Getting to know Southeast Fort Wayne

Welcome to Southeast Fort Wayne, an area covering nearly 17 square miles with a population close to 42,000 people. This dynamic section of the city is the most culturally diverse quadrant where only 23 percent of the population is white. The majority of residents are Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Burmese.

While this stark racial disparity was created, in part, by redlining in the city's past, it also contributes to the dynamic and rich culture that residents have come to know and love about the Southeast community today.

While speaking to residents who live in, grew up in, or work on the Southeast side, it’s clear to see their passion for the area. On the surface level, this affinity may be tied to the amenities, like parks throughout the quadrant, including Memorial Park, McCormick Park, Weisser Park, McMillen Park, Rea Park, and Ivan Lebamoff Reservoir Park, which has a huge hill for sledding in the winter. These parks host a variety of events, including farmers markets, concerts, community events, and family gatherings.

But in many cases, it's less about the specific places and events themselves, and it's more about the people and welcoming spirit of Southeast that make this a special place for residents. 

The Mount Vernon Park neighborhood in Southeast Fort Wayne.

Fort Wayne residents like Input's project editor Britney Breidenstein recall teachers and neighbors investing in them when they were growing up in Southeast, and it fuels their desire to give back to the community that raised them. Since large employers like International Harvester left the Southeast side in the 1980s, the area has seen a lack of investment and infrastructure, causing challenges for the community, too.

One of the main challenges identified by residents in Southeast Fort Wayne is a lack of access to resources, like safe and affordable housing and fresh, healthy food.

The Fort Wayne Housing Authority (FWHA) provides affordable housing programs to almost 4,000 families in the city through the Housing Choice Voucher and other rental housing programs. JJ Foster, Social Services Manager at FWHA says, “There are enough people with the mentality to help and make changes, but we need something bigger; we need more.”

Some of the efforts that inspire Foster are Johnnie Mae Farm, Fort Wayne UNITED, the Community Harvest Food Bank, and the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8). Another key point he mentions is the lack of housing options in other parts of Fort Wayne that accept FWHA Housing Vouchers. Many of the landlords who participate in this program are located on the Southeast side of the city, creating a concentration of poverty.

Throughout Fort Wayne, there’s still a critical shortage of safe and affordable, Section 8 options, period.

Along with housing, Southeast Fort Wayne residents say that between transportation, accessibility, availability, and distance, it often becomes difficult to find products and services that are essential to basic health and wellness. Much of the 46803 and 46806 zip codes are classified as food deserts, or places home to at least 500 people that are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. With less access to large grocery stores, residents often rely on nearby gas stations or convenience stores for their household goods and food.

But that doesn’t mean that Southeast doesn’t have its own vibrant, neighborhood markets, too.

When conducting a search for grocery stores on the Southeast side, you will find a handful of specialized international stores. Two of these small grocery stores are Mi Tierra SuperMercado and Taqueria located in the East Side Community on 3120 New Haven Avenue and the El Paraiso Supermarket with Takeout & Delivery located at 4135 Hessen Cassel Road. 

Along with fresh produce, both of these small grocery stores have restaurants, serving up authentic Mexican food and making them an important dining option for residents in the area beyond the Hispanic and Latino populations. Since Mi Tierra opened in 2011, the Owner Leticia Santos says they have worked hard to make their products available to all customers.

“We always try to have someone here who speaks English, so we can serve everyone,” she says.

Small, international groceries are a source of fresh food in Southeast Fort Wayne.

To help fill the grocery gap, other food programs like the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Farm Markets by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and Parkview Health, Parkview Community Greenhouse and Learning Kitchen, and the Growth in Agriculture Through Education (GATE) Urban Garden have started serving the Southeast area.

The Parkview Community Greenhouse and Learning Kitchen were created specifically to help provide food education and access to fresh vegetables for the community. They assist with many underserved populations impacted by food insecurities.

“The Greenhouse is used for education, to supply the HEAL Markets, and we’ve also donated a lot of produce to food pantries, The Rescue Mission and Charis House,” says Hannah Bercot, an RDN with the Learning Kitchen. “My part of the program is teaching people how to prepare produce and how to fit it into their diet.”

RDN Hannah Bercot serves with the Learning Kitchen

The Learning Kitchen provides free, hands-on cooking classes for up to 20 people per class. They also teach about the importance of healthy eating habits and the impact of food on healthcare. For example, eating locally grown produce is important because by the time food grown out of state reaches Indiana supermarkets, it's already lost a significant amount of its health value.

Equipped with four cooking stations, these classes teach residents how to store produce for optimal freshness, too.

Beyond food resources, the Learning Kitchen offers the Southeast community a unique gathering space to meet, Bercot says.

“My favorite experience here is when we’ve had people recognize each other and realize they live around the corner from each other,” she explains.

A Thursday HEAL Market at the Parkview Community Greenhouse in Southeast Fort Wayne.

Now, with social distancing and safety precautions in place during COVID-19, the program has started doing its virtual Learning Kitchen sessions in web videos. This unexpected turn of events has helped them reach a previously underserved population of homebound patients with their materials, says RDN Kathy Wehrle.

Fresh produce growing in Southeast Fort Wayne.

GATE Urban Garden is another organization that has been growing and providing produce and education in the Southeast area for more than 15 years. As a nonprofit organization, it works with youth to create awareness and career opportunities in agriculture. Arthur Stahlhut is a master gardener with GATE who has been farming and assisting with the program for as long as it has been around.

“We used to train high school kids on the value of vegetables and how to grow them,” Stahlhut says, while taking a break from loading up the truck for the HEAL Market.

Arthur Stahlhut of the Growth in Agriculture Through Education (GATE) Urban Garden.

Both Stahlhut and Pastor Gonzalee Martin, Director of GATE, feel that the youth have less interest in farming today than they did 15 years ago. One reason, they believe, is due to the labor involved. Pastor Martin retired from Purdue University in 2014 where he was the Agricultural Extension Educator for Allen County. He is passionate about teaching the younger generations the importance of agriculture and knowledge of growing your own food.

“One of the biggest problems is finding young folks that have an interest,” Martin says. “Their incentive now is that I pay them, but the learning they receive in agriculture is more beneficial.”

Gonzalee Martin, left, and Laura Dwire, right, partner with local growers like Mar De Nar, center.

Just ask Ty Simmons of the Human Agriculture Co-Operative. Simmons grew up on the city’s Southeast side, and about four years ago, he came together with a group of other concerned residents of all ages, races, and backgrounds to improve food access in the area.

They call themselves the Human Agricultural Cooperative, and they started by investing in 15 youth from the Fort Wayne Urban League, teaching them how to grow healthy food in community gardens. In recent months, Simmons and his team have become the powerhouse behind food projects uplifting the Southeast side and bringing residents and nonprofits together around a common cause--from the Utopian Community Grocery, to the monthly Curbside BBQ pickup events during COVID-19, and the race to raise $1 million for the Family & Friends Fund for Southeast Fort Wayne.

Simmons believes that, particularly during COVID-19, it’s important for residents to know where their food is coming from and be able to provide for themselves because they never know when the grocery store might have empty shelves.

Multiple nonprofits are coming together to serve hot meals for pickup in Southeast Fort Wayne on a regular basis.

These are just a few of the people, programs, and ideas shaping Southeast Fort Wayne today. Stay tuned for our series August-September 2020 doing a deeper dive in this community.
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