What's in a name? Garrett Square becomes Friendship Court

The Garrett Square housing complex has long had a bad rep as a high crime area. The tall fence that went up circa 1996 has served only to increase the public's perception that bad things happen there. Now, a $10 million renovation project already under way will result in more than just a new name.

"This is part of a multi-phase effort in changing the reality and perception of Garrett Square for its residents," says Charlottesville Mayor Maurice Cox of the new moniker, Friendship Court. In fact, he says, the purpose of the project is not to help outsiders feel safer, but to help the residents feel better about the place they live.

"It's more about them," he explains, "and less about the larger community."

Charlottesville has a precedent for renaming trouble spots. In the late 1990s, a short stretch of crime-torn Rockland Avenue became Rosa Terrace in honor of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.

But "Friendship Court" came from the residents themselves. Cox says the name is based on their feelings about the neighborhood. "Longstanding friendships" define the complex for its residents, Cox explains, and resident Mary Allen agrees. "It's a good name," she says.

Allen moved to Garrett Square with her baby daughter 14 years ago from North Carolina. This renovation project marks the first major change in her neighborhood in that time, she says, and she's very excited, particularly about the washer/dryers slated for every unit which will put an end to laundromat trips or to the community laundry facility.

"It was really hard to do laundry before," she says, "especially in the rain."

In addition to the laundry facilities, residents will find a laundry list of improvements: new floors, roofs, front doors, siding, and HVAC units– as well as new kitchen cabinets, fresh paint, and garbage disposals. A new playground will be installed, and sidewalks are also being repaired.

Equally important, perhaps, is the complete refurbishment of the community center, which now boasts a state-of-the-art computer lab featuring eight IBM and four Macintosh computers with high-speed internet access.

There is now a full-time resident coordinator, Toya Washington, who will assist with neighborhood programs including job training and recreational activities in the community center. A 2001 JMU graduate, Washington has already won rave reviews from residents who gave her a standing ovation at a recent press conference.

"I'm very excited to be working with all the residents," Washington says, "and I'm excited at all the changes."

For Friendship Court residents, one of the best things about the project is that it won't cost them a dime. Instead, a partnership of government and private organizations is picking up the tab. The complex has new owners, Piedmont Housing Alliance and the National Housing Trust-Enterprise Preservation Corp., which purchased the property from its Atlanta-based proprietor last year, ending the era of an absentee landlord.

Karen Waters is director of the city's Quality Community Council, "a coalition of Charlottesville citizens with the courage to make a difference in their neighborhoods." She says Friendship Court residents wanted their neighborhood to have curb appeal, and they wanted to feel respected and safe in their community.

As resident Margaret Johnson leads a tour through a finished apartment, it's clear the project has already hit its mark.

"I love it," Johnson beams.