was that when the receptacle is there, they usually use it rather than throw it on the ground,” Gould said.
Fairmount Park now has 11 receptacles monitored by residents and city workers, and have indicated recycling to be in the 50 percentile. This figure is determined by how many receptacles are on the curb on a random pick up day.
Gould says the figure could be higher as some residents don’t take the receptacle out every week because they may not be full.
“The neighborhood has changed immensely,” Gould said. “Litter attracts crime and depreciates property values. Our homeownership rates have skyrocketed.”
The hard work of the FPCL extends beyond safer, cleaner streets. In 2013, the Norfolk Environmental Commission awarded the FPCL the Award of Excellence for the Pope and Somme Wetland Restoration, a project that transformed the littered stream and tidal wetland area at the entrance to the neighborhood into an environmental education park.
The wetland restoration received assistance from the Norfolk Bureau of Environmental Services and the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership in cleanup efforts and by cutting and spraying the invasive phragmites species that had pervaded the site.
“From the point of view of the resilience of our city and a sustainable environment, wetland restoration is invaluable,” said Denise Thompson, environmental protection programs manager for the City of Norfolk.
Volunteers help with the Pope and Somme wetland restoration.
“Environmental Sustainability is one of City Council’s top six priorities. Our vision for environmental sustainability is to be a ‘… premier waterfront community that creates a positive, regenerative effect on its environment, avoids detrimental impacts, and thrives economically and culturally.’ Wetland restoration projects support all of this.”
Through quarterly cleanups of the site, what was an overgrown dumping ground has become a fetching first impression to the resuscitated urban neighborhood.
Though “Norfolk’s Ideal Neighborhood” has seen its fair share of dark days, outstanding leadership, a now galvanized sense of community pride and sheer tenacity have made for a comeback story the whole city can be excited about.
Ghent, Freemason and Downtown claim their historic district status without argument, but the Fairmount Park Civic League has given a good reminder that Norfolk has many other neighborhoods worth commemorating and cherishing for not only their historic character, but the character of its residents.