New outlook in the neighborhood
Father, daughter team revives madison woods
story by Tara Derock Mahoney
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Law enforcement officers told him not to go near it.
“You'd be crazy,” they said.
Even the residents said the neighborhood would never change.
“There's no way to turn this park around,” they told him.
But in 2005, entrepreneur and retired IBM professional John Lowe saw potential in the pine trees, soft breezes, and winding lanes of Madison's most notorious mobile home neighborhood. He also saw a need in the community for a safe, quiet, and economical place to raise families. Always up for a challenge, Lowe and his daughter, Daphne, who had together been looking for a manufactured home community to purchase as a business venture, consequently bought the 22-acre Pine Tree trailer park, a 30-year-old housing estate straddling the line between the City of Madison and Morgan County. The Lowes came to town looking for an investment opportunity--instead, they ended up investing in a entire community.
“I remember thinking, 'This is a beautiful town, and this is an ugly park. There's something wrong here,'” said Lowe.
Father and daughter soon moved onto the property and began a literal and figurative clean-up effort that took the better part of a year. They removed broken-down and abandoned homes, repaired others, and invited local youth whose intentions might have been less than noble to find another place to hang out. Three years later, it is evident that a sea change has occurred in one of Madison's oldest subdivisions, now known as Madison Woods.
Recent Madison Woods-convert and resident Shawanda Simmons has installed her family in the park, and she's very pleased with the changes in the neighborhood.
“I rode through while I was looking for a place to live...I knew it used to be kind of bad, so I thought I'd check it out,” she said. “But it was very quiet, and there were a lot of kids playing—that was a plus,” said Simmons. “We had no idea how different it was out here.”
Today, driving or walking through Madison Woods, there is a sense of peace and quiet. Neighbors know each other, and they grow plants on their porches and look out for each others' kids. Some of the manufactured homes in the community have been arranged courtyard-style, in order to foster the sense of friendship and family that Lowe and his daughter have worked to instill in the tree-filled park.
“When you provide quality housing, you attract good people,” Daphne Lowe says simply. “Working-class people deserve nice, safe housing—it shouldn't be something that's just for rich people.”
“Madison is such a beautiful city—the people are super-friendly,” said Lowe, at a gathering of residents and park staff at the management office of Madison Woods just a couple of weeks ago. “But there is basically no affordable housing in the city, and affordable housing is something that we are really committed to—something that we thought we could do a good job at,” said Lowe.
And good job they have done, according to both new residents, like Simmons, and long-time homeowners like Albert Goudelock.
“Now it's full of decent, hard-working people,” said Goudelock. “Before, we had people from all over, who didn't belong here...people were coming in here from other counties, because this was just the place to hang out. That's all over,” he said. “It's like when the [Atlanta] Braves went from worst to first.”
“It's changed a lot, lot, lot, lot,” agreed former resident Suzette White, who lived in Madison Woods during some of its more difficult times.
To affect the change, besides removing the damaged homes, the Lowes installed an on-site property manager and a park handyman--and also moved into the neighborhood themselves, maintaining a regular presence that deterred loiterers at all hours of the day and night.
“When they first took ownership, there were a lot of trailers that were not occupied, and there were a lot of people hanging around who didn't belong here,” said White. “I'd come home and my yard would be full of people I didn't know. But then [the Lowes] came—as soon as they took over, things started getting better.”
Because Madison Woods is a privately-owned piece of land, whose residents rent their land parcel from the Lowes (residents can bring in a manufactured home of their own, or buy or rent one through Madison Woods), the Lowes had the ability to ask people who didn't live in the neighborhood to move on—and that is apparently just what they did.
“I thought Daphne never slept,” said White of the first year or so that the Lowes were in residence. “Any time there were people congregating, who didn't belong here, there she was, asking them to move along.”
Nowadays, homeowners in the park follow covenants like those in a homeowners' association, committing to keeping the neighborhood attractive, safe, and clean. Residents here can get into a manufactured home with new carpet and appliances, dining rooms, and even a fireplace for about $625 per month, with a note that is paid off in 15 years. A slightly older, but still immaculate, home with two bedrooms and two baths might cost $465, including the note and the land rental fee. It's a home-owning option that more and more families are starting to consider, and the Lowes hope that prospective buyers keep Madison Woods in mind.
People here get to know each other, through events like neighborhood cook-outs. The park's first-ever resident manager, Corella Burke, keeps in close touch with the Lowes, who no longer live on the property but are in town regularly. And handyman Michael Rodriguez is committed to keeping the park ship-shape.
It's a diverse group—black, white, and Hispanic friends and neighbors--that sit in the management office for the interview about the park. Eventually, everyone drifts outside for a tour of the neighborhood. A group of kids play basketball on a nearby court; residents wave from their windows or porches as the group walks by.
“Mismanagement can basically create a ghetto, but proper management can result in what we have here—an approximate of a gated community,” notes John Lowe. “I think a lot of people realize the changes that have gone on here. I don't think people realize the value.”
But he may be wrong about that. As Goudelock examines the plethora of plants on his patio, and Simmons heads home to her children, and Burke continues the tour, they have the look of people who are enjoying their stay in one of Madison's most family-friendly communities. And who doesn't understand the value of that?