How two women are changing the image of a declining New Jersey neighborhood

Cleaning up the neighborhood

Our series "A More Perfect Union" aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment, we are highlighting two community leaders who set out to improve their neighborhood by simply cleaning it up.

Community organizers Shirley Johnson and Carolyn Grace are leading a group of mostly kid volunteers for a second annual clean-up day in their southern New Jersey community of Gloucester Township.  

"It's a good community." Grace says, "It's a community that needs people to care about it. And I think they just wanted a couple people to lead them in the right direction."

With trash bags, rakes and a bit of spray paint, they are out to change the image of the neighborhood, one where nearly ten percent of its 388 homes were abandoned just three years ago.  

"This particular development really was one of the shining stars of Gloucester Township in its heyday," said David Mayer, the township's mayor. "But through the 80s, what happened was a lot of absentee landlords came in and bought property here. So the neighborhood kind of went through a decline."

In January, a resident died after a 13-hour armed standoff with police.  

"I have roots here," Johnson said, when asked why she decided to stay. "Just because something goes bad, you don't pack up and leave."

More determined than discouraged, Johnson and Grace launched their community organization two and a half years ago.

"In the beginning, Shirley and I were the ones walking around and cleaning up people's yards," Grace said.

Since then roads have been paved, home improvements have taken off, and a new park is now in place.   

"If you see our letters, Brittany Woods Community Action Group, that 'A' means a lot." Grace said, "The 'A' is about action."

The kids we met agree 100 percent.

"They do a lot of things. If you are in Ms. Shirley's neighborhood and you throw something on the floor she will not like that," one said.

Getting things done also takes cooperation with local government.

"And we have a great mayor," Grace said.

"Yeah. He's on speed dial. Public works is on speed dial," Johnson said.

"It's really civic re-engagement." Mayor Mayer says. "Civics 101, actually... that's where the rubber meets the road and that's why we are here to solve problems. I don't know what they're doing in Washington, but we're solving problems here locally."

Improving police relations has also been a top priority of the past decade. The day after that shooting in January - officers arrived with this command unit turned arcade. It's an effort to re-enforce law enforcement's commitment to the kids here.  

"Young people know that they can walk up to a police officer and they can say 'hello'. Police officers are there to help them," Mayor Mayer says.

As for those abandoned homes from a few years ago, there were more than 35; now they're down to just two.

A reminder that big changes often come from the most humble of efforts.