Martha Bryant-Hall nimbly navigates the sandy gravel streets outside her Maitland home, while stray rocks, dips and roots easily trip up those more than half her age.
After more than 30 years living off unpaved Amado Lane, near the Maitland Boulevard overpass on U.S. Highway 17-92, she’s an expert on the literal and figurative pits and peaks of living in what was once called the Woodbridge subdivision, annexed into Maitland in 2003.
Once home to 13 houses, the small U-shaped enclave is down to six. The others, she says, have either burned down or fallen in on themselves over the years since she built her home here in 1979.
She’ll tell you of the peaks, a quiet peaceful neighborhood where everyone knows everyone, and she has ample space to plant her papaya plants and azalea bushes.
She’ll also show you the pits. She’ll point you to where the neighborhood’s water main line dead-ends outside of her property, and the dusty road’s single overhead streetlight where it meets Mechanic Street.
She’ll walk you less than 200 feet from her driveway to the Maitland Boulevard overpass so you can first smell, and then hear, the restless squeaky colony of bats that took up residence in the crevices under the bridge years ago. Now numbering an estimated 1,000 members, they come out to play in Woodbridge when the sun sets.
“When I built back here I thought it’d be better by now, by the ’80s I thought it’d have improved,” she said. “But every place has changed around us, except these little pockets of black communities.
“I’d like for my neighborhood to look like all the other neighborhoods around it…. But it shows that there’s really two cities of Maitland: the haves and the have-nots.”
She’s been fighting for 30 years for the have-nots to have their day at the negotiating table for equal-living rights first with Orange County and, for the past 10 years, with the city of Maitland. But up until after she spoke her case in January at the Maitland mayoral candidate forum, Bryant says she’s never even been offered a seat.
“They wouldn’t even give us a crumb from the table… and I’m a taxpayer just like everybody else,” she said. “It’s not right.”
On Jan. 26, Maitland Mayor Howard Schieferdecker reached out and scheduled a workshop so Bryant could introduce him to her decades-old plight of the insufficiencies in facilities and services she sees in her community. The unpaved roads, lack of streetlights, bat infestation and lack of accessibility to Lake Jackson in another primarily black-populated area of Maitland near Bellamy Park — with boundaries woven in with neighboring Eatonville — topped her list.
“I wasn’t aware of these things until Martha brought it up at the meet the candidates night,” Schieferdecker said, “and then I’ve been making a continued effort ever since to try and rectify these things.”
On April 13, Bryant, along with a room of 10 or so of her neighbors and local supporters, met with the mayor, City Manager Jim Williams and City Transportation Engineer Charlie Wallace to get an update on what was being done to address her concerns.
“I think it’s long overdue,” Schieferdecker said. “Martha and her neighbors are all citizens of Maitland, too, and should get the same treatment as everybody else.”
Words into action
At the meeting, Williams outlined what progress has been made since January: bidding to pave Mechanic Street from the Maitland Boulevard ramp to where Amado Lane begins is set to be completed in the next two to three months; starting the design process with Progress Energy to install streetlights on existing wood poles in Woodbridge; and contact with the Florida Department of Transportation regarding the bats in the bridge.
It sounds like a step in the right direction, but, having lived a history of forgotten promises, members of the community are hesitant to trust that the situation will change.
“We’ve reached a point when words don’t have any meaning,” Bryant’s daughter Jacqueline Daise said. “These words sound good, but action is so much better.”
In 2006 a local developer, Cecil Allen, set high hopes for Bryant and her neighbors on Mechanic Street, with visions of the redevelopment they had always dreamed of, only to have plans fall through a year later before shovels touched dirt, she said.
Tired of broken promises, chiropractor and pastor Ronald Fulmore said he was tired of watching his tax dollars improve the rest of the city.
“When are we going to stop being treated like second-class citizens?” Fulmore asked the room. “We all pay taxes and we’re only seeing our tax dollars fixing up other neighborhood roads, and picking up everyone else’s garbage.”
Mayor Schieferdecker in turn apologized for the actions, or lack thereof, of those in the past, urging everyone to focus on the only thing they can work together to change: the future.
An 8-foot-tall barbed-wire fence was not what Bryant had in mind when she told Maitland officials in January of inadequate accessibility to Lake Jackson near Bellamy Park, but it’s what she got.
The fence, she said, was recently barbed and extended, to beyond the waterline, cutting off residents who live in her daughter’s neighborhood from the wooded area they had informally used for access to the lake. On the other side, water lapping the shoreline of a predominately white neighborhood, the lake is open.
“I see this,” Bryant, 68, says motioning to the fence, “and it reminds me when I was growing up in the South.”
When addressed at the workshop, City Manager Jim Williams said the fence was installed by the city on city land, per complaints from residents on the east shore of the lake claiming burglars were using the woods as an access and hiding place before and after breaking into their homes. The fence, he says, was put in place to minimize that likelihood.
Following public outcry at the meeting, Williams said the city would start surveying the area and look at other options and the legality of such a fence, while working to secure a deal to give riparian rights, or rights to reasonable use of the water, to lakefront residents. To do so, the city is working to draft a land swap, giving property owners access to the lake, and the city ownership of Brooke Drive so it can offer public services, such as trash pick up, to those who live off of it.
“We have people saying, ‘They have rights over there, but we don’t have rights over here,’ and we’re trying to work to fix that,” Williams said.
Bryant says she’s not holding her breath that all the issues she has faced in her 30 years of residence will be fixed now, or if ever, but she’s putting her faith in the city to do the right thing.
“We don’t have to all look alike to get along,” Daise said. “I just want my mother to be able to enjoy all that she has struggled for in her community.”