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Inaugural neighborhood gathering aims to bring neighbors together over food and storytelling

Residents of Pensacola’s historic Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood don’t have to travel to New York City to visit the United Nations; it’s right in their own community.

On a sunny and rather warm January Saturday afternoon, residents came together at Henry T. Wyer Park on Reus and Belmont streets to celebrate their neighborhood and the cultural diversity that, for more than a century, has defined one of Pensacola’s most historic neighborhoods.

More than two dozen Belmont-DeVilliers neighbors gathered Saturday, January 5, 2019 to celebrate the diversity of their neighborhood. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

At a neighborhood potluck organized by Kammy Young, a resident of Belmont-Devilliers, more than two dozen neighbors gathered around a buffet of Brunswick Stew, cornbread, and the traditional Mardi Gras treat known as King Cake.

Young, who recently moved to Pensacola, organized the gathering to celebrate the melting pot of different cultures and voices in her neighborhood.

“My husband and I moved here without knowing anybody, except for our two adult children,” said Young. “We wanted to know our neighbors and to not be strangers.”

Belmont-DeVilliers neighbors gathered Saturday, January 5, 2019 to celebrate the diversity of their neighborhood. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Among the many reasons that attracted her and her husband to Belmont-DeVilliers were the diversity and amount of public and common spaces for people to come together.

“Getting people together to share stories is a great way to get to know each other,” said Young. “Right now, there’s so much divisiveness and people polarized.”

Gathered around folding tables, neighbors shared stories about their cultural and family backgrounds, how they were drawn to the community and what makes it so special.

In the early 20th century, the Jim Crow laws forced African-Americans from the city’s established business districts.

Like many Pensacola neighborhoods, Belmont-DeVilliers — also known as “The Blocks” — is undergoing a transformation. Within just the last two years, more than 50 new homes have been built in the neighborhood that spans roughly 30 blocks. A looming concern for neighborhood leaders and residents, however, has been the preservation of the character of the historically African-American neighborhood.

In the late 19th century, Belmont-DeVilliers was known as West Hill, a junction on the former electric streetcar line. During the era of Jim Crow, African-Americans and Creoles were forced from areas within and surrounding the Palafox business district. It was during this time that black business and community leaders established a new community at the cross streets of Belmont and DeVilliers.

Over the span of several decades through the mid-20th century, Belmont-DeVilliers thrived as a residential and business district. However, in the 1960s and 70s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the neighborhood began a period of steady decline as residents moved to newer suburban communities that were now accessible to African-Americans. This period of decline for the neighborhood drew on until the recent resurgence of development that began within the last decade.

“I think all the growth happening is a great opportunity for the neighborhood, but there’s a lot at stake,” says Teníadé Broughton, a local historian whose family has long called Belmont-DeVilliers home. “We need more — more housing, more businesses — but we also need to respect the history and culture that made this place so special.”

Back on the Blocks festival in Belmont-DeVilliers in 1975. ( Belmont DeVilliers Neighborhood Association)

As the neighborhood forms a stronger voice for preserving their unique identity through storytelling, more tangible ways of honoring history have surfaced.

Nearly a century ago, Belmont-DeVilliers grew into a thriving entertainment district for touring blues and jazz acts. Artists such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Sam Cooke contributed to the vibrant nightlife in the neighborhood’s theaters and clubs and the neighborhood served as a stopping point for touring musicians, developing into a regional cornerstone of the “chitlin’ circuit.”

On January 17, the neighborhood will be recognized with a historical marker honoring Belmont-DeVilliers’ significance as a hub of blues and jazz history in the American South. The Pensacola Blues marker will be located at the corner of Belmont and DeVilliers streets at Five Sisters’ Blues Café, the former site of Gussie’s Record Shop.

Pensacola City Councilwoman Ann Hill greets neighbors of Belmont-DeVilliers on Saturday, January 5, 2019 at Henry Wyer park. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Newly elected Councilwoman Ann Hill, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 25 years, also sees promise for the future of her neighborhood.

“This has always been a cultural center of Pensacola,” said Hill, as she spoke under the shade of a century-old oak tree with both her daughter and granddaughter by her side. “We’ve got everything that makes a neighborhood. We can walk everywhere, we have wonderfully preserved homes, from Victorians to shotguns to duplexes that are Section 8 HUD housing. We all work together and live together.”

After friends and neighbors shared their own stories of finding their place in the community, a pledge was made for neighborhood gatherings to be held at least one Saturday each month to continue to bridge connections between residents.

“This is a place that belongs to all of us,” said Young. “We have to keep telling and celebrating our stories.”

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