JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A black and white picture of schoolchildren hangs on the wall of Paul Tutwiler’s office. He’s not related to any of the children who attended a segregated school for black people in the early 20th century, nor does he know their descendants. Yet those young faces strike a chord in him.
Tutwiler, CEO of the Northwest Jacksonville Community Development Corporation (NJCDC), a nonprofit dedicated to community revitalization, points out one boy among the others.
“Look at him, he’s not wearing shoes, standing next to a child that’s fully clothed,” he said, “yet his head is held high.”
Tutwiler, 59, knows something about refusing to be deterred by the circumstances of birth. He was raised in public housing in Memphis, Tenn. “I think it defines me as an individual,” he said of his childhood. “It’s what my true values are.”
Determination to escape poverty led him to the University of Memphis, where he earned a degree in public administration and philosophy while sometimes working two jobs. In 1983, an opportunity with a construction management firm brought him to Jacksonville. The city has been his home ever since.
“If I can evolve and go beyond those standards [being trapped in poverty], I think anyone else can, given the right motivation and belief in themselves,” he said.
Over the next two decades he got a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and bounced around a bit, working at the local utility, in the school system and at the housing authority. He became one of the founding members of the Durkeeville Historical Society, which preserve and celebrates the history of the black neighborhood founded in the 1930s.
Success and setbacks
At the turn of the century, Tutwiler landed at the Jacksonville branch of the Local Initiative Support Corp. or LISC, which led him to the fledgling NJCDC in 2002. As it turned out, the meandering path of his life and career made him a perfect fit for this work.
“Life has its oddities,” he said. “I had no idea what my early learning about construction or my studies in urban and regional planning would ultimately do for my preparation for the career I ultimately fell into.”
Tutwiler’s work at NJCDC has made him a recognizable figure in the city that has been his home for nearly four decades. Working to revitalize one of the most disadvantaged and violent communities in Jacksonville has been a journey he describes as full of surprises, success and setbacks.
Outside his office window on a grey but temperate January you can see evidence of economic decline that has continued in this part of the city almost unabated since the 1960s. There are dilapidated and abandoned houses, shuttered businesses and other signs of human suffering. It’s difficult to imagine this historically African American neighborhood was once known as Sugar Hill because, Tutwiler said, “the living was so sweet.”
Yet where others see ruin, he sees potential. He firmly believes that with enough pragmatism, hard work and determination, change is possible.
People who know Tutwiler describe him as something of a chameleon, one moment joking around, the next all business. “You get Paul and you get Mr. Tutwiler,” said Gary Ervin, one of his employees. He’s as comfortable with the formerly incarcerated, several of whom he’s hired over the years, as he is with city leaders. People say he can be tough when he needs to be, but that he’s also fair and deeply humble. And he’s always willing to learn.
Although his life experience afforded him an intimate understanding of some of the struggles that northwest Jacksonville residents face, Tutwiler admits that he had to overcome some of his own preconceptions.
Thinking back to his early days at NJCDC, Tutwiler recalls that at first his focus was purely on residential development.
“We’re going to build our way out of crime,” he recalls thinking.
Over time, he began to see that no matter how many homes they built and magnets for crime they razed, unless they addressed the root causes of crime, they would merely displace, rather than eradicate it.
To explain his thinking, Tutwiler quotes Newton’s third law, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” That’s another way of describing an if-then hypothesis. For example: If people don’t have a job, then you can’t sell them a $150,000 house. If the median income in the neighborhood is less than $20,000, then businesses won’t relocate there because they won’t be able to survive.
So, with advice and consent from its board, NJCDC broadened its approach. In addition to residential development, it’s also active in commercial development, job training, health and wellness, financial literacy, neighborhood beautification, professional networking and more. Most recently, NJCDC became one of two sites selected for the city’s implementation of the Cure Violence program, which uses a public health approach to diminish violent crime.
NJCDC still develops real estate, but under Tutwiler’s guidance, it’s evolved into a holistic effort to eradicate crime, improve property values and generally create an environment where people thrive.
“Our mission was never to build a single-family house,” he said. “Our mission was to revitalize the community. And the community are both structures and people.”
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