The National Civic League is excited to announce that Fort Lauderdale, Florida is the 2023 All-America City Hall of Fame Inductee. An All-America City in 2014, Fort Lauderdale is being recognized for its collaborative engagement surrounding the May 2022 establishment of the L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center in the city's oldest African American community
Historic Sistrunk – “The Heart and Soul of the City” is Fort Lauderdale’s oldest African American community. Uniquely situated in Fort Lauderdale’s Northwest District Area, Historic Sistrunk is a residential community comprised of working families, mom and pop small businesses, historic churches, and landmarks. Historic Sistrunk has stood at the center of African American culture and heritage in Fort Lauderdale since the earliest recorded settlers migrated from Georgia, South Carolina, and the Bahamas more than 100 years ago. Many were railroad workers who settled in shanties along the railroad tracks before the turn of the twentieth century. After the tracks and stations were completed, some found other work and were residents at the time of Fort Lauderdale’s incorporation as a city in 1911.
Sistrunk Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, which spans Historic Sistrunk from its eastern to western boundaries is named in honor of pioneering Black physician, Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk. Dr. Sistrunk and Dr. Von D. Mizell were the founders of Provident Hospital, Broward County’s first Black hospital.
Like elsewhere in the segregated United States, a close-knit Black community emerged to provide living essentials, share values of hard work, integrity and faith, and courageously advocate for full participation for all citizens in the American dream. However, after desegregation, Sistrunk Boulevard steadily declined from the once-vibrant "Main Street” of the city's black community to a blighted area plagued by crime.
Officials from the City of Fort Lauderdale created the Fort Lauderdale Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to revitalize the areas near downtown Fort Lauderdale and Northwest Fort Lauderdale. The dedicated agency utilizes ear-marked property tax dollars to reinvest in a myriad of projects that reflect the goals and objectives of its Community Redevelopment Plan.
The CRA sought to establish the L.A. Lee YMCA-Mizell Community Center to enhance the area and activity on the commercial corridor.
Due to the historical significance of the site some residents and community activists expressed concerns that history could be lost. The YMCA of South Florida was able to solve this problem by hosting numerous town hall meetings with the community and elected officials. The purpose of those meetings was to engage the community in the development of the project and programs and services that meet the needs of the community.
The organization also reached out to the family of Dr. Mizell, who was in full support of the new YMCA project. To honor the historical significance of the site the YMCA incorporated Dr. Mizell into the community center’s name along with the previous name. In addition, the buildings entrance and lobby area is curated with murals, artwork and photographs that capture the history of the location along with the history of the Fort Lauderdale Black community and its pioneers.
The L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center was created through a collaboration with the YMCA, the City of Fort Lauderdale, and community partners. The YMCA of South Florida sought and received $10 million in funding assistance from the Fort Lauderdale CRA to provide funding towards debt service for the construction and development of the state-of-the-art community center. Due to the CRA’s funding of $10 million the YMCA was successful in obtaining a construction loan to finance the project.
Additionally, Broward College, which leases 10,000 square feet of space in the facility, provides GED and job readiness training and job placement services for residents of the redevelopment area in-demand industry sectors. The YMCA project has also provided numerous pre and post construction jobs. Of these positions approximately 50% are residents of the CRA area.
A Focus on Inclusiveness and Equity
A City of Fort Lauderdale City Commission Resolution found the CRA area (areas near downtown Fort Lauderdale and Northwest Fort Lauderdale) to be impaired by a combination of factors and conditions indicative of blight. The area surrounding the YMCA project has a 45 percent poverty rate, higher than average crime rates, a 35 percent unemployment rate, a lack of private capital investment, and depressed property values compared to other parts of the city.
The L.A. Lee YMCA-Mizell Community Center aims to improve the area's condition by engaging a diverse range of community members including children, teens, and senior citizens in traditional YMCA programming, as well as community offerings such as: Broward College, a preschool, meeting space, Black Box Theatre, gymnasium, wellness center, co-working space, and a swimming pool.
It was critical that the community center serve a diverse group, and that the staff be representative of the diversity of the Historic Sistrunk community. The staff at the community center is 73% women, 46% Black or African American, and 37% Hispanic or Latino.
Since opening in May 2022, the development of the new L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center project has addressed various local issues in the CRA area. The addition of the state-of-the-art community center on Sistrunk Boulevard has eliminated a vacant property on the commercial corridor. The much-needed activity also discourages homelessness, illegal dumping, and criminal activities.
The L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center project has also addressed the lack of access to recreation facilities, amenities, and programs available in the CRA area. Prior to being built, the CRA area lacked many of the programs and amenities that are available at the YMCA. The YMCA has now been able to expand its services and programs and the public has access to the building’s amenities, that include a much-needed swimming pool, gymnasium, wellness center and Black Box Theatre to name a few. Having access to these amenities and programs provide a wide array of benefits to the community, including improved health, economic development, and an overall better quality of life. The health and wellness center provides diabetes and cardiovascular disease prevention for residents.
The L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center project has also improved social aspects of the community with its various amenities and programming offered to children and adults of all ages. The Northwest neighborhood has traditionally been known as a community with strong ties to the arts and music. Many residents have described the old Sistrunk as a bustling neighborhood where people were out enjoying the area’s nightlife. Hoping to bring that back, the YMCA has plans to activate the area with community events on the buildings terrace and inside the Victory Black Box Theatre. They also have a comprehensive arts program that includes film, fine arts, and theatrical performances for the community to enjoy.
Finally, the L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center project has also addressed employment by providing much needed jobs. The center is forecasted to ultimately create 96 jobs paying $1,168,000 annually in wages distributed among the YMCA (40), retail (24), Broward College (18) and the co-working space/incubator (10).
Fort Lauderdale is the sixth Hall of Fame Award Inductee. The National Civic League created the All-America City - Hall of Fame Award in 2019 to celebrate the ongoing work of past All-America Cities. The award recognizes communities that have implemented a community-driven initiative that resulted in significant local impact due to community engagement.
Submissions are evaluated based on the National Civic League’s civic infrastructure measurement tool, the Civic Index. Applicants must show that the community initiative featured a Shared Vision, Civic Engagement, Inclusiveness and Equity, Collaboration, Innovation, and Impact.
For more information about the award and past winners, visit: https://www.nationalcivicleague.org/america-city-award/hall-of-fame/